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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 19, 2005
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. The President this morning participated in his daily hurricane briefing; that was led by Secretary Chertoff. The President, following that meeting, held a Homeland Security Council meeting to talk about the priority areas for moving forward on the recovery and the longer-term rebuilding related to Katrina.
Secretary Chertoff, at the beginning of that meeting, went over several areas to update the Cabinet on where we stand in terms of the recovery. He talked about the -- he gave an update on the latest search and rescue efforts and how more than 48,000 people have been rescued; he gave an update on the number of people that were evacuated by the federal government; also gave an update on the number of pets that had been rescued -- some 8,000. And then he talked about the number of people that had been treated for medical care -- some 41,000 people -- patients have been -- were treated in the region. The latest state numbers on the total number of fatalities was at 840 as of this morning, and that was part of the update, as well.
In terms of life-sustaining food and water and supplies that have been provided to people, there have been over 180 million pounds of ice that has been provided; 63 million -- more than 63 million liters of water; nearly 27,000 MREs*; a large number of sheeting rolls and tarps and generators, as well. Secretary Chertoff also updated on the status of the water systems in all the affected areas and the affected states and the status of ports and airfields, as well.
He talked about the debris removal efforts. You heard from the President on that. The President has been visiting with local officials about the debris removal issue and listening to their concerns. And that's why the Department of Homeland Security is moving forward to expedite the debris removal process. There is still a large amount of debris that is remaining that needs to be removed, and we are working closely with state and local authorities to address that priority area, as well.
He also provided an update on the customers without power in the region. I think that there are some 300,000 still in the New Orleans area without power. And he talked about the de-watering process in the New Orleans area -- in New Orleans and the parishes, as well, and how the number of people and pumps that we have available are adequate and they're continuing to move forward on that effort.
And then he gave an update on the financial assistance activity provided by the federal government, as well, the number of people registered and the number of people that have received financial assistance over the total time, as well as over the last couple of weeks, and the latest update on the shelter population numbers, which is now coming down.
And, finally, he talked about the Hurricane Katrina task force. And if you'll remember, I talked to you all about how there are nine Cabinet-level working groups that have been formed. They're moving forward on a number of initiatives. I think there are some 84 initiatives that they're actively addressing right now. This includes in the area of environmental impact and clean-up, it also includes health care working group, the economic impact working group, the energy supply working group. And then, of course, the Department of Homeland Security is moving forward at the direction of the President to review the major city emergency plans. And today, the Department of Homeland Security is going to be conducting some teleconferences with state and urban area homeland security advisors to move forward at the direction of the President on that review.
The President also heard from Secretary Rumsfeld about the latest military efforts in the relief efforts. He heard from Secretary Leavitt about the efforts to make sure we're getting people back up on their feet and the progress that's being made to provide them the federal benefits that they depend upon, such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid and welfare payments, as well.
And then he heard from Secretary Jackson about the priority area of housing. We continue to move forward to address the housing needs, both the short-term and the longer-term needs. Secretary Spellings provided an update on the assistance being provided to states that are taking in displaced school students. And Administrator Johnson talked about the latest health concerns and -- both when it comes to the preliminary sampling of the water, as well as some of the air sampling in the city, as well.
And then you heard from the President following that. And that's all I had to begin with. I just wanted to give you an update on his day.
Q Does the President have the authority to stop the return of residents to New Orleans? And, if so, does he intend to do that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Terry, I don't know if it's an issue of whether or not the authority that needs to be discussed at this point. Admiral Allen and the Mayor are having discussions today about how to move forward on our shared goal of getting people back to New Orleans. It's a question of timing, as Admiral Allen has pointed out. There are still concerns when it comes to the potential health hazards. He's been working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control. They have done some preliminary sampling of the water. They are concerned about the high levels of bacteria in that water. There are also concerns about making sure that basic services are up and running, such as a 911 system.
In the case of -- we now have a tropical storm headed towards Florida, Tropical Storm Rita, and that's something we're keeping a close eye on and preparing for, along with the state. And the projection now, while it's not necessarily projected to hit that area, we are concerned if it did turn toward that area what it would mean for a city that right now has levees in a weakened condition. And you would need to have an evacuation plan in place to be able to notify people, and that 911 system would be very important.
So there are a number of issues there that we still have concerns about when it comes to helping people return safely to the city of New Orleans. The President has made it very clear he wants to see New Orleans not only rebound, but thrive and be stronger and better than before. And so we're committed to working closely with the Mayor. They are working in partnership and they will have discussions today about how to move forward.
Q So if the President thought that there were safety issues and that the people couldn't get -- shouldn't go back, would he step in? Does he have the authority to step in and stop it, and would he do that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you know, that -- I would focus on where things stand right now. The Admiral and the Mayor are discussing matters. Andy Card has been in discussion with the Mayor on a couple of occasions, today; the President has talked about these issues with the Mayor. We're all working together toward the same shared goal. And that's where it stands --
Q Yes, I understand that. But are you trying to get the Mayor to change his mind?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not trying to get into speculative matters at this point because we're all working together. Let's let the meeting take place and let's let discussions take place. It's not a question of the authority right now; it's a question of how we work together toward our shared goal. And that's what we're working to do.
Q From a strictly legal standpoint, though, does --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I mean, you can look up all the legal issues and see the authority that exits. But for me to raise that level here from the podium I don't think is helpful right now. We're all working together.
Q Yesterday, former President Clinton had some pretty pointed criticisms of administration policy on the initial response to the hurricane, as well as fiscal policy, the amount of debt held by foreign nations. Anything to those criticisms? What's your opinion here? Was he totally off the mark?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've addressed those issues. The President talked about the initial response and there was a lot of great work done by many people that were working round-the-clock to save lives. And we can't discount that. There was tremendous effort by our Coast Guard search and rescue personnel. There was tremendous effort by state and local first responders to address some significant challenges in a storm like we have never seen before. This was one of the worst natural disasters in our history.
And with that said, the President was not pleased with the results of the initial response and that's why he is moving forward within the federal government of a comprehensive review of all Cabinet departments and their response efforts. That's why we're going to work closely with Congress to make sure that they conduct a thorough investigation so that we can apply those lessons to future response efforts. We want to make sure that we are fully prepared to address natural disasters or disease pandemics that could break out, or terrorist threats. And that's why it's important to look back at all those issues.
So the President has talked about that and addressed that matter previously. And in terms of priorities, I don't know what your question is, but --
Q Was he disappointed that President Clinton made those comments at this particular time, particularly given the fact that President Clinton seemed to be looking ahead to the 2008 election?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things. One, we welcome a discussion or a debate of policies that we have implemented and that we have pursued. No one can question the results that we have achieved on behalf of the American people. The policies that this President has pursued are bold ones and they are ones that are achieving real results for all Americans. The President, from day one, has been acting to move forward on bold initiatives to produce real results that are helping all Americans. We are closing the achievement gap with sweeping education reforms, so that every child can learn and succeed. We are moving forward on pro-growth economic policies that are creating jobs. We have more Americans working now than ever before. We're reaching out to faith-based groups and community organizations that have proven records of helping people in need. And we're now helping more people in need.
And we're also moving forward to expand home ownership. Minority home ownership has reached record levels under this administration. We've worked to expand community health centers.
So I think it's important to look at the policies, and we're glad to talk about the policies. And one question you have to come back to is, do we continue to move forward on failed policies of the past that have left too many behind, or do we think in new and bold ways to help all Americans. And this President has thought in new and bold ways and actually acted. And we are making great progress to do so.
Q So I take it you're not going to talk directly about President Clinton, even though he was talking very directly about you all?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if we want to talk about policies, I'm glad to talk about that. But I think we've made our views clear and the results are helping all Americans.
Q Can I just follow on that? Can I just quote the former President? He says, "You can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people. If you tell people to do something that don't have the means to do it, you're going to lead the poor out," talking about the people who lost homes who have no property insurance. He said, "Everything they own was in their little home. If we really wanted to do it right, we would have had lots of buses lined up to take them out, and also lots of empty vans to save the belongings of those with no home or flood insurance."
Now, you've said the President was unhappy with the effort. Does the President basically agree with what Bill Clinton is saying?
MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't say "the effort," I said, "the results."
Q "The results."
MR. McCLELLAN: You can't discount all the work that was done by the search and rescue teams and the Coast Guard and the first responders, the state and local people that were on the scene trying to save lives. And as the President said, the storm didn't discriminate, neither did the federal government response. We were trying to save the lives of all those who had been affected by this. The Coast Guard search and rescue teams were trying to save the lives of everybody they could in the city.
Q Well, given the President's unhappiness, does the administration basically agree that Bill Clinton is right?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've expressed our views. He can speak with his own views. But I think the President has clearly expressed our views.
And in terms of the issue when it comes to the elderly and vulnerable and the poor, those that didn't necessarily have the means to get out of the area -- the President has spoken at length about that. He made it very clear that some of the greatest hardship fell on those individuals -- the elderly, the vulnerable, and the poor.
And the rebuilding of the region is an opportunity to renew our commitment to equality and justice for all Americans by building a better and stronger region. And that's what he's committed to doing. There is a deep history of injustice that has led to poverty and inequality, and this storm has brought to light, in a more vivid way, some of that inequality and poverty that exists in the region. And it's not going to be overcome instantly. But this President, from day one, has been acting boldly to address these issues and to achieve results.
Q If he was so bold, why do we have 37 million people living below the poverty line?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, do you want me to go back and talk about the economy?
Q I mean, if his policies are so great.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll be glad to go -- more Americans are working than ever before, Helen. We've --
Q Thirty-seven million below the poverty --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- seen the unemployment rate drop to 4.9 percent because of the action that this President has taken. We've seen more than 4 million jobs created since May of 2003.
Now, this storm has had an impact, and it will have a short-term impact on our national economy. But I think if you look at most -- what most economists are saying, they continue to see strong and sustained growth as we move forward. It's going to have an impact in the short-term on the upcoming quarters that we'll see coming out in terms of growth and job creation.
But keeping our national economy growing is a key lifeline to the region. And the President -- remember, when we came into office, the stock market had declined significantly, we were inheriting a recession, then you had the attacks of September 11th. So this economy has proven to be very strong and resilient in the face of significant challenges because of the policies this President has acted on to implement.
Q Scott, let me ask you about money matters. Tom DeLay was recently quoted when asked about whether there were any cuts that could be made to help fund the rebuilding, that about all the fat there was has been trimmed out of the federal budget. Does the President agree with that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's a number of savings that we have proposed in our current budget that the Congress has yet to act on. And so that's a good starting point in terms of going forward to address some of the offsets that will be needed for the resources that will be dedicated to the relief and rebuilding efforts related to Katrina. And the President directed his OMB Director, Josh Bolten, to work with Congress to cut unnecessary spending to help offset some of the costs associated with the rebuilding effort.
Q Well, what does the President have to say to members of his own party, other conservatives, activists, pundits, who criticize him for wanting to have it all? He wants to have guns and butter, he wants to fund Iraq, he wants to have tax cuts, and now he wants to put together the largest reconstruction effort the world has ever seen.
MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with the characterization, because the President the other day clearly stated that we've got to make sure that we work with state and local officials to have a well-planned rebuilding effort. This is one of the -- this is going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts ever.
Q But how can we afford it?
MR. McCLELLAN: And we are going to -- well, first of all --
Q How can we afford it?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- first of all, we are going to meet the needs of the people in the region. The President was adamant about that. We are going to do what it takes. We have an obligation, as a nation, to help the people in the region rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities. We also have an obligation to move forward on -- in a well thought out way with those state and local officials. It will be driven by the local vision, but we're there to support them. And the President made clear that the infrastructure is going to be costly. But the federal government is going to be there to pick up a large portion of those costs.
And that's why it's important that we move forward to make sure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely in the region, and we have --
Q But --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- hang on, hang on -- we have inspector generals' teams in the region that will work to make sure that that happens. And as we move forward to address the needs in the region, we also need to look at our budget and where there's unnecessary spending happening, we need to make cuts. The President has made that very clear.
Q Where? Where?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are savings that we proposed in our budget, like I said, that Congress has yet to act on. That's a starting point. Other members are talking about various ideas. We are --
Q You're not coming up with any ideas. Congressman Mike Pense suggested delaying the prescription drug implementation to '07, that would save $40 billion, and Josh Bolten wouldn't even entertain it. I mean, isn't part of the problem is that it's kind of a sham to tell the American people that your federal government will do it all, but yet again, we won't ask for any sacrifice --
MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with your characterization, because this President --
Q Well, where are the cuts?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- from day one has worked to cut non-security discretionary spending. And he's also worked to address other priorities, like entitlements, which drive a lot of costs, as well, and to implement important reforms. We reformed Medicare and put in some cost controls to start that process of addressing some of those issues.
Q You're conveniently not addressing members of the President's own party that say that --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, we're --
Q -- this guy spends like a Democrat, and they're -- that he's trying to create the New Deal again. I mean, what about criticism from your own party, that it's, hey, big spender, when are you -- how are you going to do the math?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look at our budgets, David. You seem to conveniently ignore the facts. Our budgets have --
Q I looked at the budgets. I'm looking at the deficit. I'm just wondering what you're going to do about it.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- have put forward significant savings on a number of programs. Congress has yet to act on those. We encourage Congress to move forward and act on those. There's tens of billions of dollars of savings in some of those proposals, and that's a good starting point. But we're going to work with Congress to offset the cost by focusing on unnecessary spending.
Now, there are important priorities that we must meet. The number one obligation this President has is the safety and security of the American people. And we are going to meet that priority. We are going to continue to move forward on winning the war on terrorism to prevent something like what happened on September 11th from ever happening again, and we're going to move forward on addressing the needs of the people in the region to make sure that they --
Q And no sacrifice --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- get back up on their feet and that they rebuild their lives and rebuild the communities. But the President made it clear that we also have got to find cuts elsewhere in the budget where that spending is not essential.
Q Following up on John's question about what President Clinton said, you've said and the President has said this storm did not discriminate. But the point that President Clinton was making isn't -- wasn't about the relief recovery after the storm hit, it was about the preparations beforehand. He was talking about the fact that buses should have been there to get people out who couldn't have done it themselves.
So is that something that President Bush should have been more attuned to? Or is that something that he really relied on the Mayor --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's going to be a bipartisan investigation by Congress. They're going to do a thorough investigation and look at all these issues. There were certain -- there were responsibilities at all levels of government: the federal, state, and local. The President has made it very clear that he accepts responsibility for the federal government's role. He wants to see what went wrong and what needs to be fixed for the future so that we can make sure that we are better prepared in the future to respond to such situations, whether they be natural disasters or terrorist attacks.
Q Does the President still think it was a good idea to get President Clinton on board and give him this kind of platform?
MR. McCLELLAN: We appreciate the efforts of President Bush and President Clinton to reach out to the private sector and individuals to encourage even more giving from the American people to support those who have been affected by this natural disaster.
And, look, this is a difference over policies. I think when you boil it down to -- boil it down, it's just difference over policies. And that's why I said we welcome a discussion of the policies to address the causes of poverty and inequality that have occurred, that -- I mean, it's a long history that led to the poverty and inequality; it is a long history of injustice, that goes back to slavery and segregation. And we need to address these issues, and this President has been working to address those issues in new and bold ways. And all you have to do is go and look at the record and look at what we've accomplished for the American people, particularly for low-income Americans and people that are living in poverty.
The Medicare is another one; seniors starting in 2006, low-income seniors are going to have virtually everything paid for when it comes to their prescription drug benefit.
Q Can I just clarify one thing you said before. Obviously, the President said Andy Card talked to Mayor Nagin. Has the President talked to him, personally, yet -- privately, not just in public? Or will he?
MR. McCLELLAN: Privately? Yes. He's seen him a number of times. He sees him every time we visit the region.
Q No, I mean, this morning, since -- about this particular issue.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this morning Andy Card has been in touch with him a couple of times. Admiral Allen is meeting with him today. The President made it clear that Admiral Allen is our point person, working with Mayor Nagin, to address these issues. And we're all working together toward that shared goal of getting people back to New Orleans as soon as we can. But we want to make sure that the conditions are right for the people to return safely. And it's important that we take into account all these concerns.
Q Scott, it seems that Karl Rove has already made the assessment for the administration as to what went wrong with Katrina, because according to reports, he said in Aspen, at the Sportsmen's Annual Off the Record that the only mistake that we made with Katrina was not overriding the local government. If this is, indeed, true, what would have been done differently?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure that's an accurate account.
Q Well, there are reports that you guys are trying to blame it on the local government --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the report is put out by critics, so I'm just not going to --
Q `Well, what would have been done differently, then, if what Karl Rove is saying is true? If you would have taken over? The response was late, the federal government --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one of the issues that the President talked about that needs to be looked at is in a case like this where you have a storm of this magnitude and scope, one like we've never seen before, then -- and the local and state first responders are essentially overwhelmed, then what do you do to address that issue? Does the federal government -- we need to look at the role of the federal government, specifically the military.
We set up the Northern Command after September 11th -- that was the first time the military had set up a Northern Command here to cover America. They have commands all across the world. But he said the other day that we need to look at this issue. And the military brings with it the logistics and capabilities needed to move in quickly and address some of these issues. So that's one of the areas that needs to be looked at as we move forward, to apply the lessons from this response effort.
Q So was that the only mistake, or are there more mistakes --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's what the investigation will look into. They'll look at all these issues so that we can make sure we're better prepared in the future.
Q And also on voting rights, the Carter-Baker Commission. What's going on as far as the administration? We know that you're in support of voting rights items that are up for renewal. But I also understand the administration is looking at possibly tweaking --
MR. McCLELLAN: There is really not an update from what we've previously said. In terms of the reforms put forward by President Carter and Secretary Baker, the President appreciates their work. He received the report this morning in the Oval Office and thanked the two for their work, as well as the other members of the 21-member commission. And we will be reviewing it carefully. We want to make sure that we continue to move forward on steps to protect the integrity of the voting systems and things of that nature.
Q The President has made clear that he expects the local and state authorities to take the lead in deciding exactly how New Orleans should be rebuilt and to work closely with the federal government, which will pay a lot of bills for this. Today we've seen how very different the agendas and approaches are in something as fundamental as when people begin to move back in. What mechanism is there going to be for state and local and federal officials to work together in the longer-term process? Do you need a new agency, even temporarily, to oversee this? Is any thought being given to taking this out of, sort of, the normal functions of government and turning it over to some other entity?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are a lot of ideas that we're exploring for the longer-term rebuilding. The President announced some initial steps that we're taking to address some of the challenges that we face. There are enormous challenges that we will face going forward. Obviously, rebuilding the infrastructure is a high priority.
But I think that people have seen that there is a good working relationship that has been developed between the federal, state and local authorities. Admiral Allen is our primary person in charge in the region, overseeing the operational activities. He is working very closely with state and local officials, meeting not only with the Mayor, but the heads of the various parishes around New Orleans. The President has met with those officials, as well.
Q But, obviously, Admiral Allen is not going to oversee the reconstruction of New Orleans. I mean, who, ultimately, on a federal level becomes responsible for this? It's a huge, you know, decades-long undertaking.
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why we set up the task force and we've got every Cabinet department that has any responsibility in these areas is involved in this effort. That's why I mentioned at the top the nine different working groups looking at these areas. And people are continuing to come up with various ideas to address the longer-term needs, as well. And we'll continue to talk about that as we move forward.
Q Scott, we all understand that the President has proposed cuts in his budget -- it's his budget and he has a desire to work with Congress. But the budget pre-dated Katrina. Given that his leadership has come under question because of the hurricane, why does he not articulate a vision for the future, beyond endless deficits? What are the cuts going to be?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually, we've talked about this over that last couple of weeks, Ed, maybe you've missed some of those discussions, because we have briefed you all on it. Obviously, you have significant costs that are going to be borne by the federal government in the relief and rebuilding efforts related to Katrina, but we have an obligation to help meet the needs of the people. The private sector and individuals are also showing the generosity of America and providing significant support to the people who have lost all of what they had or much of what they had in the region, as well. And we've -- I'm sorry, what?
Q That's not what I'm asking.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, but I think it's important for your readers or the people watching this to be able to have a full understanding of the picture. And that's why it's important to talk -- all these are interrelated, Ed. And I think it's important for people to hear these things. But you're asking specifically about spending cuts, right?
Q Yes --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we have proposed significant savings in our budget. As I said, that's a good starting point. But the President recognizes that the significant costs that we're going to -- that are going to be borne by the federal government relating to the Katrina rebuilding efforts needs to be offset by additional cuts elsewhere in the budget. And that's why we are working with Congress to identify areas where we can cut. And those areas would be the unnecessary spending.
We've got important priorities that we've got to meet, and we will meet those priorities, but we need to look for cuts elsewhere in the budget. The President has always outlined budgets to fund our priorities and then hold the line on spending elsewhere, where they're not the essential or necessary spending that is needed. And that's a process that Congress has an important role to play in, and we've got to work closely with them to do that. But I think everybody recognizes, also, that the costs we're talking about related to Katrina are going to have a short-term impact on the deficit, they're one-time costs. But we believe we can continue to meet the President's commitment to halve the deficit by 2009.
Q Is he dusting off his veto pen?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as you know, the President does not have line-item veto power. That is something that we have advocated and believe he should have, and that's something we continue to urge Congress to act on, as well. But he's also made it -- and Congress has been moving forward on the budget that we outlined to meet some of the overall budget framework that we outlined. But there are additional actions that can be taken on savings that we proposed. That's a good starting point, and then we'll also be looking at other areas we can cut, too.
Q Just a quick -- one last question. Does the President, then, agree with Representative DeLay that there's no more fat in the budget?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually David asked that question at the beginning, and I talked about how Congress has yet to act on some of the savings that we've proposed, and that we also need to look at other unnecessary spending --
Q The answer is "no."
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and ways we can cut that.
Go ahead, Wendell.
Q Several questions. Are you saying that Congress will need to enact more cuts than those you have already proposed that lawmakers have, over the past several years, refused to provide you?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it certainly would be a good start on some of the savings that we proposed. But we also want to look at additional areas where we can cut unnecessary spending.
I don't want to try to prejudge the different areas from this podium. That's something we're going to be working closely with Congress to identify. The President made it very clear he had directed his Budget Director, Josh Bolten, to move forward with Congress to identify unnecessary spending that can be cut.
Q But just to make sure I understand, to pay for Katrina will require more cuts in the budget than those Congress has already refused to give you?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I don't have the budget in front of me, so if they did all the --
Q It doesn't --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, hang on. No, it does. If they did all the savings we proposed, and then you have to look at the overall cost of Katrina, you're asking me to, first of all, try to get into speculating about what the Katrina cost may be. We don't know what the longer-term costs are going to be at this point. That's something that we're continuing to assess. So I think you'd have to look at what those longer-term costs are, and how much you need to offset, and then look at what we've already proposed in savings and whether or not they move forward on those different aspects. I don't think that's a question you can just answer without looking at all those different areas.
Q Scott, Admiral Allen has made clear he has no real problem with the repopulation of Algiers and with business owners moving into one specific area of New Orleans during the day. I think that's phases one and two of Mayor Nagin's repopulation program. So where is it you all --
MR. McCLELLAN: He said that we support the Mayor's plan. The question --
Q Where is it you all diverge?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- it's a question of timing. Where Admiral Allen talked about some of those areas earlier, certainly in the areas where there's still flooding or the waters have not receded fully or been pumped out of there, you have concerns about the bacteria, the high levels of bacteria in that water. There's only been preliminary testing done on that water. And there's also only been preliminary assessments done on the air quality. That's another area that you need to look at, is the air.
Q But I don't think the Mayor is proposing people going back into areas that are still underwater. So where is it you, the federal government --
MR. McCLELLAN: Understood, but that's why -- that's why I pointed out exactly what Admiral Allen was talking about. Not only do you have the health concerns with the water, but there may be some concerns with the air. And that's something that's still continuing to be tested. I can't prejudge what those tests are going to be from this podium. And then you have the basic services issue, which the Admiral talked about. You need to get those basic services back up and running. The 911 system -- you need to have an evacuation plan in place in case another storm hits and causes flooding and possibly breaches those levees which are in a weakened state -- which are in a weakened state.
Q I understand the issues you raise. I'm trying to figure out, specifically, where is it in the Mayor's plan that you disagree with him? Is it after phase two that you disagree with him?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, maybe that's a good question to direct to Admiral Allen, in terms of all the specifics. I don't have the Mayor's plan in front of me right now. He's been discussing that with the Mayor. But he talked about the various areas of concern that we have in terms of the timing, and those are issues that we're working with the Mayor to address. They have a good relationship. We're all moving together on the shared goal of getting people back to New Orleans as soon as it's possible to do so safely.
Q Scott, Andy Card has talked to Mayor Nagin twice today. The President has spoken about concerns about the Mayor's repopulation plan. Surely you know at what point you and the Mayor diverge.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and Admiral Allen is our primary point person on the ground in the region. He's going to be providing briefings again today and as we move forward. And he'll continue to talk about these issues. I think we need to let the Admiral and the Mayor have their discussions. And then there will be an opportunity to talk more about it at that point.
Q The President has labeled Iran as one of the axis of evil countries, and it is clear they are going to move forward with their nuclear program and they're more defiant about it than ever before. On Friday, the President of Russia, President Putin, was here, and he is insisting Iran end their nuclear development capabilities. Where does the relationship stand right now between President Bush and President Putin, especially in the war on terrorism?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we have very good cooperation in the war on terrorism. The President talked about that in his press availability with President Putin on Friday. He talked about how we're working together to move forward to win the war on terrorism, and he talked about how we're working to address proliferation and nuclear security issues, as well.
In terms of Iran, we both share a commitment to making sure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. And we continue to support the efforts of the Europeans to resolve this diplomatically. We urge Iran to return to the negotiations as soon as possible and live up to the agreement they made with the Europeans. We've expressed our concerns about Iran's behavior. Those concerns are well-known.
And that's why it's important for Iran to get back to the negotiations and abide by what they said they would do with the Europeans, which means suspending their nuclear enrichment activities.
Q Why would President Putin be helping them build a nuclear reactor, and then they can use that to build a nuclear weapon? It's a pretty easy thing to understand. So shouldn't President Putin be not helping them at all, if they're our allies?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why we've had discussions with President Putin. I don't know that I necessarily agree with the characterization. One thing the President has talked about is the fuel cycle issue and the ability of Russia to provide that fuel, but also take it back so that you would have an objective guarantee in place. That's something the Europeans have talked about in the negotiations. That's why we've been supporting the efforts of the Europeans to resolve this diplomatically, and obviously, noncompliance is a concern of ours, given Iran's history of deceiving the international community and hiding their activities.
Q Back to Katrina, what's your reaction to Senator Kerry's speech today at Brown University where he described --
MR. McCLELLAN: Haven't seen it.
Q -- the recovery package as constituting "a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments"?
MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen his comments. I wouldn't want to comment directly on something I haven't seen. The President has commented on the policies that we're pursuing and what we're trying to do for the people in the region. The President is interested in pursuing good ideas that work. And he's said he's open to all good ideas from the state, local, and federal level. We've all got to work together in a united way to help the people get back on their feet, and then to rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities.
And that's what we're committed to doing. That's why we're working closely with state and local officials. The President has visited the region a number of times, we'll be back there tomorrow to continue talking about how we move forward together. I think the American people all want us to work together in a united way to get things done on behalf of the people who have been affected.
Q Okay, but in the spirit of what you just said, isn't it possible that the kinds of policy choices that the President has made are likely to draw attacks from both the right and the left that will stand in the way of getting this money out efficiently and quickly?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, Finlay, you have to keep in mind that the President said that the rebuilding effort is going to be locally inspired. That means local and state officials are the ones who are going to come up with the vision for making the region even stronger and better. We're all committed. That's one of the three commitments that the President said we're focused on keeping, and that is, making sure that the communities we rebuild are stronger and better than before. This provides us an opportunity to renew our commitment to helping all those in the region who have been affected.
Q But does that mean, then, that if state and local officials agree that they don't want vouchers or they don't want --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you can play all sorts of "what ifs." What we're doing is working with the state and local officials to help the people. And he said it's going to be locally inspired, and he said it's also important to make sure that the jobs that are going to be created in the rebuilding effort are going primarily and mostly to the people who have been affected, so that that can help get them back up on their feet.
And the federal government is going to work in support of the state and local vision. He made it very clear that this will be a locally driven vision, and the federal government is going to support that. And we're going to support that by offering ideas and ways for them to move forward to address the needs of the people. And that's where -- our focus is on the needs of the people. If others want to get into criticism, that's their business. We're focused on helping the people in the region and working together with state and local officials to do so.
Q So if they reject a --
MR. McCLELLAN: There you go with the "what if" game again. And we can play "what ifs" all day long. What we're doing is working in partnership and in close cooperation with the state and local officials. The President made it very clear that that's what we would do going forward.
Q Scott, what if -- I'm just kidding. (Laughter.) In answer to Ed's question on the veto, you started wishing that you had a line-item veto, which you don't have and you're not going to get this year, at least. Is the President committed to vetoing these large spending bills if they do not contain significant cuts to pay for Katrina?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's talked about specific spending bills in the past, and we have issued veto threats on various pieces of legislation. We were able to bring some of those spending bills down significantly because of the President's leadership, and our urging Congress not to act in a way that would lead to increasing our deficit substantially more.
And what the President -- one thing that you have to keep in mind over the last few years, the President outlines an overall budget framework, and he has done so in a way that continues to slow the growth of non-security discretionary spending, which is important. He's also tried to move forward to address some of the real spending concerns when it comes to Social Security and Medicare, for instance, entitlements, or Medicaid even, and to address some of those issues where there is unnecessary spending that needs to be cut, or the growth slowed.
And when Congress moves forward in a way that meets the overall budget framework numbers, I think it's important to keep in mind that the President doesn't have that line -- that's why I talked about that line-item veto power. And that when they meet the commitments that we outlined, that's important progress toward slowing that growth in the non-security discretionary spending. So, I mean, look at -- it's come down significantly each year that we've been in office.
Q The early part of the answer sounded like a yes, that he would veto bills if they did not contain significant cuts. Is that correct?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's a "what if." (Laughter.)
Q That's not a "what if."
Q Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Look, we're going to --
Q It is, but, I mean, in the past you've issued threats like that before about, you know, trying to contain spending. I mean, is that something he is going to do when Congress doesn't come in with the --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's talk about various spending issues, and then we'll -- we put out statements of our policies on those various spending bills.
Q You said the budget you proposed is a starting point. Are you -- you're seeking more cuts --
MR. McCLELLAN: The savings in the budget that we proposed.
Q The savings, right. So you're seeking more cuts beyond --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're going to be working with Congress to identify additional unnecessary spending that can be cut, as well.
Q Are you going to propose new spending cuts?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we'll continue to keep you updated as we move forward with Congress. But I expect that we -- as we move forward with Congress, we will all work together to identify additional areas where cuts might be able to be made.
Q Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.
END 1:21 P.M. EDT
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