The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
May 21, 2008

Press Briefing by Dana Perino and OMB Director Jim Nussle
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

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12:42 P.M. EDT

MS. PERINO: Hello. I have one announcement. First of all, we wish Deb Riechmann a happy birthday. (Applause.) So I guess I have two announcements.

Today the President will sign the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that will prohibit health insurers and employers from discriminating on the basis of genetic information. And I have one update -- this will now be open to pool coverage in the Oval Office. The legislation will ensure that health plans and health insurance insurers would not be able to deny coverage to individuals or charge higher premiums based solely on a genetic predisposition to developing a disease in the future.

The President will take time to especially thank and recognize the leadership of Senator Kennedy, who worked tirelessly on this issue for more than a decade. And we appreciate Senator Kennedy's efforts to get this legislation passed and delivered to the President for his signature today.

Next, I'd like to introduce the President's Director of the Office of Management and Budget for an update on the farm bill, and also on the war supplemental. He'll take some questions, and then I'll finish up.

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Thank you, Dana. Let me begin with the farm bill. We sent the Congress our farm bill proposals over 16 months ago, because the President recognized that during a time of record farm income, that Americans deserved a reform-minded farm bill. We included our farm bill in the budget. Instead Congress sent us a bloated bill with too much spending, not enough reform, budget gimmicks and even more earmarks. And so today the President has vetoed the farm bill, as he has promised.

We proposed the President's farm bill based on comments that were gleaned from people in the public and farmers all across the country. The bill that he has vetoed increases spending by more than $20 billion, yet fails to reform farm programs at a time when farm income and crop prices are setting records. Americans are frustrated with wasteful government spending and the funneling of taxpayer funds to pet projects. This bill only worsens the frustration that they will feel.

For example, $175 million is in this bill to address water issues in desert lakes; $250 million for a 400,000-acre land purchase from one single owner; funding for a non-competitive scale of national forest land to a ski resort in Vermont -- some have referred to this as the "trail to nowhere;" $382 million that was earmarked for one specific watershed; $170 million for salmon fishermen in the West Coast. In this bill, it requires taxpayers to fund peanut storage, and it makes loans and grants more costly for potential energy producers by expanding Davis-Bacon.

Some American businesses would be forced to pay their taxes early to help cover the $20 billion of increased spending. Yet there's no meaningful reform in this proposal. For example, farm income after expenses or adjusted gross income can be as high as $1.5 million before direct farm payments are cut off. And the bill completely eliminates the limit on other payments or the marketing loan.

So at a time of great need for global food aid, this bill restricts our ability to provide emergency food by blocking and locking in aid dollars for non-emergency use. It fails to allow us to use a quarter of the food aid as we proposed to buy food in developing countries, or across the world. The need I believe is important, and it takes months to ship this food overseas. We want to be able to purchase locally. This bill prevents that.

Congress should extend the current farm bill rather than jeopardizing America's support for a farm economy and wasteful spending that fails to target payments to farmers who really need the support.

Let me also address quickly the supplemental that is on the floor in the Senate today, and was on the floor of the House earlier. Memorial Day is obviously a time to observe and commemorate the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make to protect national security. As we honor their service this coming Monday, it's both disappointing and, for that matter, I believe irresponsible, that Congress has failed to provide our troops with the resources they need by this fast-approaching deadline.

Instead, Democratic leaders have cynically used the supplemental bill that should have been focused on our troops and national security to advance their political agenda of higher government spending and tying the hands of our military commanders.

As General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified, the surge is working to bring greater security to the people of Iraq and allowing for significant political and economic progress. Defeating the enemy in Iraq will make it less likely that we will face that enemy here at home. We must support our troops and diplomats, and not undercut their mission or reverse their successes.

Congress has had most of the troop funding request since February 5th of last year, 2007, more than 15 months. I believe it's inexcusable that they have missed their deadlines that they have self-imposed. As stated by Secretary Gates, this delay will result in the Department of Defense needing to employ budget shell games to pay for the troops and to provide them the equipment and the training and the pay and the safety to do the job that they have been asked to do.

Secretary Gates also stated, "After June 15th we will run out of funds in the account to pay soldiers, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan." First American military personnel. After June 15th, we will run out of the funds to pay -- in this account, to pay soldiers, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Let me turn to a chart -- there we go. The President took a clear and principled position regarding this funding from the very outset. He made it clear he would veto a supplemental that does not meet the needs of our troops, ties the hands of our military commanders, or exceeds the requested level of $108.1 billion. However, the House and Senate includes billions more in spending that the President has not requested.

The Senate bill has $10 billion more in discretionary spending alone, under-funding priorities from this year's omnibus bill alone, even though they conveniently found room for $16.9 billion in earmarks. In addition, with the national unemployment rate as low as 5 percent, the Democrats' plan extends unemployment benefits beyond the existing benefit of 26 weeks. It's a one-size-fits-all plan that really doesn't make any sense. Only five states have an unemployment rate of 6 percent or higher, and more than two-thirds have an unemployment rate below 5 percent.

The bill proposes increases in veterans' benefits. Throughout the year the President has led efforts to expand benefits for our veterans. This idea has bipartisan support. But Democratic leaders have rejected the bipartisan bill that was approved by the Veterans Affairs Committee, and instead has air-dropped him a bill that has not even had consideration. They don't want transferability of the education benefits, which doesn't -- isn't provided in this bill. And it doesn't provide greater rewards for continued military service in our all-volunteer force.

The House includes a huge tax increase on small businesses at a time when job creation is necessary, not increased taxes. And the House bill didn't even fund the troops.

Republicans decided they weren't going to be a pawn in this cynical game, so 132 of them voted "present" to express their concern. The Democrats could only muster 85 votes to support troop funding.

Finally, both House and Senate supplemental bills tie the hands of our military commanders. Because the House and Senate bills fail to meet the President's principles, if either one of these bills were presented to the President, he would veto it.

And I'm pleased to take your questions.

Q Why are you surprised that politics is being played on the Hill?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: I think what's surprising here is that there has been 15 months of lead time. It's not unusual that there's politics in Washington or politics on the Hill, particularly in an election year, but you would think you could set aside that momentarily in order to do a job that they've known is necessary to do for over 15 months, and that's pay for the troops.

There are many, obviously, who have different opinions about the global war on terror, but once our men and women are in harm's way, you would think that politics could be set aside to ensure that they were paid, that they received the safety equipment that they needed, and to ensure that they could do the basic job that they've been asked to do.

So with 15 months of lead time, there was time for a little bit of politics. But the time has run out now to make sure that the funding is there, and the Defense Department is now going to have to take some drastic measures to ensure that funding is available in the meantime.

Q And on the farm bill, given the margins, can you do anything but complain? I mean, there's an awful lot in there for both Republican constituents -- constituents of Republicans and of Democrats.

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Well, we're certainly doing more than complain. We've submitted legislation; we've submitted reform proposals; we've tried to work with the Congress in order to not only fit the spending within a reasonable budget plan, but also to ensure that there were reform proposals. Congress has decided to go against that. We're doing much more than complain. We're actually making proposals, working with the Congress to try and improve it. When that failed, the President had to make a decision, and he's decided to veto it.

Q Following up on that, it appears clear the farm bill will be overridden -- and, in fact, that might start as soon as today -- so there are overwhelming margins, and the President is vetoing anyway. When the Strategic Reserve bill was passed, the President opposed that, but signed it anyway, and part of the reason that we were given was because the margins in the House and Senate were so huge. So how do you determine when to veto, when not, when it's clear what Congress wants to do?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Well, first on the SPR, it was, I believe and many in the administration believe, a fairly meaningless proposal with regard to our overall energy security, from the standpoint of reducing prices. We wanted to ensure that our national security was preserved by ensuring that the SPR was available for a disruption in supply. And so it was somewhat of a different situation. The farm bill is a significant piece of legislation which will increase spending not only for the next five years, but sets the predicate for actually the next 10, based on the way that the budget has gone through this process.

Second, it's also important at a time when we're trying to expand trade around the world, and to ensure that we increase the amount of products that are available, to ensure that those who are in -- needing food have that available to them. So this is a much more significant piece of legislation. And we have worked over the last 16 months with the Congress in order to try and improve the farm bill. And Congress has basically decided to thumb their nose at us.

Q So on military spending, what exactly are you going to do from here? Are you going to start sending out notices of furloughs, or what is going to happen?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Well, we don't -- the OMB does not send out furlough notices, nor does the White House. That's a decision that the Defense Department will make. And according to Secretary Gates and the Defense Department, those notices may begin as -- in the next month. And notification to particularly the civilian workforce, similar to what occurred in December, will also need to go out in June if the funding is not available, as well as reprogramming will -- a request for reprogramming will have to be sent to the Hill probably at the end of next week. And changes -- as the Secretary described the budget shell game -- will have to be played with the accounts that are currently available to the Defense Department just to make ends meet during that period of time.

So there's more than just the notices of furlough that will go out. This is a terrible way to run the department, and again, something that both Congress and the Department of Defense have known for quite some time.

Q Is there no amount of domestic spending that the President would allow on the Iraq war supplemental? Or is it the matter of the amount, or is there some way -- limit that they could put it within that some would be allowable?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Well, the interesting part about this, which I find fascinating, is that at a time when -- there are those who are suggesting we do need domestic spending -- instead of accelerating the appropriations process for this coming year, instead it appears that Senate leaders, in particular, and even some in the House, are making the strategic decision to punt all of those appropriation bills until next year.

So if the need is so urgent for spending, domestic spending, why not get your work done? Why not work on the appropriation bills instead of basically punting that until the middle of next year -- which factually or technically they will be doing by waiting for what they believe is a Democrat President to make a better deal with?

That to me suggests that this is not about domestic spending; it's about trying to hold the troops hostage in order to get a few pet projects into this particular bill; and recognizing that they know the President has made a principled position, one that he was able to hold to in December in the omnibus bill process. And I believe it's those reasons why the leadership has made the decision that they've made.

Q Okay. Why do you -- what makes you think that they're punting until next year on the appropriation?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: All of the -- first of all, no appropriations bills are making it through the process. It appears through all of their announcements that they have made that -- or many of the announcements that they have made that they believe that they might have a better deal with the next President. I assume they mean a President Obama. That being the case, they've decided instead to go for a continuing resolution strategy and wait for a better deal.

And all I'm suggesting, or observing, is that if it is in fact so urgent to have all of this domestic spending considered, you would think, rather than sticking it into the supplemental, or at least in addition to considering that as a strategy, they would also accelerate the appropriations process. Instead, what they have basically done is waited until today to get a budget done, and the appropriations process has not really even kicked off yet.

Q Okay, just what about my original question? Is there a principle involved that there's no domestic spending on this bill, or would the President allow some amount, as long as it's not as much as they've proposed?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Well, we're in the third inning of a what's going to be a long game. The President has made it very clear that $108 billion in the request in order to ensure that the troops have what they need is the most important and first priority. In addition to that, not tying the hands of commanders, not adding extraneous spending are important veto principles that he has also laid out. So we haven't seen what the final version is. In fact, no spending bill has passed any floor yet, so we don't even know what we're looking at. But the most important thing at this point in time is to stay within those principles and make sure that the troops are funded.

Q Jim, if this is the third inning, that suggests we're digging in for a long game. How's this going to be resolved?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Well, you would have thought that the game could have been accelerated and that they could have gotten this done a lot earlier. That's what's so perplexing about this, is that they've had 15 months of lead time. It was the Congress that requested that all of this funding be proposed up front in the budget that was proposed back in February of 2007. And it was the Congress that has already held two hearings with the State Department, with Secretary Rice, three hearings with Secretary Gates, one hearing with me, in order to consider this supplemental spending over the course of the last 15 months. So they've had a lot of lead time to understand this. I wish it was the 9th inning and we were ready to sign a bill and get on with it. But we're, it appears, no closer as a result of the actions that have been taken.

Q Just to clarify, the administration has veto threats on both the House supplemental and the Senate supplemental version, correct?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Yes.

Q Sir, as far as your choice between food and oil, millions of people around the globe are now making choices -- on the high rise. And two outbreaks in China and Burma also made a difference. And the Secretary of Agriculture said that as far as ethanol is concerned, making ethanol from corn is not making any difference as far as high rise of food and oil. So where do we stand now because of these earthquakes and now Memorial Day is coming -- what is the choice for millions of families in the U.S. and around the globe?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: It's a good question, a fair question. I'm not sure I'm prepared to answer that for you today, so why don't I defer on your very good question.

MS. PERINO: Do you want to take one more in the back?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Yes.

Q Among the things listed as unnecessary projects, the $170 million for relief for Northwest communities because of the salmon season that has been pretty much canceled -- does the administration have a better idea to help that industry and those communities?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: Well, again, there are, I'm sure, worthwhile concerns within all of these particular bills that move through. But when you stick that into a farm bill, when you do it in a way that is bloated, more than five times the original proposal of the farm bill itself, when it doesn't include the other reforms -- what may be in and of itself a good provision -- and there may be other examples of that -- again, I'm not sure I can comment on each specific one.

But when you throw it all together, I think that's when not only the taxpayers get frustrated, but many get frustrated about the fact that these bills come through, they don't have reform, they're too expensive. And I think that's part of the reason why that, in this instance, we're seeing such an outcry from the public about this kind of a bill.

So one more -- I've been passing over you and I didn't mean to.

Q That's all right. Thank you very much. I believe I heard you mention the words "President Obama." Does this mean the Bush administration is contending there is no chance for a President Hillary?

DIRECTOR NUSSLE: You know, as soon as that word came out of my mouth I thought, I should have made sure I attributed that to Senator Reid. I believe Senator Reid was suggesting that. I have no prediction on the Democratic primary.

Thank you very much.

MS. PERINO: Thanks, Jim. Okay, any others? April.

Q Dana, according to the Secret Service, there's going to be -- they are soon to come up with the conclusion of an investigation over this noose incident at the Beltsville Training Facility. And they're saying that it looks like it wasn't racial and the fact that it wasn't a joke, and also that they're trying to determine if this Secret Service agent understood the meaning of a noose. What did this administration say about this incident and about what I just told you, as the President has come out strongly on the issues of nooses?

MS. PERINO: Well, as you just said, the Secret Service is investigating the incident, and as you just said also, they have not completed that investigation. So I am not going to get ahead of them and I'll let them do that. But the President -- could you please put your hand down for a second so I can concentrate on April.

The noose symbol is a symbol that the President has talked about, as you said -- he did it in the East Room. And he was amongst the first to say that it is not a joke, it is taken very seriously, and that is for good reason. In fact, he said, "The noose is not a symbol of prairie justice, but of gross injustice." The President's position on that has not changed a bit. But I think that it's only appropriate, April, to allow the Secret Service to conduct this investigation unfettered -- with unfettered influence from the White House.

Q But they have -- the Secret Service, especially, particularly an agent, these are very intelligent people who, when they go out in the community with the President or presidential candidate, they have the intelligence enough to survey a crowd, to understand what could happen. And for the Secret Service to say this agent -- they're trying to find out if he understood the meaning -- isn't that kind of a contradiction? And also do you feel that if these kinds of things are allowed within the Secret Service, do you think that is fair to a Barack Obama or a Condoleezza Rice? Can they actually effectively protect minorities?

MS. PERINO: April, I think that you're -- one, you're trying to get me to comment on an investigation that the U.S. Secret Service is conducting. And it's not appropriate for the White House and the President's spokesperson to be getting themselves involved in an investigation that the U.S. Secret Service is conducting. And I'm sure they are conducting it with integrity and that is what the President would expect. So let me just leave it at that.

Q But is it fair for a Barack Obama or a Condoleezza Rice to have those kinds of incidents happen and --

MS. PERINO: As you said, April, this was at a training facility -- okay? And let's just see what -- the investigation comes out. I don't think I've ever heard any complaint about how the U.S. Secret Service has performed in protecting any of the people that they are supposed to protect, from the President to Secretary Rice, and I certainly don't think I've heard any complaints from the Obama campaign.

Q Dana, I want to ask a couple quick things on Cuba.

MS. PERINO: Okay.

Q The policy change allowing Americans to send cell phones to family members in Cuba -- are you sure that if people send these phones, that they'll work, or are you just allowing a change and hoping that they'll work?

MS. PERINO: I'll refer you to what -- earlier today in the briefing room that Dan Fisk said that we do believe that they would work. And I think what's important here is that the President is saying, all right, Raul, if you say that you're going to allow people to have cell phones, let's actually really let them have them. As Dan was saying this morning, the average income -- monthly income for a Cuban is $12, and a cell phone is about $120 plus the service plus the activation fee. So they're completely out of reach for the majority of people in Cuba.

What the President wants to do is say, let's call you out on that. If you are serious about allowing people to have a cell phone, let's make sure that they can actually have them and use them. And so that's what we're trying to do here.

Q So how will they get service if they can't afford it? I mean, does the government have to allow it?

MS. PERINO: What he said -- what Dan said this morning is that included in this change is not only do you allow for the device to be sent, but that American -- Cuban Americans who are living here in America could pay for the service, as well.

Q And you have confidence that would work?

MS. PERINO: As far as I know, from what was said this morning, yes.

Q Well, how do you know it would work on the Cuban network? Isn't this just a case of the President trying to call their bluff for the propaganda advantage? There's no --

MS. PERINO: I'm sure that this is all given consideration. And Dan Fisk this morning -- I don't have any other information except for what the expert said this morning, that he believed it would work. Certainly this is something that would have to be taken into consideration in a policy process. I'm sure it was, and I'll see if there's any more I can get for you.

Roger.

Q Do you have a little preview on the Fort Bragg speech tomorrow -- main message? What's he going to talk about? Is he going to talk about the supplemental funding, for example?

MS. PERINO: No, this is much more -- let me go back and look at the drafts; they've been moving through the system and I saw an early one earlier in the week. This is really about a slightly -- giving an update on where we are in Iraq, but mostly to thank the troops for their service and to welcome them back. These are troops that are returning on success, so the President will spend a little time with them. In addition to that, the President will spend time at a memorial service with families of the fallen before returning home.

Q But nothing on the legislation going on --

MS. PERINO: Let me just take a look. I don't recall from the read that I had two days ago, so I'll take a look. But obviously the President agrees with Director Nussle that the Congress needs to get its work done. They're going to blow past this self-imposed deadline. And there's another one -- there's another recess coming up in between. We don't have very much time for them to get their work done, and the time -- time is of the essence. And Secretary Gates has talked about how urgent the need is.

Mark.

Q Yes, Dana, back to Cuba. If Americans are now able to send phones to a place they couldn't send phones before, and send money for a service that they couldn't send money, how is that not a loosening of the embargo?

MS. PERINO: Well, I think, remember, that this is a changing of the existing regulations. There's -- the embargo is based on doing business because the regime makes you do business with just the regime, and the money doesn't get passed on to the people who are living in Cuba. There is already an existing regulation -- and I don't have all the details at my fingertips -- that allows for gift parcels to be sent from Cuban Americans to their families back in Cuba. What this did is allow for, if you were putting together a care package, to put a cell phone in it, as well. That has not been allowed before.

Q But it is being allowed now. So that's not a loosening?

MS. PERINO: What I just said is -- no, I think it's separate from the embargo. That's how I would describe it.

Q One other question, too, about the money. In order to get service in Cuba, presumably you have to pay the state-run Cuban phone service provider. Are Americans not going to be then subsidizing the regime by paying money to that provider?

MS. PERINO: Let me go and back and see how it will work because what -- that doesn't correspond with what Dan said this morning at the gaggle. So I'll go back and find out in terms of where they believe the service is paid for.

Q I don't think he was clear --

MS. PERINO: I'm sorry?

Q I just said, I don't think he was clear on that point.

MS. PERINO: Right, and I don't have any other information, so let me go back, and then I'll get back to you.

Kate.

Q That was going to be my question. So basically, it's just not clear --

MS. PERINO: We'll get back to you as soon as I get back.

Toby.

Q On the Israel-Syria talks.

MS. PERINO: Yes.

Q Earlier you said that the United States had no objection to them. Do you actually support Israel and Syria having these kinds of talks? And what are you hoping comes from them?

MS. PERINO: The decision for Israel to have conversations and discussions with Syria was made by Israel, a sovereign state. They had kept us apprised from the beginning of the initiative, so earlier today I was asked if we were surprised, and no, we were not. We believe that progress toward peace in the region would be certainly welcome. And the President recognizes that it will need to be a comprehensive peace. Israel is going to need to have good relations with their neighbors. So there needs to be good relations between Israel and their Palestinian neighbors, Israel and their Syrian neighbors, and Israel and their Lebanese neighbors. And issues such as Shebaa Farms when it comes to Lebanon are going to have to be resolved if we are going to have a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

What we hope is that this is a forum to address various concerns that we all share about Syria -- the United States, Israelis and many others -- in regards to Syria's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the training and funding of terrorists that belong to those two organizations. We believe it could help to help us further isolate Iran so that we could get a position where they would verifiably suspend their nuclear enrichment program, so that we could bring them to the table and have conversations about how we integrate them into the international community.

We certainly appreciate the role that Turkey has been willing to play to mediate these discussions. And then Israel will keep us apprised as they are ongoing. I don't have a lot of detail as to all that they're communicating through the Turkish delegation with, but we did know about it. We do believe that we're going to have to have Israel achieve a relationship with their neighbors to the point where they can function as a state and have security in their democracy.

Les.

Q Thank you, Dana.

MS. PERINO: Just one question, since you already had one.

Q Scott Stanzel, during Monday's briefing, spoke of the need to expand oil exploration in ANWR, the Outer Continental Shelf, which columnist Cal Thomas notes has an estimated 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. But President Clinton vetoed exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And my question: Does the President believe that this veto compares to those claims of environmentalists that the Alaska pipeline would destroy the caribou?

MS. PERINO: I don't know -- I'd have to consult Scott Stanzel on that.

Q Beg your pardon?

MS. PERINO: I was kidding. There's no room for humor. (Laughter.)

Q There is room for humor. I'd be delighted to have humor.

MS. PERINO: Not in this room. (Laughter.) Look, our position on why we need to increase domestic exploration and production here in our own country is well known. It is critical if we are going to send a signal to the world market that we are serious about becoming more self-sufficient in our own country. And concerns about the caribou I believe have been taken into consideration, and that we have demonstrated that we have the technologies to be able to drill in a way that would protect the environment -- not only the natural resources there, but also the caribou.

Q Listen, I didn't know that asking that nice gentleman -- I just have one other, just this one time. Just this one time.

MS. PERINO: All right, last one, please. Last one.

Q I appreciate it. Reuters reports the House of Representatives voted 324-84 to have the Justice Department sue OPEC --

MS. PERINO: That's seems like a really large Congress. (Laughter.)

Q -- for limiting oil supplies and colluding on prices. And my question: Does the President believe the Senate will not follow the House in a similar veto-proof vote? And if not, why not?

MS. PERINO: I don't know.

Q He wrote the right numbers, he just said it wrong.

MS. PERINO: Did he? Okay. (Laughter.)

Q Thanks.

END 1:13 P.M. EDT


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