Excerpts from Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, November 6, 2002 (Full transcript)
QUESTION: And looking beyond the lame duck session -- you will want to do I assume the budget, in addition to the terror insurance. In a new Congress, does the election sweep last night for Republicans improve the prospect for action on some of the higher profile items being talked about, such as the Social Security overhaul or the changes -- the fundamental change in the tax code?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question that last night's results increase the likelihood of getting things done for the American people. There are many initiatives that could have and should have been done in the last Congress that got bottled up and stopped that now have a much stronger chance of getting done.
Having said that, of course, in the Senate, if members decide that they still want to exercise all their parliamentary rights, they can block, they can filibuster, they can use 60 votes to thwart a growing bipartisan consensus. But let me -- let me walk through a list of the things that were left undone from the last Congress that the President still remains very interested in.
One, protecting people's pensions. It was passed by the House, not passed by the Senate. The President would like to see action taken to protect people's pensions. Homeland security, I mentioned. Faith-based legislation to help predominantly low-income Americans have a better economic shot at making it in America. Welfare reform, another way to help predominantly low-income Americans have a better life in America, was not passed in the Senate. Energy legislation to make America more energy independent was not addressed that has a better chance of passage now. The Treaty of Moscow, the ratification of the treaty to have reductions in the number of offensive weapons the United States has was not passed.
Some issues got stuck in a House-Senate conference committee. One of the key issues there that the President would like to see passed was a patient bill of rights. The President thinks it's very important to give people enhanced abilities to deal with their health maintenance organizations. He would still like to push for that. He thinks it is important.
I cited earlier, increasing funding for community health centers to help people with their health insurance needs. A ban on human cloning was passed by the House and not take up by the Senate. So there remain a wide variety of issues that have not gotten done in this last closely divided Congress.
Now, there is not an overwhelming majority for the Republicans in the new Senate. History was made because the historical trend of Presidents losing in the midterm did not take place. In fact, for the first time in history Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives in the midterm election, which is the first time in history, as well as taking the Senate was the first time.
QUESTION: Can we look for improved outlook on fundamental tax reform and Social Security overhaul?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's too soon to say, Greg. Particularly for some of the major issues, I think it's important to have as broad a consensus as possible. And it still remains a closely divided Senate, even though party control has switched.
QUESTION: Ari, on two issues, one close to your heart, I hope -- will the President call for a total repeal of the marriage penalty tax? (Laughter.) And also on homeland defense, will you grandfather it so that the present civil service workers can maintain their protection if they're folded into this department?
MR. FLEISCHER: On the first question, yes, the President does indeed believe in making marriage penalty relief permanent. The President just cannot understand why anybody would want to reimpose the marriage penalty on people after Congress has now spoken and said there should be no marriage penalty.
Under current law, if it's not made permanent, the marriage penalty will be reimposed on people. The $1,000 child tax cut will be taken away from people, and the President thinks that that's wrong. The death tax will be reimposed on people. The President thinks that's all wrong, and that's why he supports making it permanent.
QUESTION: Ari, is the President concerned about the state of the economy? There have been some fairly gloomy growth numbers that came out in the last week or two, and a lot of economists on Wall Street talking about the possibility of dipping back into recession. And if the President isn't concerned about that, we've heard him on the stump many, many times over the last couple months talking about tax cuts and they had a stimulative effect on the economy. So if the economy doesn't -- he thinks the economy is fine and doesn't necessarily need any stimulation, what would be the argument for additional tax cuts?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President hasn't said that it's fine. The President has said that it's bumping along. And the most recent economic data that came out showed that it was growing at a 3 percent rate for the third quarter. That's by historical standards, strong growth. But when you take a look
QUESTION: But the projection for the 4th quarter is very, very low
MR. FLEISCHER: When you take a look at the existing trends, there still are reasons for the President to be concerned. And so the President will review what action, if any, will be appropriate. And as I indicated, if there are any new policy initiatives, the President will be the one to announce them.
QUESTION: Treasury Secretary O'Neill in the past has called the tax code an abomination that needs to be overhauled. Does the President agree with his assessment? And even though you've said it's too soon to say in terms of overhauling in the near future, would it be accurate to say that the administration supports simplification of the tax code with overhaul farther down the line?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that the President totally agrees that the tax code is much too complicated. It's a headache for many people who have to fill it out every year. And for people who don't fill it out every year, it's a headache for them to pay somebody to do it. It's too soon to say whether or not there will be any new initiatives or new proposals in any type of fundamental way or perhaps in an incremental way that deal with making the tax code fair and lower and simpler and flatter. Any of those various possibilities; it's just too soon to say, Paula.
QUESTION: And also you mentioned how closely divided the Senate will still be, but with the change in control. But is there any way the administration is exploring the use of the budget reconciliation process that would circumvent the 60-vote rule in terms of advancing its agenda?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, with the expiration of the Deficit Reduction Act, the budget act point of order and items of that nature have lapsed. I don't think they were extended in any of the continuing resolutions that passed at the very end of the year. So the President still believes in the importance of fiscal discipline and making certain that Congress is guided by rules that provide for fiscal discipline. But we'll see again what the new Senate does.
QUESTION: Given the new complexion of the Senate, would you be willing to reopen the terrorism insurance debate like Sensenbrenner was looking at? Or do you really want to have it done during the lame duck?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that this can be a constructive step to create jobs in the economy in the here and now, the President would like to see this taken up in the lame duck Congress. It's impossible to guess everything the lame duck can or cannot get done. The history of lame ducks is that when you bring together a gathering of the retired and the defeated, it's very hard to say what they will accomplish and how long they want to stay in town.
So nobody knows what the ultimate outcome will be. But the key issue that remains is homeland security. That is a key issue of unfinished business.
QUESTION: You said that strengthening the economy is one of the President's top two priorities in the foreseeable future. And you said that keeping taxes low remains one of his core principles. In line with that top priority and that core principle, will he push for making permanent the tax cuts that were passed in the 107th Congress?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely. The President does think it is vital for certainty in the economy and for fairness for people's lives that the tax cuts be made permanent. After all, why would anybody want to reimpose the marriage penalty? Why would anybody want to take away a family's $1,000 child tax credit? Why would anybody want to reimpose a death tax on people? The President does think that's very important to long-term economic growth, to economic certainty, and to fundamental fairness for families.
QUESTION: Will it be one of his first legislative initiatives?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not here to predict the exact timing and path of what the President will call for. But this is well-known. The President has repeatedly stated this position.