|The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 24, 2001
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base
12:58 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm at your disposal.
Q Is the President going to meet with Tom Daschle?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's focus now is getting the tax relief bill conferenced and sent to him so he can sign it into law. That's his immediate focus, that's his top priority and that's what he's going to continue to work on. As you heard Senator Jeffords say, he will remain a Republican and will remain in the party until that is done. So until that step is done, the tax bill is sent, there will be no change in the make-up of the Senate. So I'm certain that at some point the President will, but the President's focus today is on getting the tax bill done.
Q But in the interest of bipartisanship, he is not meeting with Senator Daschle quickly?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President's focus is on getting the tax bill signed into law. And Senator Jeffords remains a Republican, the make-up of the Senate has not yet changed. So the focus is going to continue to be on getting the tax cut signed into law.
Q Did the President -- when did the President last talk to Senator Jeffords?
MR. FLEISCHER: Tuesday, in the Oval Office meeting.
Q And in that meeting, did he -- and did the White House make any further efforts, then -- not the President, but other people -- yesterday to dissuade him?
MR. FLEISCHER: The White House reached out to people who are close to Senator Jeffords. But I think it was clear the Senator's mind had already been made up.
Q Is there a lot of recrimination going on now within the White House, about the fact that Senator Jeffords left?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think people have recognized for a long time that Senator Jeffords is independent thinking, he's a maverick and he makes up his mind and he acts. And he has done so.
Q Is the President angry?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I wouldn't say that. I think the President disagrees. The President disagrees with him on matter of policy; and the President is going to continue to proudly present his agenda to the American people to get things done.
Q What do you mean, he disagrees? I didn't understand the President's comment, or your comment that the President disagrees. He disagrees with the Senator about what?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President disagrees with Senator Jeffords' assessment that the agenda that has been presented to the Congress is not a bipartisan agenda, an agenda that suggests there is no room for centrists, for independent thinkers.
Obviously, the vote in the House yesterday says the President's agenda on education is a bipartisan one that makes plenty of room for independents and centrists. The President's tax cut is an agenda that appeals to all, except the far left. There are going to be people who are going to be part of a minority who will not agree with a bipartisan majority that the President has formed. That's what the --
Q So, Ari, now that the shift in power has happened in the Senate, how do you guys beyond that new obstacle, in terms of judiciary appointments, bringing them to the floor? I mean, what's the strategy now? I mean, the dynamics have shifted significantly.
MR. FLEISCHER: The strategy will be to -- the President believes that the best way to achieve bipartisan agreements and to work well with the Democratic Party is through the power of good ideas. Good ideas attract bipartisan support, which is why almost 25 percent of the Democrats defected from their party leadership to support the President's tax cut proposal. That's why the President has attracted so much support to his education plans. And that's a pattern that the President sees continuing.
Q Ari, is there anything in the wake of this that you all in the White House think you need to do or think about any differently, in terms of your relations with Congress and with the Senate, in particular?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President is very proud of the fact that the plans he has submitted to Congress, his two top priorities, have attracted so much bipartisan support. That says a lot about how the President is governing and leading this country. That says a lot about how he's going to continue to govern and lead this country.
He's respectful of the senators who disagree, of congressmen who disagree. And he understands that there may be a unique circumstance, in the case of Senator Jeffords, that made him follow through on his long-standing maverick and independent streak.
Q In the course of all of this Jeffords story, we've seen some comments, particularly from Lincoln Chafee, about what it feels like in the Senate to be -- to hold the kinds of positions that Jeffords did or that he does. Is the White House doing anything to make sure that the Lincoln Chafees, Olympia Snowes, Susan Collins of the world feel like they're a part of what the White House is doing and where the Republican Party is going?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely. And if you recall, on the flight to Portland, Maine the President spent -- invited Senator Collins and Senator Snowe into his private cabin to talk with them, one-on-one, or two-on-one, about his agenda and whatever they had on their mind.
This President has a history of reaching out to people in his party, in the opposite party. That's how he led in Texas, that's how he's going to continue to lead here. I think the circumstances of Senator Jeffords were unique. It was a part of the Senator's history and his independence.
But the President is going to continue to work productively with moderates like Senator Chafee and others.
Q Given what's just happened, is there anything coming up in the next days or weeks in which he's going to meet with, say, the main senators or the --
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll advise you.
Q Does the White House, Ari, take any -- or feel any responsibility for what transpired here? Are you suggesting that this was sort of a God-given thing, that this was what was going to happen and there was nothing that could be done to avoid it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's a good question. But let's break it down, let's take a look at some of the things that people were focused on yesterday.
The Senator could not have said it plainer himself this morning, that it's a laughable notion that the teacher event had anything to do with his change, even though yesterday that seemed to be what many people wanted to allege. I think that is now dismissed with.
Senator Jeffords has an aide who was quoted in the Washington Post today as saying that there is nothing that President Bush did, no action that he took that contributed to this decision.
Senator Jeffords is an independent thinker, has always been a maverick and he has followed through on that tradition.
Q Ari, you're right, when Jeffords came out today, he certainly didn't say that this was about lapses of etiquette or things like that. But isn't it possible that what he did say is even more damaging for the White House? I mean, he either said, or strongly implied, that he stands in the center of American politics and you guys stand farther to the right.
Isn't that potentially a much more damaging and damning thing to you guys than him saying, I wasn't invited to Teacher of the Year?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there is a lot of irony in the fact that this event took place on the same day that the Senate, in an overwhelming bipartisan show of support for President Bush's agenda, passed the tax cut; and that the House, in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, passed the President's education plan.
The President believes the actions and the votes of the Senate and the House speak louder and clearer to the American people than anything else possibly could.
Q Did the President listen to Senator Jeffords' speech on board the plane?
MR. FLEISCHER: He heard it Tuesday, in the Oval Office. He heard the Senator's speech Tuesday, in the Oval Office.
Q So he didn't listen to it on the plane?
MR. FLEISCHER: He knew what he was going to say.
Q And, Ari, in that Oval Office meeting, did the President ask -- what did he say to Senator Jeffords? Did he offer -- ask him if there was anything he did, or the White House did, that drove him away? And we've seen that in the papers, you know, on background. But can you confirm that the President did ask if there was anything he could do to keep him?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President -- you saw those background reports. I'm not going to contradict those background reports.
Q Ari, are you concerned about more defection? Is the White House concerned about more defections from the Republican Party, if not actually leaving the party, but departing with the party on key votes in the House and Senate?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the President believes that the votes that took place in the Senate and the House yesterday speak louder than any other events. And in that 12 Democrats joined with President Bush in a healthy showing of support for the President's agenda on a matter that -- it's hard to imagine anything that counts more than a vote on the tax cut, it's one of the centerpieces of the President's agenda. Education, a couple hundred Democrats -- or more than a hundred Democrats voted with the President.
Q Is he worried about defections by moderate Republicans from the party, in votes after Senator Jeffords becomes an independent, you know, after this tax cut situation is over with?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's focus is on those Democrats who support his agenda and will work with the President and vote for it. That's what the President is focused on, which is a sign of where he thinks the future lies.
Q Ari, do you guys suspect once all these procedural things click into place and Tom Daschle, I guess, becomes the Majority Leader, do you expect that Trent Lott will remain the Minority Leader, or that there will be a change?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have no reason to expect any changes.
Q Do you guys feel adequately served by Trent Lott in this whole situation?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks that Senator Lott is doing an excellent job as Majority Leader.
All right, anything else? Thank you, enjoy your lunches.
1:07 P.M. EDT