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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
November 29, 2001
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
1:35 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I would like to thank whoever has put this
picture on the podium of a very young-looking Helen Thomas asking a question to
Richard Nixon. Or at least writing and listening, as Helen is on the side.
MS. THOMAS: He was answering them, too. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, Helen, it looks to me like you're listening. (Laughter.)
Q Do you see Connie's sunglasses in there?
MR. FLEISCHER: And Connie is wearing sunglasses in this picture. Thank you to whoever has given me this little bon-bon.
I have no opening statement, other than that. I'm happy to take your questions. David?
Q Ari, given the reality now with deficits over the next few years, as Director Daniels has pointed out, is the President prepared to postpone some of his campaign promises in the area of prescription drugs or reforming Social Security? And if not, how does he plan to pay for them now that we're in deficits?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the fact that the economy has slowed to the degree it has, even before the President took office, and then the recession that began in March of this year is one other reason why the President reminds the Congress of the need to do two things this fall -- one is to pass a stimulus so the economy can get growing again, and so surpluses can return; and also, to be careful that they don't engage in any excess spending beyond what they've already agreed to.
Other than that, I think it will be important to take a look at how the economy does come back next year to determine what else could be impacted as a result of this. But it is a reminder to people in Congress, it's always important to keep a watchful eye on taxpayer dollars; it's even more important now.
Q But how is it possible in the near-term to satisfy campaign promises with regard to spending when the money isn't there anymore?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of the promises the President made, if you want to offer a specific promise I'll be happy to talk about it issue by issue. But the President --
Q I named a couple, so why don't you go through them -- Social Security reform, prescription drugs.
MR. FLEISCHER: Social Security reform, as you know, is a very long-term commitment on Social Security. That's a matter where the President has said that he believes very strongly that personal savings accounts are a very important way to help protect Social Security for today's retirees, but a lot younger workers is what we're really talking about here, a chance to have a retirement system that's there.
Q I know the policy. We're just curious about where the money is going to come from.
MR. FLEISCHER: But that's a long-term funding issue --
Q But it's a long-term problem, according to Director Daniels. He doesn't see surpluses returning until '05.
MR. FLEISCHER: And the duration of that will be determined mostly by the shape of the economy. And that's why the President thinks first things first. The most important thing that can happen this fall is for a stimulus to get passed.
On Medicare prescription drugs, the President will continue to work with Congress on that topic. But clearly, anything dealing with large spending increases, particularly creation of new entitlements, has to be done with an eye toward what is achievable.
Q Senator Daschle says the tax cuts are to blame for this, specifically.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you know, let's just walk through the numbers. When President Bush took office, the budget in February of this year projected a surplus of $281 billion. We now know that the fiscal year -- that's for '01. The fiscal year is now over, and the surplus for the year was $127 billion. In other words, the surplus dropped by $154 billion this year.
The tax cut, this year, was $40 billion. So obviously the tax cut had nothing to do with all the drop in the surplus; in fact, the tax cut is one of the reasons that people think the economy is going to come back. But the fact that the surplus dropped by $154 billion, while the tax cut was $40 billion, indicates there was something else going on. That something else, we now know, is a recession. It is a slowing-down of the economy.
And as the President said repeatedly throughout the campaign, and he reiterates today, the solution is through growth, and growth is achieved by cutting taxes and stimulating the economy.
Q Ari, in answering his first question about prescription drugs, you said anything dealing with large spending increases you have to do with an eye towards what is achievable. His question was, is your prescription drug plan achievable?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, that is something that -- the President has sent up his principles to the Hill. That includes prescription drug coverage for seniors. It has not moved this fall, obviously, on the Hill. And it is a little early to predict what the congressional agenda will be like next year, but obviously, in an era of tight surpluses, people have to keep an eye on spending.
But it remains an important priority for the President to help senior citizens get affordable prescription drug coverage. Along that point, there was an interesting court ruling recently with the prescription drug discount card that the President proposed. If you recall, there was an original court case which, throughout the President's proposal, because of some procedures had not been followed, the judge has now come back on that issue and the procedures are now being implemented under the judge's authority to allow the development of the prescription drug card, which can help seniors get discounts on their cards.
Their are a few more steps still to be taken, but that is an encouraging development for seniors, so they can get a reduction on the cost of prescription drugs.
Q The Democrats have been rather critical of the White House on economic policy in the last 24 hours, even while the negotiations over the stimulus go forward. Gephardt was saying, Congressman Gephardt was saying that the President is mismanaging the economy and, as you talked about, the tax cuts responsible for the recession, Senator Daschle says Republicans simply don't want to negotiate on an economic stimulus. What is your response to those charges, and where do you see the economic stimulus talks now? Where are they, what are the prospects?
MR. FLEISCHER: A couple points. I think that accusations like that make the American people tired of how business gets done in Washington. People expect leaders to come to Washington not to point fingers at each other, but to work together to solve problems. And that's why the President has engaged with the Senate to help the Senate to do what the Senate is wrestling with and having difficulty, which is coming to agreement by themselves on a stimulus package.
Last night, Chief of Staff Card, Secretary of the Treasury O'Neill went up to Capitol Hill to meet with House and Senate leaders, as well as the tax writers to help the Senate to complete its work. And the President remains very hopeful that the Senate would be able to pass a stimulus package. But, you know, Jim, I guess for many a year that's the way business has been done in Washington, finger-pointing and blaming. That won't stop the President from working with the Congress to try to get a stimulus passed.
Q Why doesn't the President --
MR. FLEISCHER: Do you have a follow-up? Go ahead.
Q To what extent does that complicate the talks on economic stimulus? Yesterday Senator Daschle was suggesting that an agreement could be made within a couple of days. But today Democrats seem to be suggesting that the President is mismanaging the economy, and one might assume mismanaging the efforts to revive the economy.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President will just continue to do what he was elected to do, which was to get the economy -- to keep the economy strong and to focus on his agenda. So I think the President would rise above and do what the people elected him to do. This is part of the old Washington where people engage in name-calling, as opposed to problem-solving.
Q Is that tone reflected in the talks over economic stimulus, or is it a different tone in these talks?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the talks on economic stimulus that are going on in the Senate right now are aimed at resolving it. That's certainly what Senator Daschle pledged to the President when Senator Daschle was here, and I think the President can't imagine a circumstance where Senator Daschle would do anything other than what he told the President.
Q Why doesn't the President think that corporations should pay any taxes?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's not what the President believes.
Q Well, what does he believe? He does want to eliminate taxes for corporations, doesn't he?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. The President believes corporations need to pay taxes.
Q Minimum tax?
MR. FLEISCHER: There is an element of the tax code called the alternative minimum tax, which, by it's definition, alternative means that they are paying taxes. It's a different way that taxes get calculated under the code. And the President does not believe that businesses should be penalized for the investments they make where, unlike anybody else, the tax code allows you to make deductions; it encourages you to invest in plant and equipment; and if you invest in what the tax code suggests, you get a deduction.
The President does not think that corporations should be punished for the investments they make, which is what the alternative minimum tax does. So the President believes that the corporate alternative minimum tax should be repealed. That doesn't mean corporations won't pay taxes; they still will.
Q Does the President believe they should get rebates?
MR. FLEISCHER: You asked the other day, Helen -- I'm sorry?
Q He also believes they should get rebates.
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, under the corporate minimum tax, corporations do receive credits for the amount of taxes they pay, once they have reached a level at which their taxes are reduced as a result of the minimum tax. Under the current law, corporations are entitled to those credits. So the question that is under consideration in the Congress is, after the corporate minimum tax is abolished what happens to the credits that those corporations have already been promised and are due as a result of the law.
And yesterday -- or two days ago, Helen, you asked a question about why does the tax bill contain more tax cuts for corporations than it does for individuals. Here are the numbers on what the House passed, for example, which demonstrates what I indicated to you that the majority of the tax cuts go to individuals.
According to what the House passed, which is close to what the President requested, but not an identical match, there is a reduction of $25 billion in taxes over 10 years for expensing; $24 billion for the corporate alternative minimum tax; $21 billion for a provision called Sub-part F, which affects corporations; and $86 billion over 10 years for individual income tax cuts. So the reason I walked through the numbers is the majority of the tax cut clearly goes to individuals under what the House passed. Even more so under what the President proposed.
Q Ari, there are reports that Abdel Omar Rahman, supposedly an associate of Osama bin Laden, the son of the blind Sheik Rahman convicted of terrorism in New York, has been captured in Afghanistan and interrogated by American officials. Can you confirm any of that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have nothing for you on that topic.
Q Are there any preparations underway in Guam for the establishment of the holding of military tribunals, the prospective military tribunals?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there are not.
Q And finally, what criteria will the President use in his identification and selection of individuals for trial by military commission?
MR. FLEISCHER: Under the military order that the President signed, which would allow in circumstances where the President thinks are necessary for national security purposes, the trial of non-Americans who are believed to be involved in terrorism or in the war in Afghanistan, under a military tribunal, the President will make the designation about who will be subject to a military tribunal. He will make that determination on the basis of what he believes is in the national security interest.
Q That's very broad.
MR. FLEISCHER: It is very broad.
Q Just whatever he thinks the national security requires?
MR. FLEISCHER: Under the law and under the Supreme Court precedence, the President has that authority. And the President has said that --
Q How can he take that authority?
MR. FLEISCHER: He has reserved to himself, as opposed to designating it -- delegating it to the Secretary of Defense or to any other officials, that responsibility.
Q Case by case?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct, case by case.
Q Ari, on the announcement by the Attorney General offering new immigration incentives to encourage people to turn in information, how come this -- can't this be viewed in some way as selling U.S. visas and citizenship in exchange for information?
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, this is an existing program that is already under the law in terms of -- I think it's referred to as S visas. And the Attorney General announced a beefing up of the program, and reminding people that this is an existing program -- we can do more with it -- to help protect people in this country. And so immigrants who come to this country can enjoy their life in America, enjoy the freedom of America, as they play a role in helping protect themselves and their fellow -- other citizens in this country from terror.
Q What is the genesis of it? Did it -- was there sort of a sense that a lot of people weren't coming forward out of concerns that the Attorney General was learning about?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the program exists out of a wise recognition that there are people who may have information about others who are involved in crimes or activities, and they believe it is their civic responsibility and duty to help and pass that information along, so justice can be served. It is not uncommon for governments -- in this case the United States government -- to have an incentive or a reward program to help people to take such a step. You have seen that often -- there are similar programs that exist where people who provide information that leads to the arrest or conviction of people are eligible for rewards.
This is a program that exists to help people who are coming to America, in terms of their visa status, so they can enjoy more of the rights and the privileges of America. And that's why.
Q So people who have broken the law, the immigration law, would get a kind of amnesty if they trade information on terrorists?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. The Attorney General was asked that earlier; he indicated it is not an amnesty. But there are ways under existing programs with the S visa for citizens to enjoy more of the freedoms and the liberties of America under the terms of a visa, even though they're not citizens, as a result of any information that they may share, that they decide to voluntarily come forward and share because they think it's their civic responsibility to help protect Americans from crimes they may be aware of.
Q But wouldn't it be possible someone could be in the United States illegally, and then turn in information to the FBI, and then be given the opportunity to stay in the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think you need to ask the Department of Justice how they would adjudicate any individual instance of somebody bringing information forward, and what that person's status is as they bring the information forward. I believe the Department of Justice will tell you that it would be a case-by-case determination.
Q Ari, since this was an existing program, why now? Why do we have this timing? For instance, why didn't we hear about this, you know, shortly after some of the suspects were being rounded up? Is it an indication, for instance, that the investigation is not going as well as you had hoped it would?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's another sign that the government is continuing to take steps that it deems helpful and appropriate to catch people, or to prevent people from engaging in terrorism or other crimes in the United States. I would remind you similar things were done with the reward money that you have heard about, for information that would lead to the arrest or conviction of Osama bin Laden, or the capture of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
It's not uncommon to have such programs. And the fact of the matter is people respond to them. The fact of the matter is the more information that is conveyed about them, the more people hear about them -- the show "America's Most Wanted," for example, often people call up because they think it's part of their civic duty, and it's a healthy part of involving more Americans and non-citizens, as well, into helping protect this country. Often people are aware of information, and they think it's their responsibility to pass it along. The government is going to help people pass it along.
Q People continue, at least civil rights groups continue to criticize John Ashcroft for many of the measures he has taken, claiming he is violating a lot of the justice -- in this country. Is the President in full agreement with whatever Attorney General Ashcroft has done in this regard since September 11th? And will the President use his speech today to attorney generals to defend John Ashcroft's policies?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't even think it's a question of defend anybody. There's no need to defend someone who is doing such an excellent job. And the President thinks that the Attorney General is doing an excellent job. The President believes that as a result of the actions of the Attorney General, that terrorist activity is being disrupted and that the Attorney General is protecting America and American citizens, as well as all the visitors who come to our country to enjoy our freedoms.
So the President is very pleased with the activities of the Attorney General. And you talked about people are raising objections, as their right. It is absolutely their right, and the actions the Attorney General is taking are designed to protect their right. Even as they represent a minority of Americans who are questioning the Attorney General's activities, it is their right and their duty to express their objections. And the majority agrees with what the President and the Attorney General are doing, and they are doing it so the rights of the minority -- can be protected.
Q Is it okay to deny them their civil rights, though -- violate people's civil rights to protect other people?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, and that is not the case. That has not been done.
Q But Ashcroft, this morning, said that no one has filed a lawsuit against the violation of civil rights, basically saying that he knows civil rights are being violated for those being detained in reference to 9/11.
MR. FLEISCHER: April, I went back and looked at the Attorney General's remarks on the TV show you mentioned this morning after you raised that question earlier. And the Attorney General did not say what you said he said. The Attorney General made note of the fact that no suits have been filed, but he did not say, as you indicated, that rights have been violated. He said just the opposite. He said, this is all in accord --
Q Read between the lines.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I don't think that's a fair characterization of what he said.
Q I've got a follow-up.
MR. FLEISCHER: Jacobo gets a follow-up.
Q You know, a lot of the people criticizing General Ashcroft belong to the Democratic Party. Do you think there's any politics involved, or do you think they really have a legitimate complaint?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think these are people's principled views and their heartfelt views. I also submit to you that they represent a minority. And that is their right, and the actions the Attorney General has taken are designed to protect all Americans, regardless of their views.
And on the question of the military tribunals, as the Department of Defense appropriations bill was debated yesterday, there was a Democratic congressman from Ohio, Congressman Kucinich, who is prepared to offer an amendment which prevented the use of any money for the creation of military tribunals. He actually filed his amendment with the House Rules Committee to put it to a vote. The Democrats asked him not to put it to a vote because they knew that if it was put to a vote, it would lose in an overwhelming bipartisan display.
So I submit to you that if there was such widespread opposition to what the President was doing, you might see a test vote in the Congress. And there is a reason that no test votes have been taken; it is because the bipartisan majority of the Congress supports what the President has done. So, too, the American people.
Q Ari, if I could follow up on two things you said. When you said that there was an existing program, the S visa program, just to clarify on that. Under the existing program, does one receive favorable treatment for being on a path to a green card or other immigration status, which has got a very clear set of criteria, if you give information helpful to the government in a criminal investigation?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Department of Justice can provide you with the exact details on how the programs work. But there are existing programs, and I've walked you through a couple of them.
Q Okay, and if I can follow up on one other, which is Helen's question on corporate taxes. You said the President is in favor of there being some corporate taxes. Does this put him in opposition to his Treasury Secretary, who has said many times on the record that he believes that corporate taxes are unwise because they are simply passed along to consumers?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think in the realm of theology, that is a consistent statement. There are many leading economists who believe that corporate taxes are passed on to consumers. But the administration has made no changes, has proposed no changes in the corporate income tax rate, which remains at 34 percent.
Q Could you tell us about the resumption of mail here at the White House? Is that going to happen --
MR. FLEISCHER: As you recall, there was an interruption of the mail service to the White House. And I am pleased to report that is coming to an end. The mail service to the White House will resume as soon as tomorrow.
Q Full service?
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q Does that mean that precautions have been taken, and you're satisfied?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q Ari, on the idea of the individual -- the Disabilities Act, part of the Education Act, the President had said when he was running for office that he would work with Congress to fully fund it. It's not fully funded. Is the President still trying to work with Congress to fully fund it?
MR. FLEISCHER: In the speech that the President gave up in Maine where he announced the Disability Initiative in 2000, the President talked about the IDEA program, which is a program designed to help disabled community and education community. Full funding is an issue that the President discussed. The Congress has for years discussed full funding, and has never been able to fully fund the program.
I'm not aware of any discussion right now that it will be fully funded, but the President has always indicated support for the program. But he has also said that it needs to be reformed on the path to better funding.
Q On the international conference in Bonn, does the White House expect women to play a major role in the Afghan coalition government? And if they are not included, will U.S. aid be cut?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the talks are underway in Bonn, and progress is being made on the creation of a future government of Afghanistan. I think there is going to be -- the process is going to continue. No one is looking for an immediate solution, and it is a fluid series of discussions about the future government of Afghanistan.
The American position has been made abundantly clear, and that is that the government of Afghanistan should be a multiethnic government that represents all the people -- the Pashtuns, as well as the others in Afghanistan -- and it must include a role for women. But, fundamentally, it is a matter that the Afghani people have to decide.
Q Ari, back on the subject of the Responsible Cooperator program that the Attorney General announced today, does it not make the administration uncomfortable to be promulgating a program that bears at least passing similarity to what totalitarian societies like East Germany and the Soviet Union used to do, to say to its people, turn informant and you'll get rewarded?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think, again, the notion of suggesting a moral equivalence between those people who come to our shores to take advantage of liberty and freedom, and understanding that they want to provide information to a freedom-loving government, so that people who seek to violate the rights of others can be captured -- that that is somehow morally equivalent to the actions of a Nazi or totalitarian state is a question whose premise I'll never accept.
Q But isn't the essential bargain the same? Turn informant and --
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely not. The essential bargain is only the same if you believe in moral equivalence between totalitarian governments and the government of the United States. And I don't.
Q So you're suggesting that it is somehow morally superior if we do it here?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that people here understand that when they help catch people who are committing crimes, they help to protect freedom.
Q But they're also getting something in return.
Q Ari, the Egyptian Foreign Minister today apparently raised with Secretary of State Powell some concerns about possible U.S. action on Iraq. Does the President feel his ability to take whatever action he might feel is needed on Iraq is constrained by the hesitation of some of our Arab allies?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that there's no way to answer that question without getting into anything that is premature. The President is focused on phase one of this war against terrorism, and that is undergoing in Afghanistan. The President has made his statements about -- and he said this in a speech to the nation on September 20th -- that in the war against terrorism, you were either with freedom or you were against freedom. And nothing has changed the President's view on that.
Q Ari, on the economy again, in the wake of the Mitch Daniels projections, does the President think that an economic stimulus package could possibly turn those deficits into surpluses again by the end of his term?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to predict any timing, because there are too many vagaries in economics to predict timing. There are professional economists who try to do that, and sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong. But the President does believe strongly, as you heard him say in the Rose Garden this week, that he supports a package that is stimulative for the economy. And that is what he is urging the Senate to pass.
He understands there is always a temptation in Congress to put things in a bill to buy votes, to have increased spending for one pet project or pork project or another. But the President does not think those things stimulate the economy. He wants to have a bill passed that is helpful to the economy. The provisions that the President is asking the Congress to pass are an acceleration of the individual income tax rate cuts, a tax cut for low and middle income Americans, increased expensing for businesses to invest in plant and equipment, and an end to what he believes is the counterproductive corporate alternative minimum tax.
Q Does he think that those numbers might be able to be turned around?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I would refer you to the estimates of private sector forecasters, who have stated in their growth projections for next year, that in the absence of a stimulus, there will be less growth next year. Most private sector forecasters believe that the economy will turn around next year. Again, the slow-down began in the summer of 2000, GDP in the spring of 2000. It exceeded five percent; it slowed down into the two percent range in the summer of 2000; and in the fall of 2000, it dropped into the one percent range and it stayed there right until the recession began, some 40 days after President Bush took office.
So by the time the President took office, the economy had been in a long slow-down. The recession began in March, and private sector forecasters believe that we will come out of it next year. But without a stimulus, they think we won't come out of it as fast.
Q Could I follow on that one, Ari? As I understand it, OMB is not actually issuing new projections that say we're likely to have deficits for three years. Mitch was simply saying, the way it looks, we're not going to have a surplus again for two, maybe three years. I mean, these are not official projections, this is not an official set of numbers, including assumptions about economic growth.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a good point. The speech that Director Daniels gave was a speech to the Press Club yesterday, in which he stated that he thought that would be the case. The projections from the Office of Management and Budget that will have additional numbers will not be available until early next year. He was stating what the economy looks like at this time.
Q Historically, most recessions have lasted 11 months or so, and we now know that this one began in March, meaning -- measuring against historical trends -- we're nearly out of it. Does that undercut your argument for the urgency -- the urgent need for the stimulus?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, because of the point I just made, about while private sector forecasters believe that we will come out of recession next year, there is slow growth, there's almost no growth, and then there is strong growth. Jobs are created through strong growth. Surpluses are returned through strong growth. But if the economy only comes back at two percent, it's not very strong growth.
In the absence of a stimulus package, there is a strong possibility, according to private sector forecasters, that the economy will come back only with low to perhaps moderate growth. The President would like to see strong growth. That way more jobs can get created, surpluses are returned, and a stimulus can be instrumental in achieving that goal.
Q The speech yesterday that Mitch Daniels gave, I trust that the gist of it he told the President ahead of time, sir, it's not likely that we're going to get back in the black before the first term is over with. Was the President troubled by that at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President at all times appreciates candor and speaking forthrightly with the American people. If you remember, Larry Lindsey said in the summer that he foresaw the unemployment rate rising to some five percent. The administration has not hesitated to speak candidly about the facts and the figures. And I think, frankly, the American people welcome it. They want to know what the facts are, and that's what the administration has done.
Q But is he troubled by the notion that there might be red ink for the remainder -- for as far as the eye can see, before he has to meet the American voter again?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is troubled by the fact that the economy has slowed down. The President is troubled by the fact that we're in recession. The President will be even more troubled if the Senate doesn't do anything about it.
Q Ari, is the administration trying to do anything to prevent Enron from slipping into bankruptcy and putting 20,000 people out of work? And also, has the President or anyone else in the administration been in touch with Enron Chairman, who was a big contributor of the President and supporter?
MR. FLEISCHER: On your second question, I don't know the answer to that. On the first question, as I indicated yesterday, the Treasury Department and others are monitoring the events concerning Enron. And you may want to check with Treasury for anything that they have to offer.
Q But they don't see any danger yet in the Enron situation?
MR. FLEISCHER: Treasury is monitoring it.
Q On the economic stimulus package, there seems to be three red flags there, where neither side seems willing to budge, either in support or in opposition. And those three areas are homeland security, accelerating individual tax cut rates, which the Senate Democrats say they won't support, and even in the health insurance area, Democrats want a COBRA subsidy. The administration considers that an entitlement. If you don't budge, and if they don't budge on any of those issues, why are you, or on what basis, is there any optimism that you're even going to deal?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you said Senate Democrats don't support. And I think that's a -- it's hard to speak for all Senate Democrats in one breath. There are differences among Senate Democrats, and there is a centrist coalition of Senate Democrats who want to, very much, to work to get an agreement, and who believe that we need more tax cuts and less spending increases. And the President is working with that group, and will continue to work with that group.
So this, in fairness to the Senate, is approaching the end of a session, we hope. And it's often at the end of a session where the final agreements are made, that until there is a real deadline, it's not uncommon for the practice in the Congress to be, go slow, and then a deadline helps make things speed up. The President hopes that will be the case this time. And as I indicated, he has met with Senator Daschle. He received a strong report from Senator Daschle about his commitment to getting a stimulus done. And the President has dispatched his team up to Capitol Hill to help make that happen. We'll see if it does.
Q Do you realistically expect that to happen without any give on the administration side? You seem to be as adamantly in favor of some of the provisions that they're so adamantly against.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the first step has to be for the Senate to figure out a process. And once the Senate figures out a process, then I think we'll see if we can get a substantive agreement.
Q First of all, can you foresee a circumstance under which you get a compromise that you don't like, to the point where you would just as soon not have a stimulus bill, given that the only forecasters who say it's really crucial are -- seem to be government forecasters? Private sector forecasters generally suggest that it would account for .2 of a percent difference either way.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's -- it remains the goal of the President, and many members of Congress, to keep at it until they get it done.
Q So bad a compromise you don't want it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the only way that something can get out of the Senate is if there is a good compromise. The way the Senate is structured, it's hard to get things done unless there is a compromise. And I think that's the reason there is such a wrangle in the Senate right now, that Senator Daschle is supervising, as the leader of the Senate. And that's why his job is a difficult one. Nevertheless, the House of Representatives has passed a stimulus bill, and now it's the Senate's turn.
Q Ari, the economic slowdown of late has to do with the healing process from 9/11 -- i.e., people not wanting to fly as much, and people not feeling so sure about their job security going to the mall. Where do you think the American public should be right now in the healing process, as far as to help the economy? I mean, you have these commercials that come on TV with the President in the midst of the restaurant industry, the airline industry and what have you. Where should the American public be right now in the healing process to help the economy?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's something that the President and Mrs. Bush have concerned themselves with greatly. And from their point of view, they understand that individual Americans are going to find their own way, as they and their families see fit, to react to the events of September 11th.
There were some people who hopped right on airplanes just a few days after September 11th and resumed travel. There are others who have felt comfortable doing that over a longer period of time. Perhaps there are others who still are not ready to do that, although I think those numbers are diminishing, and the President hopes that will continue to be the trend.
The President has tremendous faith in the American people to deal with any type of adversity and to deal with the consequences of what happened September 11th. As you have heard the President say often, through that evil has come some good. And on that point, you talk about the comfort of the nation and the psyche of the nation -- the President and Mrs. Bush have seen and heard wonderful examples of families that are staying together -- parents that are spending more time with their children, people attending to their faith base, whatever their religion is, with greater intensity. They see that part of the fabric and the culture of our country that keeps us strong and makes us strong.
I know other Americans, there is anecdotal evidence of people who aren't traveling, are spending more time nesting -- investing in their houses, and purchasing things for their homes. So the American people respond in 250 million different ways, and that is why our country has always been strong, because they are always free to do that.
Q Ari, the Social Security Commission is meeting today, with a recommendation expected by year's end. What does the President plan on doing that, once he gets it? There was talk of initially devoting some time to it in the State of the Union address. How much of a priority is that for him right now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has always believed that the best way to save Social Security, particularly so young people can have a system that's there when they retire, as opposed to paying taxes your whole life and getting nothing in return, is to have a system that allows a voluntary option of creating personal retirement accounts, personal savings accounts. The President believes that we can have a system that fully protects, makes no changes in Social Security for people who are currently retired or nearing retirement. But he would like to help young people, so they know there is a system there for them.
The President, I think, looks forward to a healthy discussion across the country about personal retirement accounts. And people will be for them, be against them. But he welcomes that debate. He thinks that will be constructive. He thinks that people may choose to run on it; others may not, that will be their prerogatives. But he would like to create a climate in which reform can go forward.
Q Would it be necessary to drum up some enthusiasm for this in Congress next year? They don't seem all that thrilled about taking it up.
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly it needs the support of Congress if it is to proceed. There are many priorities that Congress will be taking a look at next year. No matter what decisions are made, the President will continue to advocate this and to build the base of support for whatever form and whatever time it can take place in, so that personal accounts can be created.
Q Ari, the Weekly Standard has an extensive and detailed report this week on the CIA's having very serious lack of personnel who can speak foreign languages, especially Arabic languages. My question is, does the White House contend that this is inaccurate, or is the President asking the CIA to remedy this very serious problem?
MR. FLEISCHER: I couldn't give you any judgment about that report. I can advise you that the CIA is working on -- if they haven't implemented it -- a program to help retired officials be able to come back, who have particular skills that could be helpful to the CIA, without losing their retirement or the benefits that they are entitled to under retirement, if they were to return.
Q Right. And in his attending the Mark Twain show tonight the President seems to be illustrating that even in time of war, we should never lose our sense of humor. And my question is --
MR. FLEISCHER: You've got me worried now, Les. (Laughter.)
Q -- since his sense of humor, and yours, Ari, seem to me to be very good -- (laughter) -- surely the President believes that the Democrat-dominated Montgomery County, Maryland, is at least entertaining in their Santa Claus ban, their smoking-in-your-own-home law, and their attempt to ban all Indian team names except the Redskins?
MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't hear a question. So let's keep going.
Q You wouldn't deny that the President was in any way amused by this, would you, Ari? He knows about this. He undoubtedly was amused, wasn't he, Ari? You were amused. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm always amused. Terry?
Q I know, but you were amused at this, weren't you, Ari? Now confess it; weren't you? Didn't you find it amusing?
Q Yes, come on.
Q You went out of the confession business, Les. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Les, I will get back to you on the state of my amusement.
Q Sorry, okay, this is considerably more serious. You mentioned Representative Kucinich's amendment, to put to a vote budgetary authorization for military tribunals. Does the President acknowledge that Congress has the authority to cut off funding for these tribunals?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Congress has the authority to cut off funding for anything it so deems. Congress, under the Constitution, has power of the purse strings. Which is why what's interesting is the opposite -- the amendment that was filed at the Rules Committee that prohibited the use of money under the Department of Defense appropriations bill for military trials. And that was what he withdrew, for a reason.
Q So can the President then foresee, and would he cooperate in, congressional oversight of the funding, and of the use of that funding, congressional oversight of these military tribunals?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated this morning, the President viewed the hearings that are being held on Capitol Hill absolutely, perfectly appropriate and fitting for Congress to engage in. It is their responsibility under our Constitution to have oversight over the actions of the administration, of the executive branch.
It is also the purview of the executive, under our Constitution, to have the sole authority to issue executive orders and military orders, at his discretion and in accordance with the national security as he defines it. And he has done so.
Q But would he -- one more. So would he accept oversight not of the general principle, but of the actual operations of any military tribunal?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has set forth the terms under which the military tribunals are being put together, and that is in the form of the military order that the President signed. That is now being implemented by the Department of Defense in conjunction with the Attorney General's office.
Q Ari, I have a question in connection with that. Just to get you on the public record, are you saying that the President of the United States has the right to decide what a national security crime is under the military tribunal, and what the punishment should be?
MR. FLEISCHER: Under the --
Q Are you saying that he has that sole authority?
MR. FLEISCHER: Under the military order that the President signed, in accordance with the laws of the country as upheld by a Supreme Court case, the President has the sole authority to enact a military order that creates military tribunals as an option. Under the military order the President signed, the punishment would be decided by the military tribunal, not by the President of the United States.
Q Ari, but on that, he sets out some minimum standards for conviction, which I believe is a two-thirds vote by the panel. And I understand that's the minimum, and now the details will be filled in by DOD. But does the President think that is a sufficient threshold in a death penalty case?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's actions speak for themselves in the military order that he signed. What the military order says is what the President believes.
Q So a two-thirds vote for the death penalty?
MR. FLEISCHER: I would have to take a careful look at exactly the details of it. That is what you say it said; I have to go back and take a look at it. But what the President signed is what he believes.
Q Ari, going back to Don's question about Social Security, is it still realistic to implement the President's proposal, given the changing fiscal picture and the kind of deficits that are now being projected? The transition costs of that program were estimated to be as much as a trillion dollars over the next decade. Where's that money going to come from?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, when you consider the fact that the President's proposal on Social Security is a proposal that has impact over 30, 40, 50, 60 years, it's important to look at it broadly, and that the government is projected still to enjoy surpluses for ten years, even as we're in the middle of a recession. As we come out of the recession, it is likely that those projections will be increased for the size of the surplus.
Whatever decisions are made on Social Security have to be done within the constraints of budgeting and what money is available. So clearly the amount of funding available will be part of what the President decides.
But I remind you that if nothing is done on Social Security, and the economy in a recession, Social Security goes broke faster. So it's not as if nothing can get done because we're in a recession. It may take time, it may take more time, but young people still are paying Social Security taxes for a Social Security program they question will be there. So it still is an important priority of the President. The timing is an issue that has to be discussed with the Congress. But it still must be done, in the President's opinion, at some point.
Q Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 2:17 P.M. EST
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