The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 18, 2005

Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En route Pensacola, Florida

8:36 A.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, let's begin with the President's day. He's participating in his usual briefing this morning aboard Air Force One. Prior to that, he was visiting with some of the Congressmen and Senator Martinez, who are on board traveling with us for today.

The first event in Pensacola will be a conversation on Social Security, and joining the President on stage will be Mrs. Barbara Bush. She will be sitting there with the rest of the conversation participants. And, obviously, part of the period we're in right now is continuing to educate the American people about the problems facing Social Security, as well as reassuring seniors that nothing changes for them, and that this is about helping our children and grandchildren have a Social Security system that will help them -- help provide them the safety net that today's seniors enjoy.

And who better to highlight some of that than Mrs. Barbara Bush, who is someone who, like other grandparents, wants to make sure that their children and grandchildren have the opportunity to have a stronger Social Security system that will help them realize a greater rate of return on the rest of their investments by allowing them to own -- have the opportunity to own some of their own retirement savings. Anyway, you'll hear more from the President about the importance of making sure that it's permanently sound, as well as providing younger workers with personal retirement accounts.

Then following that we go to Orlando, and the President will visit a senior center when we get there. And Mrs. Bush will be with us there, as well. And then he will go to the YMCA family center there and make remarks on strengthening Social Security. And I expect that Mrs. Bush will introduce him for those remarks. And then we are on to Crawford for the evening and weekend, trough Easter -- with the exception of a little travel in between.

Q Is there a slightly difference message we should expect here today from the President?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the conversations, obviously, it's interaction with other people on stage. But we're still -- this is part of our continuing efforts to engage the American people in this important national dialogue that's going on. And so he's going to continue talking about the problems facing Social Security and talking about the need to make sure that it is permanently sound, as well as giving younger workers the option to realize a greater rate of return on their retirement savings through personal accounts.

So that's where -- and he'll continue to reassure seniors that nothing changes. There are some that continue to use scare tactics and suggest that this is going to have an affect on seniors, and it's not. Today's retirees and near-retirees are going to see no changes to the current system. What we're talking about doing is strengthening it for younger workers and giving them the voluntary option of personal accounts, if they so choose.

Q What members are on board?

MR. McCLELLAN: Do you have the list? We've got Senator Martinez and then --

MR. DECKARD: Tom Feeney, Ric Keller, Jeff Miller, Adam Putnum and Dave Weldon.

Q Scott, how important are these next two weeks with Congress going on break and having more town meetings and meetings with their constituents? How important are they going to be, in terms of building support for the President's plans?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's important to continue reaching out to the American people. As the President has said, he's going to continue campaigning hard to talk about the problems facing Social Security and urge Congress to act this year to find a solution. We're trying to work in a bipartisan way to find a solution, and this is still the early stages of the national dialogue that is going on.

And members of Congress that the President has met with have -- you know, they already have had some town meetings and they've talked about the response that they're getting back from their constituents. I think more and more of their constituents are realizing that there are serious problems facing Social Security. They're also telling the President in meetings that seniors are realizing that this isn't about them, that the system is good for them, it's going to continue to work the way it always has for those who are now retired, but that this is about fixing it for their children and grandchildren. And seniors I think more and more are understanding the importance of making sure that future generations have the opportunity to have a secure retirement. And that's what this is about.

Q Has he learned anything from his conversations with members of Congress? Any new ideas that he thinks might be viable or that he would be willing to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. In every meeting he has there are ideas that are expressed by members of Congress -- there are a number of members of Congress that are starting to put forward legislative proposals. That's welcome. The President welcomes all those ideas. People are talking more and more about ideas for achieving a solution. And that's showing progress. You know, we've seen in survey after survey that there is continued solid support for the idea of personal accounts, particularly among younger workers. And we've also seen that a growing number of Americans recognize that there are serious problems facing the system. The fact that the American people recognize that, I think, says to members of Congress that now is the time to act and find a solution.

Q Is there an idea that he might not have thought about before, that he's, you know, becoming more --

MR. McCLELLAN: There are all number of ideas that are being expressed. I mean, you heard the President talk the other day about Robert Pozen's ideas, the Democrat who served on the bipartisan Social Security Commission. And he had some ideas that the President thought were very useful and constructive. One of those was talking about progressive indexing. The President believes one of the goals we should work toward is making sure that the system is progressive. So the President welcomes all those ideas.

This is a time to be talking about the problems and offering ideas; it's not the time to be taking ideas off the table.

Q Did the President watch any of the steroids hearing yesterday? And whether he did or didn't, have you heard him talk about what he thought of it?

MR. McCLELLAN: He didn't watch much of it; I think he caught some of the highlights, but he had a pretty full day yesterday, so he wasn't able to see much of it. Then last night he also hosted a St. Patrick's Day dinner.

I think his views were pretty well expressed by him in the press conference on Wednesday. Baseball has taken an important step to respond to the concerns that have been expressed about the use of steroids. The step that they are taking is an important step, it will -- it calls for expanding testing and stiffer penalties for those that violate the policy. And that's important. Senator McCain has been very involved, and the President expressed his appreciation for his efforts. And, obviously, the congressional hearings were a matter that were undertaken by members of Congress.

Q Did he think after seeing them go forward that they accomplished anything meaningful?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he thinks it's important for -- his view is that it's important for baseball to continue taking steps to address the problem. And Senator McCain was very strong in his message to baseball. The President sent a very clear message to baseball, as well. Baseball has taken steps to respond, and that's positive. The use of performance-enhancing drugs, steroids, has harmful -- can have harmful effects on people. It also sends the wrong message to young people who look to Major League Baseball players as role models and heroes. So that's why the President believes it's important that baseball respond in a positive and constructive manner, and they are.

Q Scott, though, many people who watched the hearing yesterday came away with the feeling that self-regulation, at least in the case of Major League Baseball, simply is not going to work any longer, and that Major League Baseball can't be trusted to regulate itself on this matter. There are those who are calling now for Congress to do something -- at least to oversee their steroid testing program. Do you think it's time for federal intervention in baseball's steroid testing program?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think the President expressed his view the other day, when he said that it's important that baseball respond, Major League Baseball respond. And Major League Baseball and the players union got together to come up with an agreement, and they need to follow through on implementing the steps that they agreed to.

Q Scott, on the Senate, is the President disappointed on what the Senate did last night on the budget, on the entitlement --

MR. McCLELLAN: Congress is still working on an agreement on a budget framework. The President put out a statement the other day applauding the House for passing a budget that is consistent with his outline for funding our priorities and restraining spending elsewhere in the budget so that we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years. The President is serous about his deficit reduction plan and making sure that we meet that goal that he outlined. And that's why he put forward a budget that is responsible and that meets our nation's highest priorities, while holding the line on spending elsewhere.

And we appreciate the fact that the House and the Senate are both moving forward on the budget, and we'll continue working closely with them as they move forward, and as the Senate passes a budget framework and then they move into conference and work on reconciling their differences. So we appreciate the fact the they're moving forward on the budget framework, but there's still a legislative process to go and we'll continue working --

Q Not viewed as a setback then?

MR. McCLELLAN: The legislative process is still ongoing, so until -- we, obviously, we can come back to it after it's complete. But there are going to be differences between the House and Senate, and we'll continue working closely with them as they work to bridge those differences in a final piece of legislation.

Q Scott, back on Social Security for a second. Didn't you hope to be further down the road by this point? And instead of having to make trips to try to convince people that there's a problem, you could already be in a stage where you're crafting the solution with Congress.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't think so, because as the President has said, it's a difficult issue, otherwise it would have been solved by now. And that's why the President felt it was important to go out across the country and enlist the help of the American people. This is something that affects all Americans, and the American people need to make sure that their voice is heard with members of Congress. And so that's the stage that we're in right now. If you look back over the course of our first term, this President took on a number of big and challenging issues, but we were able to accomplish big things for the American people. And those were not easy to get done. But in the end, Congress responded, and the American people are the ones who benefit.

Q Scott, I assume by coincidence, the President comes to Florida on a day when the state is consumed with the prospect of Mrs. Schiavo being taken off life support. Given the President's pro-life stance, can we expect him to say anything one way or the other about his position on this matter?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you'll be there to cover it. I haven't specifically talked to him. He did send out a statement last night expressing his views -- or reiterating his views, I should say. My understanding, in terms of today's time line on the matter, that that is now on hold, because of congressional action. And we appreciate action by members of Congress to defend life. The President believes very strongly in building a culture of life in America. And that means welcoming and protecting and valuing all Americans, particularly, or, I should say, including those with disabilities. And the President will continue to stand on the side of defending life.

Q Back on Social Security for a minute. The so-called scare tactics, to use your word, have they worked? Are you up against -- especially given the complexity of the issue, do you worry that some of these tactics, as you called them, used to get messages to seniors have been persuasive and that you're now trying to combat that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, these are scare tactics that have been used for years. I mean, we have seen in a number of elections, including the President's and including a number of members of Congress, that running on an agenda to strengthen Social Security is a winning issue. The American people have elected members of Congress who ran on a platform of fixing the problems facing Social Security and strengthening it for our future generations. But these scare tactics have been used for quite some time. I think the dynamic is changing, because seniors are recognizing that this isn't about their Social Security plan. The Social Security plan today is working just fine for today's seniors, but we know it's on an unsustainable course. That's why we need to find a permanent solution to it and fix it, once and for all, so that it is there for future generations.

Q Isn't it a challenge to be up against those messages?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I said, I think the dynamic is changing. And that's why the President is going out there, talking to the American people of all ages; and talking to seniors, and saying to them that, look, nothing changes as far as Social Security for you; you're going to continue getting your Social Security check like you always have. But, yes, there are some who, unfortunately, are more interested in playing partisan politics with this issue and trying to prevent something from getting done. And I think the American people are going to reject that, in the end. I think seniors are going to reject that, in the end, because seniors want to make sure that there's a strong Social Security system for future generations, and that the safety net is there for those future generations.

Q Scott, one quick follow-up on Schiavo. Given the President is such a strong proponent of state's rights, is he at all uncomfortable with Congress intervening in an issue that's already been adjudicated by the Florida courts?

MR. McCLELLAN: Those are efforts being undertaken by members of Congress. The House and Senate had some different ideas. But we appreciate those who are standing on the side of protecting and defending life. The President believes that America should be a society that is built on a culture of life. And he's spoken very strongly to that.

Q Week ahead? Not that we don't already know it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I forgot to mention -- no, I don't have a week ahead, but I did want to mention at the top, and thank you for reminding me -- we'll be putting this out momentarily -- that the President will welcome Prime Minister Sharon to his ranch in Crawford on April 11th. The President looks forward to discussing a wide range of issues with Prime Minister Sharon, including the hopeful period it is in the Middle East for advancing peace. We'll get that to you in a minute. But the rest of the week ahead we put out the other day, through Wednesday, and essentially the rest of the week he's just -- he's down in Crawford.

Q Sharon then, that's just a one-day --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't know if he's coming in the night before or not, but it's a one day meeting.

Q Abbas is coming with him? (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: No, it's Prime Minister Sharon.

Q Next Wednesday is there still a working lunch at the ranch, or I saw just the newser at 11:00 a.m.

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll get you the final details. My understanding is that you'll have a -- the meetings in the morning at Baylor University, then the leaders will go to the ranch for lunch. And I think that then there's -- the press availability is at Baylor University, before going to the ranch, and then at the ranch they'll have lunch. And I imagine the President will want to show the two leaders around and give them a "Windshield Rancher's" tour of the ranch.

Q Why are they doing it at Baylor, and not at the ranch?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you're going to have other delegations there. I think we always look at these matters. You've got two -- three delegations there, when you include the United States. And everybody looked at that and agreed that Baylor would be a good place to do it. It's a great university, and we want to highlight all that they do, too. It's a good way to do that.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 8:56 A.M. EST

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