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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 14, 2005

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:09 P.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. The President had a good discussion earlier today with some House Republicans that were over here to talk about the importance of fixing Social Security and acting on it this year. The President talked about the efforts that we have undertaken to reach out to the American people and talk to them about the problems facing Social Security. And he talked about the importance of making sure seniors understand that we're talking about fixing Social Security for future generations, but as far as they're concerned, nothing changes.

And the President also talked at length about the importance of personal accounts, and how personal accounts will help younger workers realize a greater rate of return on their own retirement savings. And this was also an opportunity for the President to hear back from these members about some of their ideas, and also to hear about some of their discussions they've had in town hall meetings across the United States. Many of these members have been participating in town hall meetings, and they've been talking about Social Security.

We're pleased with the progress that's being made. More and more Americans recognize that there are serious problems facing Social Security. That's still the phase that we're in right now, is educating the American people, while at the same time reaching out to members of Congress, and talking about how we move forward together to get something passed this year that will make Social Security permanently sound, and will also make it a better deal for our children and grandchildren by allowing them to realize a greater rate of return on their retirement savings. And the President talked about the importance of voluntary personal retirement accounts, the option of being able to set aside money in personal accounts that could realize a greater rate of return.

And a lot of these members talked about how important that was, too, and about the magic of the compounding rate of interest, and how people will realize significantly more than they're realizing under the current system if they're able to have that option of investing some of their dollars in personal retirement accounts.

And many of these members also talked about their appreciation for the President taking on this important issue. This is a difficult issue. We haven't acted on this issue in some 20 years, if you all will recall, and that's why the President is going to continue reaching out to the American people and continuing reaching out to members of Congress who want to get something done. And more and more people are starting to talk about ways to solve the problem and address this, this year. So we're pleased with the progress made. Many of these members expressed their appreciation for his leadership, and stated how pleased they were with the progress that's being made, because more Americans are recognizing the problems facing Social Security.

And with that, I will be glad to jump into questions.

Q Representative Jim Kolbe, who was in that meeting, said that he told the President that the time has come to start putting forth some ideas about how to deal with the insolvency problem, and that the President should offer his remedy. Is it time for the President to do that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, those are discussions that we're having with members of Congress. I don't know that the discussion was quite the way you described it. There was some discussion --

Q That's the way he described it.

MR. McCLELLAN: I saw his comments; I didn't see that that was the way -- he talked about --

Q He said, "The time has come where we've got to start to put some specifics out there about how we're going to fix the solvency" --

MR. McCLELLAN: Right. Terry said that that was the way he described it to the President.

Q He said he told the President that.

MR. McCLELLAN: I just wanted to correct your characterization. I think it was a little bit off. (Laughter.)

What was discussed with the President was that there's some solutions -- they talked about the importance of finding a permanent fix to Social Security, and they talked about how we move forward together to get this done this year. And there was some discussion about when do you do that. And the President said, well, we're still in this phase now of educating the American people about the problems facing Social Security, and at some point we'll be focusing more on solutions and the way to getting this done through Congress.

As you're aware, Congress hasn't even begun hearings at this point to consider legislation. They will begin those soon. And so we're going to continue talking with members of Congress, like Congressman Kolbe, about how we move forward. Congressman Kolbe has put forward some very interesting ideas and the President welcomes that. He's someone who recognizes the importance of getting something done, and we appreciate his involvement in this issue.

So it was more of a general discussion about the phases that we're in, and at some point we'll enter a new phase. But we're still early in the process here. This is still in the early stages of the Social Security discussion with the American people. And I think sometimes people tend to think that this is something that can be solved overnight. Well, if that was the case it would have been solved long ago.

That's why it's important to go to the American people and say, we've got serious problems; here's what they are. And the President talked about those. He talked about how each year that we wait it costs another $600 billion to fix the program. And just three years from now, the baby boomers are going to be retiring, and that's going to be putting a great strain on the system. And in just over a decade from now, you're going to see shortfalls in the system. You're going to see the system paying out more in benefits than is coming in to the system. And that's why we need to fix it. That's why we need to find a permanent solution to the problem. It's just a short time away.

Q When do you move to the next phase?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, as you know, I don't think we've ever put a timetable on it. We said we're going to do that in concert with members of Congress. We want to listen to them and talk about how we move forward together --

Q Well, they seem to be suggesting it's time to move to the next phase, so --

MR. McCLELLAN: Maybe you'll let me finish my comment here in a second. That's why the President has said we want to move forward in a bipartisan way. This is an important issue. It affects all Americans. We need to work together to solve it. And you're seeing more and more members talk about possible solutions. We would like to see more Democrats come to the table and talk about solutions. They're admitting now that there is a problem facing Social Security, and something needs to be done.

And so at some point we'll be talking more about those solutions. But the President has said all ideas are on the table, with the exception of raising the payroll tax rate. But he spelled out important principles. But we're still in the phase of reaching out to the American people, and we're pleased with the progress that's being made.

Q Would next week be too early to move to the next phase?

MR. McCLELLAN: We're still in the -- as you're aware, we're on a 60-day push to reach out to the American people about the problems facing Social Security. And that continues. The President looks forward to going to Ohio tomorrow to participate in a roundtable to talk about the problems facing Social Security, and also to hear feedback from people in Ohio about their system. They are a state that opted out of the traditional Social Security system, and they'll talk about the progress being made there, and how -- and then the President can highlight the importance of personal accounts in that respect, as well.

Q Scott, you just said, we've never put a timetable on it. But, in fact, the President gave an interview to The Washington Times at the beginning of the year in which he said he wanted legislation by June or July. So how can you still be in the early stages of this, and still want legislation or a bill by early summer and not --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me just correct you, in terms of putting forward specific ideas for finding a permanent solution. Congress is moving forward on some legislative ideas. Senator Grassley is going to be holding hearings later -- a hearing later this month or next month. I think he's expressed that he intends to move forward this summer in his committee, as well. And so we welcome that. But that's what we're discussing with members of Congress, about how to move forward. And at the right time, the President will state his views in a more specific way about how to fix the system permanently.

Now, personal accounts are an important part of any solution. They are integral to a solution, because they will help younger workers realize more on their own retirement savings, and it will give them ownership. It will say -- it will empower people; you have ownership over these funds, and this will help you realize a greater rate of return. If you look at the Thrift Savings Plan, which we're talking about modeling it after, I mean, many people are realizing 6 percent, 7 percent return on their money. It's been a great success. It was highlighted by the bipartisan Social Security Commission. But we're continuing to talk with Congress about when the time is right to move forward on that. But we first want to make sure everybody has an understanding of the problems facing Social Security.

Q Maybe you could address that, then, because you say, at the right time the President will lay out some specifics. And so what you have is members of Congress, members of the President's own party that are saying, well, you've got some ideas, you've got some specifics; we're interested in your leadership, Mr. President -- why not now?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know where you've been -- the President has been leading. He's been going all across this country talking to the American people about the need to act on this problem now, because it only gets worse with time.

Q But what about you, when you say at the right time he'll lay out some specifics -- what is the right time?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's discussions we'll have with members of Congress, Norah. That's why we're having all these meetings. The President has reached out to Democrats and Republicans alike to talk about the problems facing Social Security and to listen to their ideas. And it's important that we proceed forward in a bipartisan way in order to get it done. That's why I emphasized that this is a difficult issue; otherwise it would have been solved long ago. But the President is someone who believes in taking on big issues and tackling the tough problems. That's what leadership is about, and that's how we're doing this.

And I think there are different ways to get things done. If you look over the course of his first administration, we were able to accomplish big things: historic tax cuts for the American people. Tomorrow being tax day, the President is going to be visiting a coffee shop tomorrow to talk with some small business owners and families who have benefited from the tax cuts we've passed that have gotten our economy growing stronger and have created some 3 million jobs since May of 2003. We were able to pass historic Medicare reforms. We were able to pass the education reforms to improve our public schools. And the President believes in working with congressional leaders to accomplish these things. And that's why we're having these discussions, to talk about the way forward, and to come to a solution.

Q Scott, when you say that the time will be right to start talking about solutions, what determines that? Has the President decided what the solutions are, and he's worried about the timing, in terms of politics, votes on the Hill, the legislative calendar?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I understand, I know that some want to jump ahead in the process. But this is important that we go through the process of educating the American people, because it is such an important issue -- it affects every American. And that's why the President has continued to talk about the problems facing Social Security. Those are discussions that you bring up, in terms of the timing, about how we move forward on legislation. Those are discussions that we continue to have with members of Congress.

The President will not hesitate, when the time is right, to be more specific about how we find a permanent solution. But he believes on this issue, this is one we have to work hand-in-hand on to move forward.

Q So are you saying that the President has, in fact, made up his mind what those solutions are and it's a question of timing?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, not at all, because he's listening to members of Congress about some of their ideas, and he's laid out some ideas that he thinks are worthy of consideration, and he has specifically mentioned some of those. He will continue to mention those for permanently fixing Social Security, and he wants to hear from others about ideas. One idea that he's highlighted that he finds very constructive was by the Democrat member of his commission, Mr. Pozen, who talked about progressive indexing. The President wants to have a system that is more progressive as we move forward, and that's something he's very interested in. We continue to welcome all ideas for solving the problem. And the President looks forward to continuing to work with members of Congress to get this done this year, because the American people expect nothing less of us.

Q Scott, what is the allegation that's prompted the holdup on Lester Crawford's nomination for the FDA, and what's the President going to do about it?

MR. McCLELLAN: You might want to talk to the committee. The committee put out a statement on that and said that there's some allegations that had come to their attention and that they wanted to look into those matters. We hope that the committee will move forward quickly to resolve the matter and move forward on his nomination. The President believes Dr. Crawford is someone who brings great experience to the position and is highly qualified to lead the FDA.

Q So the President is aware of the details of the allegation and stands by him anyway?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just made that very clear. We believe he is highly qualified.

Q Scott, back on Social Security and rephrasing the question, I guess -- some on Capitol Hill are saying, why keep pushing privatization when the White House knows it's holding up the works on getting this thing moved in any way, shape or form on the Hill, and just deal with solvency. Why not? And, secondly, you're touting the President's tax cuts, and some are saying that is, indeed, some of the problem because that could have helped pay for some of the problem with Social Security in the near future.

MR. McCLELLAN: What are you referring to? The tax cuts helped get our economy growing. We've seen millions of jobs created --

Q But they're saying that money could have been used to help fund --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- we're seeing strong, sustained economic growth. And when the President has talked about personal accounts, I mean, he's talked about a gradual transition. And if you'll recall, one of the big problems with Social Security is that it faces an $11-trillion unfunded liability. That is something that will be passed on to our children and grandchildren. That's another reason why we need to act. And when you talk about the personal accounts and the transition financing that would be involved, it's very similar to someone refinancing the mortgage on their home. You're just moving some of those costs forward and paying it off sooner. And I think that that will address one of the important problems facing this country, as well, which is the unfunded liabilities facing our entitlement programs. So I disagree with --

Q Well, why keep pushing this issue --

MR. McCLELLAN: And in terms of the issue you brought up, this will still be a government-run program. This program has worked very well for seniors. It's been an important program for America's seniors. But the President believes it's a philosophical issue that people ought to be able to have more say over their own retirement money. And that's why he believes personal accounts are important. Let me point out --

Q If it's such a problem, why not leave privatization alone and deal with the issue of solvency so it can move on the Hill?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me talk about why -- we're doing both. Let me talk about why personal accounts are so important and why personal accounts are part of any solution, they're integral to any solution, because right now you have a system that is promising future generations things that it cannot -- making commitments that it cannot meet, it is making promises that it cannot meet. And they're facing either massive tax increases or massive benefit cuts under the current system. That's -- and I pointed out the unfunded liability -- that's why we need to find a permanent solution.

Now, at the same time while we're talking about a permanent solution, we want to help our children and grandchildren be able to realize a greater rate of return. And I think that my generation, younger generations realize the magic of compound interest. They realize that if they're able to have more say over their money, they can realize significantly more than they could under the current system and have more of a nest egg when they retire. Not only that, but it's also a nest egg that they would now be able to pass on --

Q So the magic of Wall Street.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- to pass on to their heirs.

Q So the magic of Wall Street.

MR. McCLELLAN: So personal accounts -- that's why personal accounts are important to this. No, it's the magic of our children and grandchildren being able to have more say over their own money and realize a greater rate of return on their money. Look at the Thrift Savings Plan that the President has talked about. The Thrift Savings Plan has been a huge success. It's what the bipartisan commission pointed to when they talked about the benefit of personal accounts.

Q Scott, on another subject, the President met with India's Foreign Minister Natwar Singh earlier today. Is the White House confident that it has given the Indian government the kind of assurances it needs, that despite the fact the U.S. would be selling F16s to Pakistan that it's not going to disrupt that delicate balance of power between those two countries?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think so. And that did not come up in the meeting.

Q It didn't come up in the meeting?

MR. McCLELLAN: No. That did not come up in the discussion.

Q The sale of F16s to Pakistan --

Q What did they talk about?

MR. McCLELLAN: The meeting really focused on ways to strengthen our bilateral relationship. And this was a briefer meeting than usual because it was with the Foreign Minister, not the Prime Minister. And as you're aware, Prime Minister Singh will be coming to Washington this summer, and the President looks forward to that visit. And the President will be going to India at some point, as well. We haven't set a time for that, but the President looks forward to making a trip there, as well.

But this was focused on some of what Secretary Rice talked about recently on the strategic dialogue, and some of the new initiatives that we're undertaking. And so they talked about the economic and energy and strategic cooperation that we have on bilateral issues. And that was really the focus of the meeting.

We're going to be continuing to talk about some of the dialogue that we're having on issues like energy, and I think you'll be hearing more on that from the State Department and others as we move forward.

Q So if arm sales to Pakistan did not come up in the discussion with India's Foreign Minister, did arm sales to India come up?

MR. McCLELLAN: Not that I heard about, Terry. Again, it was a brief meeting. But I would leave it the way I described it.

Q And --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we previously talked about the issue of the F16s and we've had that discussion with India. The President reached out to Prime Minister Singh and talked about it and our belief that it doesn't change the overall balance of military power in the region, and at the same time recognizing that it's vital to Pakistan's security. And we also talked about how we would continue to have a strategic dialogue with India on such matters as will.

Q On another subject, there's growing concern in the country about a number of pharmacists who are refusing to fill valid prescriptions from doctors for the so-called "morning after pill," and Congress is taking a look at acting on this and requiring pharmacists who are refusing to fill these prescriptions because they say it's on the basis of their conscience, requiring them to do so. What's the President's position on this?

MR. McCLELLAN: I have not had a discussion with him about it, but I'll be glad to take a look at it.

Q Scott, when President Yushchenko was here -- a week-and-a-half ago, I guess; it was before the Rome trip -- he said publicly, and his aides apparently also talked with the administration, about his discovery that the previous government in Ukraine had sold nuclear-capable cruise missiles to China and to Iran. What has the administration learned about this since?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any more update from my standpoint. I mean, it is something that the government in Ukraine has been investigating and looking into. We appreciate the action that they are taking to look into that matter. But beyond that I haven't heard any further update.

Q Would you pursue if you get a moment?

MR. McCLELLAN: If there is, sure.

Go ahead, Sarah.

Q Thank you. Is the President going to put permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan?

MR. McCLELLAN: We actually talked about this issue yesterday, and we want to make sure that we're doing all we can to train and equip Afghan security forces and make sure that the Afghan people are able to defend their country from the threats that they face. We've been having a dialogue with the government on these issues; we've been talking to them about security arrangements going forward. Those discussions continue. I wouldn't want to go beyond that at this point, because those are ongoing discussions we're having with the government in Afghanistan. But they certainly have been a strong ally in the global war on terrorism and we want to make sure that they are able to move forward -- continue to move forward on a democratic path where they are able to defend themselves.

Q The Jessica Lunsford tragedy in Florida pointed out there are serious deficiencies, perhaps more on the state level, in tracking sexual predators than was previously understood. Is there any discussion on the executive level of strengthening tracking sexual predators so that something like this doesn't happen again, when you get the FBI involved?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely, there's always discussion on that. And I think all of us were horrified by that incident. It was just a terrible tragedy. And I don't think anyone can imagine how someone could do something like that, particularly to an innocent child. And we have made the Amber Alert a high priority in this administration. That has been a great success in being able to track people who prey on children. And we are always looking at ways to make sure we doing everything we can to protect our communities and protect our children.

Q Anything under discussion right now?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have anything to update at this point.

Go ahead, go ahead, John.

Q Thank you, Scott. As of today, the Ex-Im Bank has proposed $5 billion in loan and loan guarantees to China to build a nuclear reactor --is proceeding according to their spokesman. And it's beyond the stage of tentative approval, despite the mounting evidence that China helped Iran and Pakistan, as referred to in the previous question, to build a nuclear reactor. Is the administration -- particularly after the warnings it received about Iran from Prime Minister Sharon last week -- going to try to at least put the brakes on and take another look?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as I've pointed out to you previously, there are agencies that look at these issues to make sure that there are no proliferation concerns before anything goes forward. And I think where we discussed it last time is where I will leave it today. I don't have anything more for you. You can talk to the appropriate agencies about it.

Q The U.N. agencies and the Nuclear Regulator Commission?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we have -- yes, we have agencies within the U.S. government that look at these matters.

Q Scott, in an interview with The Washington Times yesterday, House Majority Leader DeLay, when asked about the President's description of border minutemen as vigilantes, DeLay said, I'm not sure the President meant that. I think they're providing an excellent service.

And my first question, does the President still regard them as vigilantes because they've hanged anybody or what?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, when you say "regard them," let's define who we're talking about. If we're talking about a loosely affiliated group of individuals who are armed and trying to take things into their own hands, we have serious concerns about that.

If you're talking about individuals who are simply reporting suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities, that's another matter. But there are authorities who are responsible for enforcing our borders. And they're the ones who are charged with keeping people out of -- keeping people from crossing the border illegally. We've done a lot to beef up our Border Patrol and to put better technology along the borders to prevent people from entering this country illegally.

But it goes back to what we've talked about before, Les. The broader issue here is we need to have immigration reform. The President has put forward a proposal with some very clear principles to build a more humane and orderly migration system. And it's a proposal that will allow us to then focus, make sure that the resources of the Border Patrol and others who protect our borders are focused on those who are coming here for the wrong reasons, those who are terrorists, or those who are coming here to be involved in criminal activity.

Q Congressman DeLay also noted that Washington State Democrat Congressman Jim McDermott, "has been found guilty by a court of law." And my question, does the President believe that House Majority Leader DeLay's record is anywhere nearly as questionable as Baghdad Jim's?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President has made his views known about Congressman DeLay.

Go ahead.

Q What does the President expect of Jim Wolfensohn in his new duties in Gaza?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, that's an announcement that is probably being made as we are in this room. Secretary Rice was making that announcement over at the Department of State. The President had a good visit with Mr. Wolfensohn just a short time ago. We appreciate the job he did at the World Bank. And we look forward to him taking on this new role as the special envoy for the Quartet on the Gaza disengagement.

This is a real opportunity that the parties have before them in the region to get moving on the President's two-state vision. And Mr. Wolfensohn will help make sure that the parties are coordinating and cooperating closely as the Israelis move forward on the disengagement plan, and he'll help make sure that there's a smooth transition as the Israeli people pull out of that region, or withdraw from that region. And another focus that he'll have will be on the Palestinian economy and making sure that we're doing all we can to support the Palestinian people in their aspirations for a better future and a stronger economic future.

Q While the U.S. is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, we heard the President and Mr. Sharon talking about the international community role. In terms of finance, are you relying more on the Europeans and other, maybe Japanese, donors to do that? Or is it mainly it's going to be divided by the U.S.? And if you have a figure for that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, the State Department might be able to update you on some of the latest efforts that they've been involved in, in terms of that. But the President, I think, made it very clear that all of us in the international community should do what we can to support the parties as they move forward on the two-state vision that he outlined. And the President -- the Quartet -- the President and the Quartet all outlined the roadmap toward achieving that two-state vision, and we want to see the parties move forward on that roadmap. The Gaza withdrawal provides the parties an opportunity to get moving in that direction again.

Go ahead, in back. Let me keep going. The President has got to leave here shortly.

Q Thank you so much. My question is on North Korea. Today in an interview by Secretary Rice with The Wall Street Journal, I cannot paraphrase what she said, but I read the newspaper this morning and she said North Korea might be a little bit disappointed with the reaction of the United States because the United States didn't jump over the kind of statement made by North Korea previously. But I want to ask you, the President has any sense of urgency on this issue? The statement by Secretary Rice didn't sound like a sense of urgency, or whatever. What is the President's --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sure the President does. That's why the President led the way to forming the six-party framework for resolving the matter in a peaceful and diplomatic way. This is a high priority for the administration. And, yes, North Korea does make comments from time to time, and they expect the international community to react to those comments. Those comments only tend to further isolate North Korea. North Korea needs to come back to the talks so that we can talk about how to move forward on the proposal that we have on the table, and so that the parties in the region can realize our shared goal of a denuclearized peninsula. That's the shared goal of all of us who are working in the six-party framework. And it's time for North Korea to come back to the talks.


Q Is he ready for tonight? (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: The President managed to get in a little bit of warm-up time last week, before we left for Rome, and then a little bit yesterday. He's obviously been busy with a number of other priorities, but he's gotten a little bit of warm-up time in. The President is looking forward to tonight. This is one of those great moments in baseball, and to be able to participate in it is exciting. And I think the people of this whole area are excited about baseball coming back to Washington, D.C.

The Nationals are off to a strong start. They're in first place now in the NL East -- it's tied with a couple other teams. The President is very much looking forward to tonight, he's an avid baseball fan. He has a great love for the game, and he looks forward to throwing out the first pitch tonight to begin baseball here in Washington again.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 12:40 P.M. EDT