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White House Press Conference

Aired January 8, 2003 - 12:53   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer, the White House Press Secretary, has just started answering questions over at the White House, briefing reporters. I want to listen in.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: The president is very pleased with the progress that's been made on unemployment insurance and the fact that the Senate has passed it; he looks forward to signing it.

The president will also discuss with these bipartisan leaders the importance of working together to achieve a growth package to pass into law, a growth package to benefit the economy and the unemployed and the entire country.

He'll talk about the appropriations process. He'll also talk about another domestic priority, which is helping senior citizens by modernizing and strengthening Medicare, including delivery of prescription drugs to seniors. He views that as an important priority this year.

Welfare reform remains an important agenda item. Faith-based solutions to help people who've been left out is an important agenda item, and there'll be a number of other items I think will likely come up in that meeting with the president this afternoon.

And with that I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: The president has renominated Judge Charles Pickering and has in the past defended his civil rights record. But that doesn't change the fact that Pickering as a judge lobbied prosecutors to reduce the sentence of a man who burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.

Is that acceptable?

FLEISCHER: Well, when the president takes a look at the record of Judge Pickering, and he looks at the comments that have been made and the widespread bipartisan support for Judge Pickering, he believes that Judge Pickering has an excellent record and deserves support from the Senate. In fact, in the last session of the Senate there was, indeed, enough bipartisan support to pass Judge Pickering on the floor of the Senate. It was just a question of obstructionist tactics that kept the majority from speaking by keeping the nomination bottled up in committee. On the issue that you were asking about specifically on this, Judge Pickering expressed his record of disdain for this heinous crime. He was concerned in this case about disparate sentences. The person he deemed most guilty was given no jail time, while the person he believed less culpable faced what even the prosecutor agreed was a draconian sentence. These concerns were raised in open court before both parties.

QUESTION: Can I ask you, I guess, more broadly, since Trent Lott's comments, that incident, Republicans have said that the party generally needs to do more to reach out to African Americans. The president, during the campaign, said for a state to fly a Confederate flag in a public place, it was the state's decision. As far as I recall, he never condemned states that chose to fly the Confederate flag in public places. Is that something he would do now as a way to reach out to African Americans?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president's opinions on that remain just as he said throughout the entire campaign and into his presidency, that he viewed that matter as a matter for the people of the state of South Carolina to decide, as they did in a very bipartisan solution, which was a solution that united people instead of divided people to successfully resolve that issue, that the people of South Carolina have agreed was a wise approach to take, and it led to the diffusion of a controversy.

The president's policies, by helping the people of South Carolina to deal with it themselves, led to the solution that has been accepted throughout the state.

QUESTION: But does the president think it's wrong for the Confederate flag to be flown in public places?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that's a judgment for the states to make.

QUESTION: But what's his personal feeling about it? Is it right or is it wrong?

FLEISCHER: It's a question for the states to decide. That's the president's view.

QUESTION: Well, he can voice his opinion without telling the states what to do.

FLEISCHER: It's a question for the states to decide, not for the president of the United States to dictate.

QUESTION: Did General Franks attend the Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting today? And did it have anything to do with a timetable for invading Iraq?

FLEISCHER: There was a National Security Council meeting today, as I announced this morning. General Franks did attend.

QUESTION: Why? FLEISCHER: Why did he attend? He typically attends these type of National Security Council meetings.

QUESTION: He always attends?

FLEISCHER: It's not uncommon for him to be here for those meetings.

QUESTION: Well, was it a "chips are down" meeting in any way?

FLEISCHER: Good try. As you know, I'm not going to discuss the content of any National Security Council meetings.

QUESTION: Do you know what the contents were?

FLEISCHER: I have a good idea.

QUESTION: Is it now up to North Korea to seek a dialogue with the United States? They have to ask for a meeting?

FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that North Korea unilaterally walked out of its commitments that it made as part of an agreement that North Korea entered into with the United States, it is clear that the ball is in North Korea's court.

FLEISCHER: The United States has said that we want to work with our allies to resolve these issues, to make certain that North Korea takes the steps that were called for by the world community to come back into compliance with their international obligations. And the United States has expressed its thoughts on this. The ball is in North Korea's court now to respond.

QUESTION: But the United States is now willing to talk to North Korea, which is a shift in position, yes?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I can belabor the point. I can go back to all kinds of briefings where this issue since November has been talked about: Will you or won't you talk?

Let me try to be the most helpful on it, why I think there may be some confusion about what policy was. But I think the central issue still remains: What's going to happen next? What will North Korea now do?

What we have always said is that there have been channels of communication that have been open, that have been used. And those channels represent North Korea's mission to the United Nations up in New York. We've also consistently said that we're not going to negotiate, and we will not negotiate. But we will talk to North Korea about North Korea's intentions and how they intend to come back into compliance with the obligations that they committed to.

QUESTION: Will talk to whom about North Korea's obligations? Will talk to North Korea?

FLEISCHER: We have channels that exist through the New York channel to have those conversations. And as you saw in the statement that was issued yesterday by South Korea, Japan and the United States, we have said plainly in here that three delegations express serious concern over recent steps by North Korea to lift its nuclear freeze and call upon North Korea to undo these measures and not take precipitous action.

The statement continued, that North Korea's relations with the entire international community hinge on its taking prompt and verifiable action to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program and come into full compliance with its international nuclear commitments.

And then the statement went on to say that the U.S. delegation explained the United States is willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community, however, this is the next sentence, however, the U.S. delegation stressed the United States will not provide quid pro quos to North Korea to live up to its existing obligations.

So we'd be happy to talk about how North Korea will come into compliance, but it won't be a negotiation. It won't be any additional offers, because we have made offers before, they accepted the offers, an agreement was reached, and then North Korea walked out on its end of the agreement.

QUESTION: But the willingness to talk is a new position. And the reason this isn't a "gotcha," just a game, is that dealing with an erratic, opaque, nuclear-armed regime it seems that the administration has staked out a variety of positions erratically and perhaps in a way that has led to a ratcheting up of the tension.

By staking out such a hard-nosed, "We aren't going to talk," and now having to climb down from that, is that making the situation worse?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'd just differ on your statement about the policy. I think it's always been clear to North Korea and to our allies what our position was on negotiations. And that remains the ongoing position.

And I'd be happy to bore you and go back to briefings at the State Department as recently as November 2002 in which this very topic came up and the position was said and, as you know, the president this week made clear what the position of the United States is on it.

But the fundamental issue to preserve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is what now will North Korea do, having North Korea brought the international community to this point by walking away from the very agreements that it entered into.

When sovereign nations enter into agreements, those are important statements. And for nations to be able to enter into additional agreements, their word has to be given and it has to be good.

In this case North Korea gave its word and then walked away from it. QUESTION: And so, the bottom line is the United States is now willing to talk to North Korea about that.

FLEISCHER: We will talk to North Korea about how North Korea intends to come back into compliance and honor its word.

QUESTION: Is that the only thing you'll talk about? Are you now drawing a new line saying, we will only talk to them about how they'll come in compliance...


FLEISCHER: Well, we certainly have no intention of getting into any negotiations or offering any inducements.

QUESTION: I'm not asking that. Is there anything else you'd be willing to talk to North Korea about?


FLEISCHER: No, we've never ruled out anything else. I mean, their channel in New York does exist to have conversations such as -- there's the food program. We are a huge supplier of food to the people of North Korea, and we do have concerns about whether North Korea is getting that food to its people. There are questions that we have asked the North Korean government to answer about whether or not the food is getting to the people of North Korea. We'd be always interested in making certain that people of North Korea, with whom we have no dispute, are well fed and that none of the food is diverted.

QUESTION: So you're now willing to talk to North Korea, but the only thing you're saying is we're not going to negotiate, which, of course, is a term that can be interpreted differently...

FLEISCHER: This is why I'm just a little confused on the process side of this because we have consistently said that. I just think there may have been some overemphasizing. I don't know if it was anybody that you talked to or if it was a misinterpretation by the press on the conversations, but it's always been clear that...


FLEISCHER: I've laid out the position as clearly as I can. QUESTION: Ari, let me try one more on North Korea, then I want to ask a domestic question. So if the North Koreans say, "We will accept this offer to talk but only if also on the agenda are resumption of the fuel shipments, perhaps diplomatic recognition, perhaps a nonaggression treaty," the United States will say no?

FLEISCHER: Keep in mind that the United States already entered into a series of quid pro quos in negotiations with North Korea, which led to their saying to the world that they would no longer pursue nuclear weapons. In return for that, North Korea was granted a series of benefits and programs, including the shipment of fuel oil and other potential benefits. North Korea pocketed those parts of the agreement and then they walked out on their part of the agreement. So certainly it makes little sense to no sense at all for the United States to say, "We'll give you additional inducements if now you only go back and do what you originally promised us to do."

That's just a formula to invite countries around the world to go back on their word to the United States to try to get more out of us.

QUESTION: I'm not saying the United States would negotiate. But as you know, and in the case of the various interpretations of Resolution 1441, sometimes it helps diplomatic progress if different parties to an agreement have different interpretations of either what a document says or what the meeting is about. Sometimes that helps move the ball forward in a confusing situation. Can you say with clarity that, to Ron's (ph) point and to Terry's (ph) point about confusion, that if there are discussions, the only thing discussed at any meeting involving a United States representative would be North Korea coming into compliance?

FLEISCHER: No. I just gave the example of the food program, which is very important. And I can't rule out...


QUESTION: ... no non-aggression pact?

FLEISCHER: That's negotiating, isn't it? That will not be done.

Let me remind you again of the joint statement among the United States, Japan and South Korea. We are pursuing a multilateral course to preserve peace. And the president has faith that this can be done through diplomacy.

We are dealing with a nation that prides itself on a unilateral approach against the will of the world.

What was said yesterday by the United States, shoulder-to- shoulder with our South Korean and Japanese allies is: North Korea's relations with the entire international community hinge on its -- meaning North Korea -- taking prompt and verifiable action to completely dismantle its nuclear weapon program.

I think there's no question that the issue involving North Korea has now come down to: What will North Korea do now? The ball is in North Korea's court.

QUESTION: You mentioned the growth plan will obviously come up in this meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership. Democrats say the president's plan is way too big and will blow up the federal budget deficit. Leader DeLay said a short time ago to reporters, that he views the $674 billion, the president's plan, as the floor, not the ceiling. Is the White House open to this package getting even bigger?

FLEISCHER: Well, the White House is open to working with Congress to get something done for the American people. The president made a proposal that he thinks is the ideal, the best proposal to get the economy going and growing and to create jobs for America's workers.

We have a process in our system, and it's a process that works well. The president has made his proposal. He will work diligently to fight for it with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

And I think there's no question there are some Democrats who will never be for what President Bush is for. But there are going to be others who are. And we will find them. We will work with them. And the process is now beginning. That's why the president has invited people from both parties and both parts of Congress to the White House to begin the work of the people today.

The year is already off to a good start. Congress came in just yesterday. Unemployment insurance to help people who need help is on its way to passage and to presidential signature. The new year has begun with people working together. The president would like to build on that.

QUESTION: Are you open to a bigger tax cut?


FLEISCHER: The president's going to work with Congress.

QUESTION: On that, on the question of the president's economic plan, how do you intend to introduce this to Congress, will it be an administration-proposed bill? And does it all go up as a single package or, for various reasons, does it get split up? Does accelerating the tax cuts, for instance, go up as one thing and other things go up separately?

FLEISCHER: No, I think this will go up as one package. This was announced by the president as one package. $670 billion of this is in the form of tax relief. $400 billion is in the spending program; the new package to help those who are unemployed.

Per the Constitution, it will begin in the House Ways and Means Committee. The Ways and Means Committee would be the committee of jurisdiction that takes first action. The Senate cannot act on a tax measure until it is passed by the House. Because this is a new Congress, there are no pending tax measures in the Senate. And so it will begin with the House Ways and Means Committee. It'll go to the full House of Representatives. And only at that point could it proceed to the United States Senate.

QUESTION: Now, the president indicated yesterday that, obviously, moving forward the tax cuts, he seemed to suggest shouldn't be that hard a stretch for Congress since they'd already approved them later on down the road.

The dividend tax cut is a different matter. Why did the president decide to spend so much money on one particular thing that does not have any short-term stimulative effects (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Because the purpose of the announcement the president made yesterday was to increase consumer spending, to give a boost to the economy and to investment, particularly in small business, and also to help the unemployed. Those were the three broad goals the president outlined yesterday.

The acceleration of the income-tax rate reductions, the acceleration of marriage penalty relief, the acceleration of the child credit, all into January 1, 2003, all provide an immediate stimulus to the economy as soon as Congress passes them and they're enacted into law, which could take place in 2003; perhaps summer, we'll see exactly what the date would be.

The dividend piece the president looks at is a chance to do something fundamentally good for long-term economic growth. Washington, as much as it must always focus on the here and now and our short-term solutions, would neglect its responsibilities to the people if it didn't also focus on what is important long-term.

And the president at a meeting, which was on November 26 in the Roosevelt Room, had this conversation with his economic advisers. Prior to that time, most of the discussion focused on a 50 percent dividend exclusion. At that meeting, the president received advice from his advisers that given the state of the economy, one of the most important steps could be taken for long-term economic growth would be an absolute abolition of the double-taxation on dividends paid by corporations that are received by individuals. So it's the abolition of the individually paid tax on dividends.

QUESTION: OK. If I could just clarify one thing on North Korea. When the U.S. has these discussions on North Korea, you're not suggesting that there would be no discussion of what the future would be like if, in fact, North Korea came back in compliance?

FLEISCHER: What I'm saying, I can't predict every shake and turn of a conversation that has not yet been had. What I am saying is, it will not be a negotiation. There will be no inducements. The purpose would be, principally, to make sure that North Korea does what it is supposed to do to come back into international compliance as they've been called on to do not only by the United States and Japan and South Korea and the neighbors who are closet, but by the IAEA, which represents multiples of nations around the world, including Cuba and Iran, all of whom have called on North Korea to come back into compliance.

QUESTION: Because it was part of the original Agreed Framework, and therefore may not be seen as being an incentive or rewarding North Korea for its bad behavior, would a resumption of fuel oil shipments, in the White House's opinion, represent a negotiation or could it be seen as a gesture of good faith entering into talks?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, it was a multilateral decision, the United States and its allies, to halt the shipment of fuel oil because the agreement that North Korea entered into in return for receiving the fuel oil was abandoned by North Korea.

So if you're asking does the United States think it makes sense having North Korea abandon its commitments to an obligation it said it would comply with, that the United States should say, "That doesn't matter, that you are no longer holding up your end of an agreement, we'll continue to honor ours," I think that's a formula for nations to walk out on agreements knowing the United States will do nothing about it.

QUESTION: No, just say could you make the argument that if you were to resume fuel oil shipments as a result of these talks with North Korea, if you could say, "Well, that was part of the 1994 agreement so we're really not negotiating anything new here, we're not rewarding North Korea for its bad behavior by doing this."

FLEISCHER: No, you should not look for that to be in the cards.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) started the process on the debate about a growth package, how do assess the level of support in in Congress, particularly the Senate, for what the president proposed?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president is encouraged from what he's heard so far. Obviously, there are some who voted against the 2001 package, which received substantial bipartisan support, who've already come out, even before the president announced his proposal, against the president's 2003 proposal. That's not a surprise.

But the president's going to continue to work with and look for others who are willing to work with the White House, and I think as the process begins, as Congress holds its hearings, it'll become increasingly clear what type of will is there in the Congress to move forward.

Clearly, on the Republican side the package has met with what sounds to be like considerable support. On the Democratic side there are many people who have really, interestingly, not said very much about it. Typically, that's where bipartisan coalitions are forged.

QUESTION: In 2001, the president unveiled a package. It went up to the Hill and it was negotiated off of as the bill moved through the process. Will there be the same sort of flexibility in this bill or does he insist on the details going into the package as they are?

FLEISCHER: The president worked very hard on the details because he believes that they are the right details and the best details to get America's economy growing. So he is committed to them.

The president understands that we have a system in our country, and the president proposes and it's Congress's responsibility to the American people to discuss it, to hold hearings and to then exercise its judgment on the president's package.

I think he has shown over the last two years a very successful track record of fighting for what he believes in and working well with Congress to get it enacted. And that's exactly what he intends to do this time.

QUESTION: Senator McCain yesterday was very critical of the president's tax plan, especially the dividend elimination. He said that the money would be much better spent on much more targeted tax relief for middle class and lower middle class people. Is it a blow to the president's plan that a veteran Republican senator like Senator McCain would come out against it?

FLEISCHER: No. I think there are many issues that the president and Senator McCain and the White House and Senator McCain work very closely on, shoulder-to-shoulder on, particularly in the area of foreign policy. This may be an issue on which, at least at this stage, they don't see eye-to-eye. Senator McCain did not vote for the previous tax plan, if I recall, and that's his prerogative. It was enacted into law with many bipartisan votes. So Senator McCain is an important senator. There are many senators. And we tend to work with all of them to assemble a bipartisan coalition.

QUESTION: The views that Senator McCain enunciated last night sounded very much like the Democratic arguments against the president's plan. Similarly, on global warming, Senator McCain sounded very much like the Democrats (OFF-MIKE). Is the president concerned that Senator McCain is drifting away from the Republican...


FLEISCHER: As I said, as with every senator, there are going to be issues on which we can work directly on, because we see close enough what the solution should be, and there are others in which people will differ. And that's true about every senator to varying degrees, and every senator is free to exercise their constitutional prerogatives.

QUESTION: Ari, could you (inaudible) about efforts by this administration and the White House to sell the president's growth package?

FLEISCHER: It's been extensive. The president thinks it's very important when it comes to getting the economy going, which is the source of creating opportunities for the American people to be successful. And so, there have been a series of phone calls made to various different constituencies.

Steve Friedman is up in New York right now, the president's new economic adviser, meeting with various groups in New York City to discuss the prospects for passage of this proposal.

The president today is meeting with Democrats from the Senate, Democrats from the House, Republicans from the House, Republicans from the Senate, as well as the White House Office of Media Affairs has conducted a series of phone calls and conversations with local newspaper writers and editorial boards throughout the United States.

FLEISCHER: It's a very detailed plan to try to garner as much support as possible for something the president thinks is important.


FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Cabinet officers, Vice President Cheney?

FLEISCHER: The vice president will have more to say about this as well, Cabinet officers. Of course, Secretary Evans and Director Mitch Daniels have been involved in this, and they've also been doing their share of work in building support for it too. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, of course, worked very extensively, and successfully as well, on getting Congress to pass the unemployment insurance extension.

QUESTION: Ari, does the president have a time frame in mind of when he'd like this economic stimulus package to be passed by Congress? Does we have a three month, 30 days, 60 days...

FLEISCHER: No. There's no immediate sense that I've heard from the president. I think his preference is the sooner the better, the better for the economy.

But Congress has its process. In 2001 Congress was able to pass it actually on a -- Congress typically it takes the tax bills a more rapid rate than in the recent past. Congress passed, by Memorial Day, the president's 2001 tax proposal. We'll see if they're able to -- what timetable will be this year. I think it's too soon to say. Congress is also still working on last year's appropriations, unfortunately.

QUESTION: Is he concerned that it might go to long and that it wouldn't do any good?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I said, the sooner the better for the economy in the president's judgment, but he has not put any date at all on that. But the president -- again, this program has immediate help to get the economy growing as soon as Congress passes it. And then it also has more long-term fundamental fixes in place that will be appropriate at all times.

QUESTION: Getting back to Campbell's question, there were some expectations on Capitol Hill that Judge Pickering would not be renominated. Was there any debate in the White House? And if so, can you give us an idea how those discussions went?

FLEISCHER: No. I think, as you saw the package that went up to the Hill yesterday -- which, by the way, I've seen some discussion that this was a dinner time announcement. If people are eating their dinner between 4:30 and 5, I guess they would have noticed it.

But the package was sent up between 4:30 and 5, received by the Senate officially between those hours. I think we distributed it here in the press office at 5:46. So if you were eating early, you received it publicly. And the package represented all the nominations that were submitted to the Senate last year on which no action was taken.

And so, in some senses it's a formality to resubmit the same names, and it was in its entirety, all those who were submitted last year. I think it was some 31 names.


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