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White House Press Conference

Aired April 30, 2003 - 12:33   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go over to the White House, the Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has just walked into the press briefing room, beginning to make some announcements. He'll be answering reporters' questions. Let's listen in.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: "On March 14, I noted the important steps taken by the Palestinian Legislative Council toward the creation of an empowered, accountable office of prime minister. The PLC has now confirmed a new Palestinian prime minister and cabinet.

"Today the road map for peace, developed by the United States over the last several months in close cooperation with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, has been presented to the Israelis and to the Palestinians.

FLEISCHER: "The road map represents a starting point toward achieving the vision of two states, a secure state of Israel and a viable, peaceful, democratic Palestine, that I set out on June 24, 2002. It is a framework for progress toward lasting peace and security in the Middle East.

"Implementing the road map will depend upon the good faith and efforts and contributions of both sides. The pace of progress will depend strictly on the performance of the parties.

"I urge Israelis and Palestinians to work with us and with other members of the international community and, above all, directly with each other to immediately end the violence and return to a path of peace based on the principles and objectives outlined in my statement of June 24, 2002.

"Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered from the terror and violence and from the loss of hope and a better future of peace and security.

"An opportunity now exists to move forward. The United States will do all it can seize this opportunity. To that end, I've asked Secretary Powell to travel to the region to begin working with parties so that we may take advantage of this moment."

End of statement. That'll be released in print to you immediately following the meeting.

And finally, yesterday Senate Democrats announced that they will filibuster another one of President Bush's very qualified nominees, in this case Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, who is a nominee for the 5th Circuit. Miguel Estrada has also been the subject of a Senate filibuster. They were both originally nominated on May 9, 2001, and have been waiting almost two years for a vote.

Both were rated well-qualified from the American Bar Association. That is the highest possible rating that the American Bar Association gives. It is also, according to Democrats, the gold standard that they would use to judge whether nominees were qualified. Both enjoy strong bipartisan support within their states. Both have majority votes available bipartisan on the floor of the Senate if the obstruction were to cease.

The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to hold an up or down vote on all judicial nominees within a reasonable amount of time, but some Democrats have abandoned that responsibility in favor of partisan politics and obstructionism.

FLEISCHER: The Constitution is clear. A majority is required to confirm judicial nominees. A minority of Senate Democrats are effectively changing the law with their obstructionist tactics.

The president's nominees are highly qualified, and not only do they deserve a vote, they deserve to be confirmed. The president again calls on the senate to end these obstructionist tactics and to allow a vote on these two nominees.

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

QUESTION: What has been the initial reaction to the road map?

FLEISCHER: Well, it has just been received this morning. I would allow the Israelis and the Palestinians to speak for themselves and not express their thoughts for them. They're capable of doing that.

From the president's point of view, he welcomes their contributions to this, whatever ideas they may have, and he looks forward to working with them on it.

The State Department can give you information about the secretary's itinerary, future travels. It's not an immediate trip that the secretary will be taking, but the United States, the president and the secretary of state will devote considerable time and energy to helping the parties to achieve peace.

QUESTION: What does he hope to accomplish when he goes to Syria?

FLEISCHER: I would refer you directly to the State Department on it, but the message to Syria is that Syria is a terrorist country, that Syria has supported terrorists, Syria occupies a considerable portion of Lebanon through the Hezbollah, and Syria needs to reassess its role in the world.

We hope that Syria, under the relatively new leadership of a relatively untested leader, will choose a different direction than it has in the past. Syria, also, it is important that they continue to receive the message that they have been receiving, in regard to not harboring anybody who is trying to leave Iraq.

QUESTION: Does the president support the idea of lifting sanctions against Iraq vis-a-vis its status as a terrorist state? FLEISCHER: Yes. And Secretary Powell discussed that up on the Hill today. Iraq no longer is a terrorist state. The chief terrorist and his cronies have been removed.

QUESTION: How quickly can you lift sanctions?

FLEISCHER: Through the United Nations, you're asking about?

QUESTION: No, no, no, terrorist state.

FLEISCHER: I don't know if that's a legislative matter or an administrative matter, so I'd have to refer you to the experts at State for that.

QUESTION: The same time the president was trying to build up support for his tax cut with the Republican leadership, Alan Greenspan was on the Hill again expressing opposition to it, saying his position...

FLEISCHER: That's not what he said.

QUESTION: He said his position hadn't changed...

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: ... since he testified the last time.


QUESTION: The last time he was not encouraging it to be passed. Does the president wish...

FLEISCHER: I think that's not a fair characterization of what the chairman has said about the question of providing tax cuts. He has had a very nuanced statement about it, but certainly never say he was opposed to it.

QUESTION: He's expressed that this is probably not a good time to pass a tax cut of that magnitude, if I understand...

FLEISCHER: I think you have to take a look at what he said in its entirety, because he expressed his concerns about spending, and he has said that tax cuts have a stimulative effect on the economy. And he has expressed support for stimulus of a nature of the tax cut, without defining specifically what should be in it. So again, I think you have to take a look at what he said in its entirety, but that's not a fair characterization.

QUESTION: Does the president feel that his case is somewhat undercut by the Fed chairman's position, especially since the Fed chairman, the president suggested...

FLEISCHER: No, because that's not the Fed chairman's position, as you've expressed it. So, no.

QUESTION: Ari, can I go back to road map and Helen's question? There has already been some initial reaction. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian prime minister, has said he would accept it with no changes. The Israelis have suggested about a dozen changes they would like to see to the document itself. Is the administration encouraging the Israelis to accept it as is or are you willing to play with it a little bit to make whatever changes the Israelis want?

FLEISCHER: Well, now the difficult process begins again in terms of finding a way for the parties who have differing approaches to come together. And what the president is hopeful as there has been such a changed environment because of the last several years, a new, more optimistic, more hopeful environment can take hold.

And so, we received preliminary comments from the Israelis. The document has now been formally released to the Israelis. And as the president said, we welcome their contributions to the document. The Palestinians have made similar preliminary comments about it. We look forward to hearing more detailed comments.

If the current comments hold, then it's no surprise the work will begin of trying to help the Israelis and the Palestinians to bridge their differences about the document. What's important is that they both share the outcome of the document, which is the path to peace and the path to statehood for Palestinians and security for Israel.

Make no mistake, it will be hard work. There will be a lot of hand-holding required. The president is prepared to invest the time and the energy into it. Still, it does fundamentally come down to the two parties, but nobody would expect that the initial comments one hour after release is going to be the final comments.

QUESTION: But, fair or not, there has been somewhat of a perception up until this point that the president wasn't really committed to this.

QUESTION: Is there -- well, not willing to send the secretary of state to the region and show the level of commitment we're seeing now after the war in Iraq, is it fair to say that the success in Iraq has given Israel another level of security so that the administration would expect them to be willing to make the sacrifices that both sides are needing to make in order for this to work?

FLEISCHER: I think two points. One is, the biggest holdup was the fact that Yasser Arafat was still in charge of the Palestinian Authority. The administration was unequivocal. President Bush said repeatedly that the road map would be released upon a confirmation of Abu Mazen's cabinet and as reforms in the Palestinian Authority move forward. That just took place this very week. So the administration's been timely in its release of the road map.

The fact that one of the lead sponsors of violence has been removed from the scene, Saddam Hussein, is an important piece of the prospects for peace in the Middle East, but it's not the only one. Certainly there are indigenous issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There are root causes of violence and historical differences between the Israelis and Palestinians that have to be resolved that are indeed separate and apart from successful completion of the war.

But make no mistake, the fact that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power does remove one source of instability that paid for suicide, homicide bombers to cross into Israel and take innocent lives.

QUESTION: When does the president expect to see results as the road map lays out the mutual steps that each side should take, a cracking down on militancy and a freeing up of the hold that Israel has had on Palestinian communities?

FLEISCHER: It's a process. And the process began this morning as the parties formally received the road map for the first time in the formal sense.

From here, it'll be a question now of the willingness of the parties to face a different type of future; the willingness of the Palestinians to forego violence as a way of settling disputes; the willingness of the Israelis to reach out and work with the Palestinians to resolve political disputes, land disputes and enter into a permanent era where two states can live side-by-side. And that process will now move forward. I'm not going to put an artificial time line on any one element of that process. Certainly not today, the day the plan has just been released to them. But hopefully today will mark the beginning of a new way of doing business between the Israelis and the Palestinians with the release of the road map which focuses them on peaceful settlement of disputes, not violent settlement of disputes.

QUESTION: And then to follow up on Tom's (ph) question on Greenspan's comments, to be fair, he wasn't only focusing on the problem of spending. He was saying long-term deficits will impact long-term interest rates. And he said that while he has favored a dividend tax cut, he believes it's very important that there is a pay- as-you-go or discretionary spending restraint in order not to increase the deficit. And the Congressional Budget Office is saying that this tax cut and the spending together will cause deficits long, far into the future. Doesn't that undermine the case for the tax cut?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president believes very strongly that we need to reduce the deficit. His budget focuses on doing that. The president also is very concerned about the state of the economy here and now, today for the unemployed, for people who are looking for work and can't find it. And certainly as unemployment still is at about a 5.8 percent level, what we've seen increasingly is people who are leaving the labor force and not even looking for work, which doesn't show up in the unemployment statistics.

FLEISCHER: The president has a lot of concern about those families, those people who want a job. And there are different issues to be approached, they are both important, about how to make sure there is no deficit. But his first focus is helping people to find a job, and he knows we can reduce the deficit over time.

He also knows that the best way to reduce the deficit is to hold the line on spending, and he's very pleased that the budget resolution that was just passed does have a good, tight control over domestic discretionary spending. In the meeting that the president had with congressional leaders today they did talk about adhering to the spending discipline of the budget resolution.

QUESTION: So he'd disagree in the emphasis that Chairman Greenspan has put on get control of the deficit before you do anything on spending or taxes?

FLEISCHER: The president wants to focus on growth, on creation of jobs for the American people, and on deficit reduction.

QUESTION: And then, if I could, just on the judicial nominations, where precisely in the Constitution is the Senate required to hold an up or down vote on every judicial nominee?

FLEISCHER: I said that the Constitution is clear, a majority is required to confirm judicial nominees. The Senate process has now moved to a point where it's becoming almost a matter of routine.


QUESTION: You said that they were required to hold an up or down vote.

FLEISCHER: I said the Constitution is clear, a majority is required to confirm...


QUESTION: ... prior to that you said that they are required to hold an up or down vote.

FLEISCHER: You can check the transcript, but the one I cited on the Constitution, I said just what I said verbatim on the Constitution.

QUESTION: Ari, what would the president like to see the Israelis and the Palestinians do first now that the road map has been presented?

FLEISCHER: The president would like to see them study the road map. He would like to see them demonstrate a willingness to work with each other to bridge the differences between their opening points of views about the road map. And he would like to see the Palestinians provide security so that homicide bombings are indeed and, in fact, stopped; a crackdown by the Palestinian Authority on those who would seek to oppose peace from within Palestinian ranks. And the president would like to see the Israelis work with the Palestinian Authority to promote political agreements and political settlements of disputes.

QUESTION: How about settlement activity?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely, the president believes that if security is improved, settlement activity must stop.

QUESTION: How much personal time will the president invest in this? And do you see an early Middle East conference?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate too far down the line. As the president says in his statement, Secretary Powell will travel to the region shortly. And so there will be any number of opportunities to have conversations.

You may want to talk to the secretary about any contacts he may have had today in the region. The secretary is working the phones.

This is important. And this administration, this president are dedicated to helping the parties find a new way.


FLEISCHER: The president?


FLEISCHER: Absolutely, he's going to spend considerable time on it.

And I want to remind you that, in the run up to the war, in many of the meetings that the president had, he always brought up the subject of Middle East peace with European leaders. And the president has invested considerable time with Arab leaders in the region working to advance peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which also is another hopeful sign because there are Arab nations in the region that would like to see progress be made. And they're working actually very diligently and quietly to help achieve those goals.

QUESTION: Republicans on the Hill are talking about a variety of mechanisms or gimmicks, some might call them, to keep the size of the tax cut down to a level that could pass the Senate; among them is making some aspects of this temporary. Would the president be prepared to accept a tax cut package that made, for example, the dividend exclusion temporary or less than 100 percent?

FLEISCHER: Well, there are. There are a number of ideas that are now starting to publicly float off of Capitol Hill. I anticipate that there will be a markup in both the Ways and Means Committee and the Finance Committee next week. And so obviously, this will come to some form of a concrete proposal prior to that.

And that's one of the reason the president met today with the leadership. He'll have continued conversations. He's spoken with the leaders. Many meetings take place.

And I'm not going to be able to negotiate the president's position publicly. But there are a variety of different ways when it comes to tax policy to achieve the president's goals. And the president's going to work productively with the Congress to find those ways.

QUESTION: So he's open to these kinds of ideas?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to negotiate in public, but there are a good variety of ways to accomplish all of the objectives of the president's proposal.

QUESTION: OK. You talked a minute ago...

FLEISCHER: Including 100 percent dividend exclusion.

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer's continuing to answer reporter's questions. We will continue to monitor his Q&A session with reporters, bring you any news if it develops obviously throughout the day, but much the questioning involving this historic moment in the Middle East. An Israeli-Palestinian road map, or blueprint, announced by the United States and its partners trying to jumpstart the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. The press secretary promising that President Bush personally will be directly involved in that effort. We have much more coverage on that coming up throughout the day. By the way, the president will be signing the so-called Amber Alert legislation into law.


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