Taking Questions: President’s Press Conference
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PRESIDENT CLINTON: Congress’s own economists confirmed what we have said all along. We can balance the budget without excessive cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, without cutting education or the environment or raising taxes on our hardest pressed working families. Now, as all of you know also, the Republicans in Congress are insisting on cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment that I believe are well beyond what is necessary to balance the budget, well beyond what is necessary to secure the solvencies of those programs, well beyond what is necessary for the Congressional Budget Office to say we have to do to balance the budget. We all know too that there are two strains at work in the Republican effort.
There is the genuine desire to balance the budget, which I share, but there are those who want to use the balanced budget and the huge tax cut crammed within the balanced budget to strip our national government and our country of our ability to do our part here in Washington to help people out in our communities with the challenges they face.
We shouldn’t let our fundamental agreement on a balanced budget be held hostage to a narrower agenda that seeks to prevent America from giving Medicare to senior citizens or quality nursing home care or educational opportunity for young people or environmental protection to all of us. We could quickly find common ground on balancing the budget and providing appropriate modest tax relief, we could do this in 15 minutes after the tens of hours we have already spent together.
RITA BRAVER, CBS News: Mr. President, when you campaigned in 1992, you and the First Lady both said that the American people would get two for the price of one. I wondered if that’s still going to be a slogan in 1996, and if the First Lady has really taken the role that you envisioned for her as First Lady, or if she’s just simply become too controversial.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first of all, I think she’s done a fine job. I may have asked her to do more than anybody should ever have been asked to do when I asked her to undertake the, the health care effort. But there are worse things than wanting every American child to have health care coverage just the way every child in every other advanced country in the world has. I believe that, you know, in the last six months or eight months, she wanted to take a lot of time off to write her book, which she did do, and I think the book is a very important contribution to America which reflects 25 years of work, learning, and exposure on her part, and I expect that she will continue to be an enormous positive force in this country. And in terms of controversy, very often in this town, you know, you don’t make yourself controversial; someone else makes you controversial. Yes, Brian.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC News: Mr. President, do you worry about the cumulative effect of this, this drum beat, which is getting louder. As of close of business today, there will be more people under subpoena in the Travel Office matter than were fired in the Travel Office matter, and second, you must have discussed why it is, even if cleared in the end of all charges, why it is your wife, the First Lady, appears to be the most–arguably the most controversial First Lady, at least in modern politics.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Since Eleanor Roosevelt for many of the same reasons, from many of the same sources. And that’s just part of what we’re living through. The American people can make up their own mind about the facts of it. Yes.
LAWRENCE McQUILLAN, Reuters: To kind of stay on this theme of controversy, the end result seems to be that it’s taken a toll financially on your obligations and there’s a magazine report out that, that’s assessed your situation, and basically decides that you’re pretty close to bankruptcy. Could you give us a little bit of the financial toll, or–
PRESIDENT CLINTON: You know, I feel worse–I suppose it probably is right. I have never added it all up, but that’s probably right.
ANN COMPTON, ABC News: Mr. President, as I recall, you once told the Republicans that if they wanted to pass these ideological changes, they’d have to have someone else behind the Oval Office desk to sign them into law. Is that what this boils down to, you putting your presidency on the line for the budgetary items and the government programs you believe in, and isn’t that what the Speaker is saying that, that these–isn’t he saying that these have to be resolved before they’ll do any budget, other than continuing resolutions?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: But the point I’m trying to make, that is what I said, and if you look at the context in which I said it, at the proposals they then had on the table, already they have moved on that. And I have made a good faith effort to come toward them. But that’s what you have elections about.
The what–the way democracies work and particularly ours has worked for 200 years, is that people of good faith and honest differences attempt to reconcile their differences, and then when they can’t, they attempt to do what they can, and then let the voters resolve their differences that they can’t resolve at election time. The important thing now is that all the American people know that one of the differences we do not have to resolve is whether we should pass a credible balanced budget plan. That can be done. That can be done in no time. We have already–both sides have agreed to well over, well over $600 billion in spending reductions.
We have agreed to more than enough to balance the budget in seven years, and still give a modest tax cut, so that is no longer at issue. My view is we should do both those things. We should pass the balanced budget, we should give a modest tax cut, we should put the other differences off for the election. That’s what elections are for, but that’s not an excuse for us to lay down on the job now. The people hired us to show up for work every day. Yes, sir.
ROBERT RANKEN, Knight Ridder: Mr. President, what are the issues you think should be deferred to the election? You mentioned Medicare and Medicaid several times as things you just can’t tolerate that degree of cuts.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let me–I think–and the structure of Medicare. You know, we can try some experiments, but to fundamentally change the structure of Medicare so that it would no longer be a recognizable guarantee for our seniors, I think that is going too far in the direction of just turning it over to insurance companies and other private providers. Whether Medicaid should be a block grant instead of a guarantee from the nation to our poor and disabled children and to seniors in nursing homes, that’s something, I think, that could be deferred to the election, but we can make an 80 percent agreement, because I am in favor of letting the states have much more flexibility in the way they run the program, or some of the environmental aspects of the, of their plan that I do not believe properly belong in that, I don’t see why we should cloud this budget agreement with controversial items like whether we should drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those things are not necessary to balance the budget.
JIM LEHRER: Now, this news conference and what it may say about the atmosphere at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days. We talk to two White House correspondents, Susan Page of “USA Today,” and James Carney of “Time” Magazine. Susan Page, this was seen as a major event by the President and his aides, was it not?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: It was. You know, it’s been five months since he asked questions in such an extended way, a very important news conference, and at a time of, I think, some peril for the White House, peril on the budget, peril on the scandal front, peril also with the deployment of all these troops to Bosnia.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, there’s a purpose behind all of these things. What was the purpose going in, as you understood it?
MS. PAGE: I think the President wanted to make it clear to Republicans that he does want a budget deal. If there was any doubt about that or any question in his mind, I think it was settled yesterday when the stock market took a plunge of almost 100 points in the wake of the recess of the budget talks. And I think he also wanted to show that he can answer questions about Whitewater and Travelgate and not look defensive. I think he, while he didn’t break new ground on either of those fronts, I think he was trying hard to look like he was being open and cooperative and willing to answer any questions that are going to be posed, and I think the White House is now discussing what Mrs. Clinton might do to settle some of these questions. Jay Carney, would you agree, first of all, that there was no new ground broken by the President on any matter today, was there?
JAMES CARNEY, Time Magazine: No, there wasn’t at all. In fact, I was somewhat surprised. I sort of expected a little more, that he would shed a little more light on what he was proposing to the Republicans to advance the budget negotiations. I mean, it really seems as though Bill Clinton has become the last optimist in Washington about–as to the question of whether or not these negotiations will produce an agreement.
Newt Gingrich’s comments today I think threw a lot of cold water on what the President said. It was very surprising. What the problem may be is that Bill Clinton doesn’t want to walk away from the table because once he does, that issue is then left to the election and what he’s got left is Travelgate and Whitewater. The budget negotiations haven’t been all bad for Clinton at all.
On, on the scandal issues, I think that that is– what Susan said is correct, that they’re going to–the campaign now is sort of to kill them with kindness and openness to portray themselves as always willing to come forward with documents, always willing to answer questions. The First Lady’s going to hit the networks beginning tomorrow night and interviews next week, and perform her book tour, and take a lot of these questions and try to defuse the, the almost feeding frenzy right now in Washington.
JIM LEHRER: But at the same time, Susan, that will also keep the story alive, will it not, because she will be going from place to place and being asked these questions place to place?
MS. PAGE: Well, to the White House’s dismay, this story is alive no matter what Mrs. Clinton does. We saw new Whitewater hearings today, a full week of Whitewater hearings expected next week. Next week, the House Government Operations Committee also resumes its hearings into Travelgate, and Travelgate is a scandal or a controversy that is easier to understand than Whitewater and in that may maybe more damaging, so the White House does not have the choice of whether these controversies are going to be in the news are not; they are. The question is how are they going to respond to them.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Jay Carney, do you–this is always a hard question to answer but I’m going to ask it anyhow. I mean, was this news conference planned today, or in some kind of atmosphere that could be described as crisis atmosphere, or how would you describe it?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it is an odd situation. I think that normally we know exactly why a press conference is planned. You know, there’s some speculation. The press secretary and the White House have been under pressure to have a press conference. It’s been five months, as Susan said. I know that the press office has wanted the President to come out in this forum to discuss where he was on the budget. But as to the crisis atmosphere, there is some of that, and I think that there’s tension right now in the White House between those people who have been working on the budget and working on issues that have generally been very good for the President in the last four to six months as the numbers are up. The public is giving him a second look and giving him a lot of credit, and those other portions of the White House staff, primarily in the First Lady’s office, who are now taking a large portion of the blame for these suddenly emerging documents and, and, you know, the–
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MR. CARNEY: –scandal that is now, this dark cloud that now rests over the White House just as the President seemed to have been doing so well.
JIM LEHRER: Do you read it the same way, Susan?
MS. PAGE: Yes. I think that’s right. You know, it’s–in a way, it’s ironic, because the President’s public approval numbers have been getting somewhat better. In most polls, he’s been beating Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, his likely opponent in the election, but there are a lot of problems percolating, and they’re percolating at a critical time. For instance, just take the budget talks and the effect they may have on the economy. We’re now into the first quarter of the election year. The most important or reliable indicator of whether a President is going to be reelected is economic performance in the first three quarters of the election year. We’re into that period; the economy looks a little shaky; the failure to reach a budget deal could have a real effect on that. You saw the President express some nervousness about that, I think, at the news conference.
JIM LEHRER: Jay Carney, back to your point about Newt Gingrich’s reaction. I watched that as well, and the end of–the news conference ended, and then they went immediately to this news conference of Gingrich’s out in Seattle, Washington, and you would have thought they were talking about two entirely different budget talks. Gingrich essentially said the President–didn’t essentially say it–he said the President misled the American public. He used the name–the word “cuts” eight times in reference to Medicare and Medicaid in ways that were incorrect, and he said this was not constructive, and he said just the opposite of what the President said.
MR. CARNEY: It was striking because Speaker Gingrich actually took several steps backwards in the rhetorical arguments. I mean, we’ve sort of been through that. Is it a cut? Is it a cut in the growth of spending, all those sorts of things, and it was striking also because the President made the point that he spoke with Bob Dole today and he characterized that conversation as relatively positive, and certainly there has been in these negotiations tension between Dole, whom I think we all know to want a deal and to want to get it over with, and Speaker Gingrich, who is really hamstrung by the House that he created, you know, the majority of Congress is Republicans and those who are most conservative and most opposed to splitting the difference with the President on the budget deal are the very people whom Gingrich can personally claim to have helped usher into the Congress and to, and to have helped create the majority.
So I think Gingrich’s maneuverability is limited and maybe he’s decided to wash his hands of this and to begin the positioning for 1996 elections, and, and that’s what this is about, because I was–I was struck by the difference in tone.
JIM LEHRER: And Susan, meanwhile, the President puts the most positive spin of anybody on this.
MS. PAGE: As I say, it’s pretty clear the President wants to deal, but it’s hard to imagine, given the tone that Speaker Gingrich took, that there’s a deal to be had, and that raises some serious questions just in the next few weeks. The continuing resolution that’s now funding the government expires on January 26th. Do we face another shutdown? And in about a month, the Treasury is going to hit up against that debt ceiling again. It’s not clear what the Congress is going to be willing to do about that.
JIM LEHRER: Both of you all, I assume, were at the White House when this news conference was over. What was the–what were the atmospherics afterward, ride on, Chief, you did a great job, or what–what kind of spin were the folks around the President putting on this, Jay?
MR. CARNEY: Well, they were reasonably positive about it, but I think you have to assess the performance as a good one for the President because he didn’t make any mistakes. He didn’t say anything that anyone in the White House will regret. But he didn’t make a lot of headlines either. It’ll get coverage because he is the President and he’s addressing issues that are in the news right now, but I don’t think he advanced his cause very far along the road here, and I think once the budget, you know, the reality sets in that these budget talks don’t seem to be going anywhere, the President is going to have to come right back to the podium and explain why.
JIM LEHRER: Susan, in a word, what do you–how would you read the atmosphere afterward?
MS. PAGE: Well, I think the bad news for the White House is the topics that they’re talking about. They’re talking about a budget negotiation breakdown. They’re talking about scandal. And if you’re President, you want to be on the offensive on both those fronts. The President is, at the moment, on the defensive.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.