White House Briefing, March 15
15 March 2006
President's schedule, Medicare/prescription drug benefits, White House staffing, port security/foreign investments, voting in Louisiana, language on sexual discrimination in rules, Middle East/road map, immigration
White House press secretary Scott McClellan briefed the press March 15.
Following is the transcript of the White House briefing:
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
March 15, 2006
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
-- President's schedule
-- Medicare/prescription drug benefits
-- White House staffing
-- Port security
-- Voting in Louisiana
-- Language on sexual discrimination in rules
-- Middle East road map
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
March 15, 2006
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:44 P.M. EST
MR. MCCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. The President had a good discussion earlier today with the bicameral Republican leadership in Congress. They talked about a number of important priorities that we're continuing to focus on. They discussed the war on terrorism and the importance of continuing to move forward on our plan for victory in Iraq. They discussed the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit and other changes that we put in place for America's seniors, and the importance of continuing to educate America's seniors about the important benefits that are available and the substantial savings that they can realize under the Medicare program on their prescription drug costs. As you heard the President say, a typical senior is realizing 50 percent or more savings on their prescription drug costs under this program.
They also touched on some other important issues, like energy and continuing to move forward on reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and addressing the root causes of high energy prices. We took an important step last year with the passage of the comprehensive energy plan and the President has put forward a number of other initiatives to encourage the use of new technology to expand alternative and renewable sources of energy.
And then they talked about -- they touched on the budget, as well, and the importance of moving forward on a responsible budget that funds our priorities and exercises spending restraint elsewhere, so that we can rein in spending elsewhere in the budget.
One update to the President's schedule; I mentioned earlier today that the President was going to be meeting with a bipartisan group of senators on his competitiveness initiative. That meeting has been postponed because of budget votes that are going on in the Senate today. So we'll update you when that meeting is rescheduled.
And with that, I'm glad to go to your questions. Go ahead, Caren.
QUESTION: There is a push in Congress to extend the deadline for enrolling for Medicare. Where does the White House stand on that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think people understand the importance of having that deadline in place, to encourage as many seniors as possible to enroll in the Medicare program, if they so choose. The changes we have put in place have improved and modernized Medicare. Seniors now have access to more choices and better benefits. The results are speaking very loudly; the results are showing that costs are coming down substantially for seniors, even from where they were projected to be reduced to. And now the typical senior, as I mentioned, is realizing savings of 50 percent or even more on their prescription drug cost, so they're saving half of what they -- they're paying half of what they did previously. And seniors' monthly premiums, on average, are now projected to be $25 per month, versus $37 per month, for the prescription drug benefit.
The taxpayers are also realizing savings, because of the competition that we have put in place. The projection for 2006 is now -- it will be 20 percent less than it was previously projected to be for America's taxpayers. And so we believe it's important that the program as it was put in place, that we continue to move forward on that and make it successful for America's seniors. For the vast majority of seniors it is working very well. And the reason you have a deadline in there is to help encourage people to sign up during that enrollment period. And so we're moving forward in that direction.
Q: Scott, at the risk of making you even more tired, I'm wondering --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not tired, Jim. You might be --
Q: Well, after this question you may be. The calls from the current senators, and even former senators, from what we understand, to change the staffing, expand it, if not swap out, is there anything to it? Are any staff changes at the White House imminent?
MR. McCLELLAN: Jim, let me speak very clearly to this. This is part of the inside Washington babble that goes on in this town. It's part of the parlor game. We are focused on the priorities that the American people care most about and getting things done. We are focused on helping the President advance his agenda, to make America safer and more prosperous. There are a lot of important priorities we're working to advance, and we're working to advance, and we're working to build upon a record of great accomplishment. And that's where our focus is.
You know, in this room, that I never speculate about personnel matters, but there has been a good bit of change in this administration over the course of the last few years. But this President greatly appreciates the team that he has in place and all that the team is doing to help him advance his agenda. And I think the American people want us to keep our focus on their priorities, and that's what we're going to do. If Washington wants to play the parlor game, they can do that.
Q: So I can take that as a no?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: I'll take that as a no, there are no staffing changes imminent?
MR. McCLELLAN: Jim, I just told you that I never publicly speculate about personnel matters. People in this room who have covered this White House know that very well.
Q: That means there could be staff changes imminent, and we wouldn't know about it.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, that means you're jumping into speculation.
Q: No --
Q: Could we talk about the President's meeting with the Republican --
MR. McCLELLAN: One CBS reporter at a time.
Q: -- the meeting with the Republican lawmakers today --
MR. McCLELLAN: Has CBS got any more changes to announce? (Laughter.)
Q: That doesn't mean that they aren't in the works.
MR. McCLELLAN: Not yet. Okay. (Laughter.) Nothing imminent, though? Okay, fair enough.
Q: In the meeting with Republican lawmakers, did any of them raise the type of concerns that Senator Coleman raised yesterday?
MR. McCLELLAN: No. It was focused on the priorities that I outlined at the beginning. And there is --
Q: Did it come up?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- there is a very unified effort to continue moving forward on important priorities, like winning in Iraq and implementing the Medicare prescription drug benefit and making sure it's successful, and continuing to move forward on a budget that builds upon the progress we've made to fund priorities and rein in wasteful spending.
Q: So some of these lawmakers would talk about these things like to reporters or among others, but they don't to the President?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, Terry. Let me back up and speak again. The meeting -- you asked specifically about this meeting.
Q: Yes, did anybody say anything to the President?
MR. McCLELLAN: And I said, no. No, of course, not.
MR. McCLELLAN: But in terms of advice, we seek advice from a lot of people, from a diverse group of people. We also get advice from a variety of people.
Q: How do you respond to the perception then -- there is kind of a combination of things going on; recent polls have shown the President's approval below 40 percent in a number of surveys. There are friends of the White House who say that there might be a need for some new blood or some additions, not necessarily removing people who are serving here now.
MR. McCLELLAN: That doesn't taken into account the fact that there has been a good bit of change over the course of the last few years. Go and look at the -- look at the Cabinet, look at the administration, look at the staff here at the White House.
Q: There is a perception that the President keeps a very tight circle and that circle has --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there's a perception out there on the part of the American people that Washington tends to get caught up in a lot of this parlor game and they tend to get caught up in all this babble, process-oriented stuff. I think the American people want us to stay focused on their priorities.
Just last week we renewed the Patriot Act, an important and vital tool in our efforts to save lives and prevent attacks from happening. And we are moving forward on efforts to pass a line-item veto act, which will give the President the ability to line-item out wasteful spending or earmarks, as they're called. We're moving forward on the initiatives that the President outlined in his State of the Union, like the American Competitiveness Initiative, to keep our economy the most innovative and competitive in the world. We're moving forward on an advanced energy initiative that will encourage the use of new technologies to diversify ourselves away from dependence on oil. We are moving forward on health care initiatives like the Medicare Modernization Act. This is one of the most dramatic improvements in health care in some time, and our seniors are seeing substantial benefits -- those that have already signed up. And we're encouraging more to get enrolled because this will provide them with the kind of health care that best fits their individual needs, and they'll realize substantial savings on their prescription drugs.
We're moving forward on a budget to build upon what we have accomplished over the last few years, to rein in spending, non-security spending, and to address the rapid growth in entitlement programs.
Q: Then why do you think even friends of the White House suggest that maybe there's time for some changes --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we keep talking about friends or lawmakers, but I don't hear a lot of names being mentioned.
Q: Norm Coleman.
MR. McCLELLAN: There's one.
Q: So --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not a lot.
Q: Without giving you a huge list of those lawmakers who have been quoted in the public press in the last several months suggesting that there's been communication problems and perhaps the White House could use a little bit of staffing help, are you accusing lawmakers on Capitol Hill of "babble" and "parlor games" when they're voicing these concerns? Or are they --
MR. McCLELLAN: I can tell you we just came out of a meeting with a number of lawmakers from both the Senate and the House, and the whole focus of that meeting was on how we continue to move forward and implement our shared agenda and our shared priorities for the American people.
Q: Now, if we wanted to go over a list of those folks -- you mentioned changes. Perhaps wrongly, perhaps rightly, a lot of the changes appeared to many to have been departures from the White House in the past few months. Can you comment at all about whether or not you're experiencing any staff shortages?
MR. McCLELLAN: Carl, I never get into speculating about personnel matters. I've never done that, and I'm not going to start doing that. If there are vacancies to fill, then we move forward quickly to fill those vacancies.
Q: Scott, as evidenced by some of the fallout from the ports deal, there are some members of Congress, though, who are looking at the way the White House has treated them and wishing things had been different. And you, yourself, have said that, in fact, things could have been handled differently. What is --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's a different issue. So let's make that point. That's a separate issue from what we're talking about here.
Q: But if some of these people that -- I know this is part of the parlor game, but some of those discussions are about bringing in people who can better deal with Congress, isn't that sort of connected then?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let me point out a couple of things. The President has surrounded himself with a very capable and experienced team that is fully committed to helping him advance his agenda and get things done. This is a team that focuses on advancing his agenda and achieving results for the American people. We also learn from our experience. But it's a very experienced team and it's important to always learn from experience, and we do that, and we have done that over the course of our time in office.
Q: So is there a sort of --
MR. McCLELLAN: But in terms of the ports issue, and let's talk about each -- if you want to talk about each issue individually, I'm glad to do that, because what we're doing is working with Congress to improve and update the process when it comes to the Committee on Foreign Investment. The number one priority and sole responsibility of that committee is to look at national security issues and any impact foreign investments might have on our nation's security.
And yesterday, our Secretary of Treasury outlined some very clear principles for moving forward with Congress. We're engaged in ongoing discussions about how we move forward on those reform efforts. And we're moving forward to continue to build upon the many steps we've taken to strengthen port security.
Now, we've taken a number of steps to push out the screening of containers to where those containers are screened overseas, and where cargo manifests are coming into us well before that ship reaches our shores. We've put in place a Container Security Initiative. So there are a number of steps we've taken. We've provided billions of dollars in resources to improve the security around our ports.
Q: So you're saying it's a matter of process with the ports deal, not necessarily the White House's approach?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: So you're saying it's really a question of the process that was the problem with the ports deal and the fallout that resulted, not necessarily the White House's approach --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we've been through that issue, and talked about the issues. Now, that was a congressionally mandated process that was put in place. So what we're talking about doing is looking at ways that we can update it in a post-September 11th world, because this was put in place years ago. And we were following that congressionally mandated process, and all the relevant agencies that are involved in national security and law enforcement and homeland security are involved in that process.
Q: There's nothing the White House could have done differently that would have necessarily mitigated some --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not what we said. In fact, we said very up front that Congress should have been notified earlier in the process about this particular transaction. That became clear to everyone. And so that's one of the areas that we want to look at when we're talking about improving and updating the process.
Q: Scott, black federal lawmakers, along with black civil rights leaders, are concerned that there is no plan to protect the right to vote in Louisiana as it relates to the April 22nd elections there. They're saying that as the President is talking about renewing voting rights, this is a test case for voting rights because many of the displaced Katrina victims from New Orleans will not have satellite polling stations outside of Louisiana, and they have to contact the state to gain absentee ballots at they are in transit themselves, not knowing where to live. Could you respond to that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President is strongly committed to protecting and supporting the Voting Rights Act. He supports the Voting Rights Act very strongly and wants to see it reauthorized. He has made it very clear that he is committed to protecting people's voting rights. And in terms of this particular issue, this is a matter that falls under the statute that Congress passed, and under that statute, Congress designated the Department of Justice to review these matters.
Now, my understanding is that the state of Louisiana submitted some elections changes to the Department of Justice, and it's under review. The Department of Justice, I think yesterday, spoke to the issue and said that they're receiving good cooperation from the Secretary of State in Louisiana.
Q: So what do you say to the black federal lawmakers and Jesse Jackson and Bruce Gordon, who are asking the President to basically usurp DOJ and just delay these elections because --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, some of the individuals you bring up are people the President has talked about with the Voting Rights Act and expressed his strong commitment to reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act and his strong support for protecting and enforcing the act.
Q: Scott, the administration has removed some language from the rules allowing gays and lesbians to get national security clearances. The language is that sexual orientation may not be used as a basis for, or a disqualifying factor in determining a person's eligibility for a security clearance. Why did they remove that language?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the language that you're referring to is based on an executive order that was put in place by the previous administration. And that executive order is aimed at preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and it has some very specific language in that executive order. There's no change in our policy. The language that you're referring to reflects what is in that executive order.
Q: So why take it out if there's no change in policy?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think they took out language. I think that they updated the language to reflect exactly what was spelled out in the executive order. There's no change in the policy.
Q: But they took this language out. This is gone. It doesn't say that anymore.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know what language you're specifically referring to, because I think the language is very similar to what it says in the executive order and the policy remains the same.
Q: The Dubai Ports World deal -- have you seen the announcement that the company made today? Is this issue now over and done with?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I did see the announcement. I think that company, last week, provided a way forward and really put this matter to rest. Now it's important for the company to continue moving forward on what they committed to doing, and we appreciate the step that they took. Like I said, our focus now is on continuing to work with Congress to look at ways to reform the process when it comes to reviewing these investments in the United States.
Q: As you know, there were still some lawmakers who were expressing doubts. Are those doubts now --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think most lawmakers have -- many congressional leaders have spoken out and said that this issue is now behind us. The company has made a decision. We respect the decision that the company came to. We think that it reflects the United Arab Emirates' strong commitment to continuing a good relationship with the United States. And we want to continue to build upon that relationship.
Go ahead, Sarah.
Q: Thank you, I have two questions if I can --
MR. McCLELLAN: You can have two.
Q: Okay. Does the Israeli raid on Palestinian prisons this week end all immediate hope for peace between the Israel and the Palestinians? And what can the President do to get the road map back on --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry -- you mentioned -- repeat the first part of your question. I didn't catch it.
Q: Does the Israeli raid on the Palestinian prison this week end all immediate hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians? What can the President do to get the road map back on track?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we are continuing to stay in contact with the parties in the region. We continue to urge calm and restraint. That's what we'll continue to do in the aftermath of yesterday. I think we expressed our views yesterday about that particular situation and the repeated concerns that we had expressed that the United States and the United Kingdom had expressed to the Palestinian Authority about the safety and security of our monitors there. So that issue was addressed yesterday. But the President is strongly committed to the two-state vision that he outlined, of Palestine and Israel living side-by-side in peace and security. And we want to continue working with all those who are partners in peace to get there.
Now, Hamas has a decision that they need to make. They have a choice that they face. They have an opportunity to try to be a partner in peace. And to do that they have to answer the call of the Quartet, and the Quartet spelled out what they need to do. They need to renounce violence and terrorism, they need to recognize Israel's right to exist, and they need to disarm. And it spelled out some other things that -- other steps that Hamas needs to take. The President is looking for partners in peace that want to work toward the two-state vision.
Q: I have one more, please. Indications are that the recommendations of the task force on Puerto Rico are going nowhere in the Congress this year. There seems to be no strong support there for the two plebiscites to determine Puerto Rico's status. Does the President plan to personally lobby the Congress to conduct --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we spelled out our view in terms of wanting the people of Puerto Rico to be the ones to decide their future. And we'll continue to work with Congress on these issues.
Q: Scott, on priorities -- he spoke about immigration with this group of lawmakers? And what did the President --
MR. McCLELLAN: Today?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, it did come up. They did talk about -- I think Senator Frist was talking about some of the legislative time line in terms of pushing forward on important priorities. And the President remains firmly committed to comprehensive immigration reform. We've had a number of discussions with congressional leaders. We believe that in order to fix what is a broken system, you need to address all aspects. That means continuing to build upon the steps we've taken to strengthen our borders. It means improving our interior enforcement, and it means moving forward on meeting an important economic and humanitarian need through a temporary worker program.
Q: And on the temporary worker program, what the President thinks of the new idea of Senator Specter that instead of --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there are a lot of ideas being expressed, and we want to continue to work with all leaders at the Capitol who are committed to moving forward on immigration reform. This is an important priority. We have a broken system; it needs to be fixed and it needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. We have taken a number of steps when it comes to beefing up the number of Border Patrol agents to using -- or deploying new technologies along the border to prevent people from coming into this country illegally, particularly those who are coming here for the wrong reason. And we need to continue to move forward on those efforts. We need to continue to move forward on a comprehensive approach that will address all these issues.
Q: But the President will be flexible to adopt other ideas to his temporary work program, like ideas --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what we outlined were some very clear principles that we believe ought to be part of a temporary worker program. And so I think the President has spelled out what his views are and now we're in the process of working with Congress to try to advance this important priority for the American people.
Q: Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.
END 1:05 P.M. EST
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