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Ari Fleischer Holds Press Briefing, Addresses New Bush Proposals

Aired January 29, 2001 - 12:21 p.m. ET


JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Let's listen in: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're now joining Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, for his daily briefing. And we're going to listen in.

FLEISCHER: ... getting the copies of the executive orders the president signed earlier today creating the Office of Faith-based -- for his faith-based initiative.

Happy to take any questions.

QUESTION: Ari, why should this faith-based initiative not be interpreted as an unconstitutional funding of religious institutions in America?

FLEISCHER: Because, as the president made clear in his statements just a little while ago, that this will not be funding religion, but this will be funding faith-based organizations of a wide variety of views that bring social help to people in need. It's not the religious aspect of what they do that's getting funded, it's the community service aspect, and there are other parts of this too that focus on increasing people's ability to give to charity and to nonprofits.

QUESTION: And how do you make the distinction, when it's all going on under the same roof?

FLEISCHER: Because the programs that they will provide are not going to be programs that preach religion. They're going to be faith- based programs that help people to improve their lives, which has been the experience that we have seen already with some of the faith-based programs that are privately funded that are big successes.

QUESTION: Ari, what about the idea that religious organizations don't have to adhere to civil rights laws, and they may not be held to the same standards as private organizations who provide these social outreach functions? FLEISCHER: The president's focus will be on helping programs that work. He takes a look at the poor in our society, the people who have the most difficult needs, and he sees a need to help those people to improve their lives.

And he recognizes that there are limits to what government programs can do. But that doesn't mean that our country and our society should give up on those who are in need: addicts, alcoholics, the homeless, as he explained earlier today. And so, he wants to find ways that work. And we have seen throughout our society that these faith-based programs, which often are strapped for cash, do work, they do improve people's lives, and that's why he's determined to push ahead.

QUESTION: But what about the two concerns that I just raised? Might he put into legislation or might there be a proviso for funding that they have to adhere to the same civil rights laws that private organizations do, that their people have to be subject to the same certification as other social outreach organizations that are private and not religious?

FLEISCHER: You'll see the proposal that he makes tomorrow. You can evaluate it. And, of course, we'll be pleased to work with the Congress on any other issues that come up.

QUESTION: Does he address those concerns specifically?

FLEISCHER: You'll see tomorrow. He's making the proposal tomorrow.

QUESTION: Ari, what about the...

QUESTION: Can I ask about the prescription drug plan? When do you intend to put it out? And I think last week I heard you say that you thought that there was a lot of room for compromise on that issue.

FLEISCHER: We'll be putting it out early this afternoon. The president will be having a meeting with Chairman Grassley and with Chairman Thomas, and it will be following that meeting. The president intends to send the proposal up to Capitol Hill, and that proposal will be just like he discussed during the course of the campaign: an immediate helping hand so we can get prescription drugs to low-income, needy seniors.

QUESTION: Did I hear you right when you said -- I thought you said there was a lot of room for compromise with Democrats on that. And if so, what makes you think that?

FLEISCHER: Well, the whole question of Medicare reform must be bipartisan. You cannot have a one-party approach to reform in Medicare. The Medicare program is much too important and much too central to the lives of our seniors.

And so any proposal that anybody makes on Medicare, whether it's getting prescription drugs to seniors or whether it's the structural reforms that involve Part A, Part B, all need to be explored in a fashion that brings Democrats and Republicans together.

I would remind you that we came very close in the last Congress. There was a bipartisan commission on Medicare reform. I believe 10 of the 17 members of the commission agreed on a recommendation. It was not welcomed by the previous White House, but there certainly is a mood for bipartisanship on Medicare reform, and President Bush will welcome it.


QUESTION: Well, Ari, do you see this legislation moving as a separate bill or as a part of broader reform, either with prescription drugs or...


FLEISCHER: The president's preference is that a move as a separate bill. That's what he announced during the campaign. At the same time, the president is very encouraged by what is a strong showing of strength for bipartisan Medicare reform. He's aware that there are some important people in the Congress who have expressed reservations about it moving as a separate bill, and we'll be pleased to work with them.

QUESTION: Ari, on the faith-based thing, as I understand it, you're kind of separating the overtly religious aspects from the community service aspects. Why doesn't that same kind of thinking apply to these international family planning groups that we're saying, "Well, we're not using your federal dollars for abortion, we're getting that from someplace else"? But, you know, the response here was, "Well, we got to cut you off, because you can't..."


FLEISCHER: I think we explored that issue last week, you know, why the president did that. His reasons were clear.

QUESTION: On that question, a lot of these organizations work when people see the light, when they accept a faith. And so isn't this, in effect, government funding conversions?

FLEISCHER: No, this is a voluntary program where those who seek to participate should have other options. And we as a society have to face up to the fact that there are so many people in need and government programs aren't getting the job done, but that doesn't mean we should walk away from those people. They need help, and the government can play a role through faith-based communities and nonprofits in delivering that help.

The government shouldn't walk away or leave people languishing on welfare simply because some people will raise questions about faith- based groups. Faith-based groups can often be the answer that helps people get off the street and back into life.

QUESTION: A lot of these groups hire only people of their religion and work only for people of their religion. Isn't that discrimination?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think as we just saw from the variety of people who participated in a very powerful meeting with the president, we had people from all walks of life, all religious faiths and backgrounds, joined together in saying that the power of faith can lift up people's lives.

And what's important is you let people voluntarily make the decision that they want to enter into a certain program. And that's the first way to get them help.

If you're and addict, if you're an alcoholic, it's very hard to be helped if you don't take that first step yourself to seek help. And we should welcome to seek help where it can do them most good.


QUESTION: Even some churches are concerned that there will be strings attached to the federal money, and this can be a way influence the churches.

FLEISCHER: Well, you'll as you'll see in the proposals he sends up tomorrow and as they take the legislative path and as the bill works its way through the Congress, all concerns will be addressed. But the president is going to push ahead. He believes this is vital to helping improve the fabric of our society in this country.

In fact, one of the things he said in the meeting with the leaders is he said: The reason this will work is because America is full of love.

And he believes very deeply that the reason we have a lot of people who are still in poverty, despite a myriad of government programs that have cost trillions of dollars, is because the government programs aren't always the best solution. So don't give up. Capture the compassion of the American people and put it to work.

QUESTION: Do you expect the issue to wind up in the courts?

FLEISCHER: I think we can draft something that is fully in accordance with the Constitution. And, frankly, I think you're also going to see a large outpouring of bipartisan support for this. So it gets sent up tomorrow and we'll monitor it.

QUESTION: On the question of prescription drugs, the complaint is that, even though your program is aimed at the poorest, virtually every senior has a problem paying for prescription drugs because they're so expensive and inflation is so high. How much wiggle room is there in your proposal to cover some of those people?

FLEISCHER: Well, under the president's proposal, it was a two- part proposal, the first part was a four-year, $48 billion immediate helping hand that would get prescription drug coverage to seniors, the neediest seniors. His comprehensive Medicare reform, which tracks with many other visions of comprehensive reform on the Hill, will be broader in nature, will help more seniors. QUESTION: Will it ultimately be a universal kind of benefit, as the Democrats are talking about?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president's comprehensive proposal did apply to all seniors.

QUESTION: Ari, at his press briefing last week, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said, quote, "It is not helpful to have Saddam Hussein's regime in power," unquote. He said this is now government policy. If it is government policy, what specifically is the president going to do remove Saddam Hussein from power? And does that possibly include military action?

FLEISCHER: I think the president has made his position clear on that before, that we will protect America's interests and the region's interests in that area of the world, and we would be prepared to do so if necessary.

QUESTION: Ari, back on the executive order, can you explain to us the difference between what the president can do by executive order and what he needs legislation for?

FLEISCHER: Well, the executive orders create the offices within the executive branch. He signed two executive orders today. The first creates within the administration the post of the Office of Faith-based and Community Activity that reports directly to the president.

The second executive order he signed creates five various agencies, five government Cabinet-level departments, those which work closest with people in social problems in poverty. It created an office within each of those agencies to also draw on new solutions to old problems.

Beyond that, the legislation that we'll send up tomorrow are going to be issues that require congressional action. For example, allowing all Americans to have a deduction for money they give to charity. In 1986, under the Tax Reform Act of 1986, 70 million Americans were denied the right to get a deduction from money they gave to charity. That was part of '86 reform. The president will propose, tomorrow, allowing all Americans, not just those who itemize their taxes, to get a deduction for giving money to charity. That will be one of the proposals he sends up to the Hill.

QUESTION: Ari, do you have to deal, by legislation, with some of the questions that were asked here about discrimination, possible discrimination? Would you have to deal with that by...

FLEISCHER: Clearly, anything that goes beyond the power of an executive order has to be dealt with legislatively.


QUESTION: What's wrong with itemizing charity?

FLEISCHER: People should be able to itemize their charitable deductions, but that doesn't mean that those who aren't in a position where they itemize should be denied a deduction of their own. So this extends one of the benefits of our society to those who give to charity. We shouldn't divide people...

QUESTION: So those who accept it don't have itemize; is that what you're saying?

FLEISCHER: No, no, no. These are the givers; those who give money to charity. Typically, those...

QUESTION: Why couldn't you itemize it?

FLEISCHER: Because the only people who itemize, typically, are people who own a home and pay interest expenses on their home or live in high property tax states. There are 70 million Americans, who, just because of their income tax circumstances, don't it itemize, and they should not be discriminated against by the tax code when they, too, give to charity.

KING: We have been listening here to the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer -- most of the questions dealing with two efforts today by President Bush to keep two key campaign promises: one, a temporary Medicare prescription-drug program for elderly Americans who have trouble paying for their prescription drugs -- $48 billion over four years. The president will send that proposal to Congress today.

Number two -- and more controversial -- his efforts to make government funding available to faith-based organizations that provide social services: like alcohol and drug treatment, like after-school programs -- the questions in there dealing with how can you have such a program and not violent the constitutional separation of church and state -- the White House saying that when President Bush sends the details of that proposal to Congress tomorrow, he believes it will meet that constitutional test.

And he believes, in the end, it will also generate significant bipartisan support. Again, that's the White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.



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