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White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer Holds Daily Press Briefing

Aired February 15, 2001 - 11:48 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to take you live to the White House now for the daily press briefing. And here is White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer.


QUESTION: ... the main reason is to build a relationship and not to break new ground on policy?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The purpose of the meeting is to build upon the already strong relationship, and to discuss interests of mutual concern.

QUESTION: Ari, on tax cuts, the president no longer has to negotiate with himself because the Democrats have put forward a plan that basically totals $900 billion, an approach they say is more tilted to ensuring that debt reduction goals can be met. And secondly, Senator Daschle has also come out in favor of some kind of trigger to have the ability to cut off a tax cut if surplus forecast don't materialize as forecasted. Reaction to that?

FLEISCHER: Well, there are other people, of course, that will be listened to in the tax cut debate. There are number of Republicans who think the size of the president's proposed tax cut is far too small. We've heard calls for a tax cut on the Republican side of $2.2 trillion, for example.

So I think the president is encouraged at the fact that the Democrats have announced their support for cutting taxes. That's a healthy, bipartisan sign, and he welcomes that.

We will continue to work with Democrats, Republicans alike. But the president is deeply committed to enactment and signing into law the tax cut of the size that he ran on and that he has proposed, which is $1.6 trillion.

And second part of your question?

QUESTION: Well, the second part is, what's his position about some kind of trigger that allows for the tax cuts to be scaled back for reasons like in a forecast not materializing or, you know, surpluses not materializing? FLEISCHER: Well, I was discussing that with the president this morning, and he expressed his puzzlement at the fact that there's this notion in Washington that triggers apply to tax cuts while the whole problem has always been government spending.

The surplus has been reduced as a result of spending decisions made in the last Congress and signed by the previous administration. The surplus for the next 10 years is $561 billion smaller than it otherwise would have been, because Congress and the president agreed to increase government spending. The problem is always spending. He does not think it is tax cuts.

Furthermore, the president adds that the issue is growth. If you want to make certain that we have a surplus, the economy needs to be strong and that means the economy needs to grow. And in the president's opinion, the best way to help the economy to grow is by cutting taxes.

QUESTION: In other words, he's not going to budge, right?

FLEISCHER: That means he's not going to budge. He does not support that concept on tax cuts. He thinks the risk to the surplus comes from too much government spending. And certainly, if you don't cut taxes, that money will be there and he fears the politicians will try to spend it.

And secondly, he doesn't think it's good fiscal policy to put a trigger on tax cuts, because it will hinder growth. And also as a practical matter, it means that you'll reimpose the marriage penalty on people. You will reimpose a higher tax rate on people. It means that you raise taxes on people. And he doesn't support that.

QUESTION: Should Americans be puzzled by the fact that, while on the one hand the president decries excessive spending in Washington, the basis of the argument for why the tax cut will stimulate the economy is that people who are deeply in credit card debt can pay off their debt so they can spend more? I mean, is that the message he intends to spend? You know, pay down your credit card debt so you can run it back up?

FLEISCHER: Well, there are a variety of good reasons to cut taxes in the president's opinions. And of course...


FLEISCHER: ... I'm coming to that. And, of course, in the president's proposals, he proposes to reduce the debt by $2.5 trillion as a result of Social Security, where he sets aside all of the money for Social Security. So the amount of debt paid down over the next 10 years is larger than the amount of the tax cut.

When it comes to the tax cut, it is notable that people talk about the need, and the president agrees, to reduce the debt. And that's true for the nation; that's true for individuals. By allowing individuals to have more control of their own money, they can decide whether they want to pay down their credit card bills, whether they want to save for children's education, whether they want to pay for a vacation and afford a vacation they otherwise may not have been able to have. The president believes it should be a decision left by individuals because it is their money.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the meeting with the members of Congress? What the purpose is? What their going to discuss?

FLEISCHER: This afternoon, a group of Republican members of the House and Senate Budget committees are coming in. And the president, as you know, will be addressing a joint session of Congress on February 27, and he will be releasing his economic blueprint on February 28 to the Congress.

So the president is beginning that process. He wants to meet with members of the Budget Committee. He will continue to meet with members of Congress. And the purpose of it is to emphasize that the budget he will propose will hold the line on government spending, that the president wants to pay down the debt; his budget will pay down the debt. The president wants to cut taxes; his budget will cut taxes.

But there has been too much growth in spending in the last several years, particularly, interestingly, since the federal government got its surplus. Spending on domestic discretionary program was really held in line. In fact, in some years it declined in real terms, during the period of deficits. And as soon as the government got a surplus, the wallet's opened, by both parties, and spending surged. And it surged to the point where, unless spending is brought to check, the surplus will be reduced by $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years as a result of government spending at the existing rate.

Government spending has been far in excess of inflation. It's increased by 6 percent over the last three years, while inflation has averaged 2.5 percent for the last three years.


QUESTION: ... to the Hill on the 27th for a joint session?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: The evening? Is it a prime time?


QUESTION: Ari, just to follow, he's had bipartisan meetings on a lot of other issues.


QUESTION: This was an all-Republican groups. Any particular reason?

FLEISCHER: No, he'll be having the Democrats down as well. This follows the previous pattern where he actually began having Republicans down and then it was quickly followed by Democrats. We'll continue to have everybody.

QUESTION: Can you confirm some reports from senior administration officials that the budget will try to hold spending to roughly 4 percent over baseline, that in between -- between 6 percent, which it has been, and a 2.5 inflation?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I'm not going to give an exact figure, but I will say that the president's budget will hold the line on spending. He believes that spending has been far too high on domestic discretionary accounts, and it's exceeded inflation. There have been government agencies that over the last three years had 11 percent annual growth in spending, and it's one of the reasons; the surplus would be larger had it not been for all this spending.

The budget that he will propose will hold the line on government spending. It will reflect the president's priorities, which means spending increases for the Department of Defense, for example, spending increases for the Department of Education, for example. But the president believes that we can have a moderate and reasonable rate of growth in spending, but nowhere near what it's been in the past. That has reduced the size of the surplus, and the president's concerned that Washington's been spending too much money.

And let me take step back, too. One of the reasons there has been such a surge in spending that we hope we can put an end to is what's commonly referred to as the exit fee. Congress in previous years, as it was negotiating with the previous administration, paid an exit fee in order to be able to recess. There were threats made that the government might shut down, appropriation bills would not be signed. And as a result, Congress continued to spend more money, per the request of the previous administration, and that's one of the reasons you had spending at a much higher rate.

We think with a change in administrations, one of President Bush's new focuses in Washington will be to restrain that growth.

QUESTION: But just to follow up, Ari, the principal claim for this excessive spending you would place, and this White House would place, on the Clinton administration, not the Republican Congress.

FLEISCHER: No. I mean, look at the words I just said. Congress. It was...

QUESTION: You said the exit fee was driven by the White House.

FLEISCHER: It was...


QUESTION: ... you just said.

FLEISCHER: I just walked through the mechanics of how it took place, but it's a problem that is well-known in Washington, and both parties, as I've said before, do it.

QUESTION: Isn't it called negotiations? FLEISCHER: It was. And that was the agreement they reached. They reached those agreements. And those agreements increased spending on an annual basis by more than twice the rate of inflation.

QUESTION: Does the White House have any comment on the opening of a criminal probe on the Marc Rich pardon by the U.S. attorney in New York?

FLEISCHER: The president has expressed himself on that issue. The president's point is that we should move on.

QUESTION: That's not very substantive. What does he mean "move on"? I mean, we've got a U.S. attorney general in the relevant district that is reportedly moving forward with an investigation. Does he support that or doesn't he?

FLEISCHER: I do not think it is the role of the president to dictate to the independent Justice Department what investigations they should or should not conduct. The president has expressed his opinion when he was asked about the Marc Rich pardon and the investigation thereof. He has expressed his view as the president, what he thinks. But I do not think anybody believes the president of the United States should be the one to tell the Department of Justice how to conduct its investigations.

QUESTION: Has he watched or monitored any of the hearings regarding the pardons?

FLEISCHER: He's well-aware of it.

QUESTION: Has he seen -- from what he has been told or what he has seen -- I know he said "move on," but has he found anything of any credence or legitimacy from those hearings to maybe say, "Well, maybe this might be worth looking at a little bit more."

FLEISCHER: He's expressed his opinion.

QUESTION: In the same way that he can't tell the U.S. attorney what to do, he can't tell Congress what to do, obviously, but he can send signals, particularly since the leaders are of us his same party. Was he trying to send a signal to Congress when he said he wants to move on...

FLEISCHER: No, I think his words speak for themselves. He was asked. He said, "He thinks it's time to move on." He was asked about Congress, and he says, "Congress will do what Congress does."

QUESTION: Has he spoken to any members of Congress about it, specifically and expressed his...

FLEISCHER: Not that I'm aware.

QUESTION: Have any members of the White House done that, any White House staff?

FLEISCHER: Nobody that I'm aware of. QUESTION: When he says, "we should move on," who is we? The American public should stop paying attention, does Congress...

FLEISCHER: I think what you heard from the president was his overall approach to all these matters.

QUESTION: Who is we? Who specifically should move on?

FLEISCHER: I think he was expressing his personal point of view about what the tenor of this nation should be toward those issues. And he can only speak for himself. That's what he was doing. And at the same time, he did say, "Congress will do what Congress does," because he is respectful of Congress' prerogatives as a separate and equal branch of government to conduct its affairs in the manner that Congress sees fit. But he was expressing his sentiment about these investigations and about the issue.

QUESTION: Why should we not interpret that to mean that his Justice Department also should move on and there should not be an investigation?

FLEISCHER: One of the things that President Bush stressed in his selection of the person to run the Department of Justice is it should be a nonpolitical Department of Justice. And when something is nonpolitical, that means you leave investigative decisions to the professionals to make those decisions.

QUESTION: Ari, he personally thinks they should move on.


FLEISCHER: No, again, part of expressing his views as the president, given the fact that he has said that we will have a Justice Department about which we can be proud, it will be a nonpolitical Justice Department, is there are career professionals who are entrusted by the public to make those decisions. And the president respects their rights.

QUESTION: Ari, to what extent does the president's view on this reflect a frustration that, throughout the first month of his presidency, Bill Clinton seems to have dominated the headlines as much as, if not more than, the new president?

FLEISCHER: I assure you, the president does not have any such frustration. He's just looking forward and not looking backward. And he is focused on his job and on policy and on issues -- on education, on tax cuts. That's his agenda and he's delighted to be in the middle of it.

QUESTION: It's not just congressional prerogatives that are at issue here. It is, as the president himself has acknowledged, the presidency and the prerogatives, and, specifically, the delegated powers to the presidency which are at issue. So he is OK with his own Justice Department launching an investigation which could diminish the pardon power or the scope of the pardon power for his successors. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the only talk I've heard on that is up on the Hill, where they are talking about amending the Constitution.

KAGAN: All right, we're going to leave the White House.



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