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Special Event

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer Holds Daily Press Briefing

Aired February 26, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There was an indication that the White House press secretary threw a snowball at the press. I would like to assure everybody that there was a generalized area where the press was standing. If the snowball landed anywhere near it, it was obviously unintentional.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: It couldn't have landed anywhere near it because it was thrown by the press secretary.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Can you promise not to snow us in the future?

QUESTION: You need to start that Roger Clemens workout, Ari.

FLEISCHER: I did fear I was almost going to hit that first sergeant who was in charge of you who -- I'm trying to get him to this podium. I like his style.

QUESTION: Do you have anymore information on Hubbard, who he is?

FLEISCHER: Yes, we have paper coming out on all of this, so you should have that shortly. He is presently the Russell Carlson professor of economics and finance at Columbia University. He served previously as deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Treasury from 1991 to 1993. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida, received his masters degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University -- April.

QUESTION: Ari, some in the nation feel that George W. Bush was never a legitimate president. And now there's word from Florida that indeed he's legitimate with 140 votes over Gore. What is the administration saying about this, his legitimacy now is confirmed?

FLEISCHER: April, we've never thought it's been in doubt. I think the overwhelming majority of the American people have moved on and never thought it was in doubt. And it doesn't change anything in this White House about what we're doing. This election's been settled a long time ago. QUESTION: But there's still a rift. How can you heal that? Will this -- these results help to heal this rift, especially in the minority community, particularly the African-American community?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, regardless of the margin of the election, which was, as I indicated, settled quite some time ago, the president is well aware, as we've just talked previously, about the difficulties in some parts of our American community. And he is going to continue in his efforts to reach out and bring people together. I think you'll hear a little bit about that in the speech tomorrow night. And it's going to be an ongoing part of his administration to continue to build one nation and bring people together.

QUESTION: So race will be a part of his speech (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: His remarks tomorrow night will touch on bringing our American community together and that we are one nation, just as he discussed in the inaugural address -- Senior.

QUESTION: Can you give us any more details on the new federal initiative that the president talked about in general?

FLEISCHER: Well, we should have copies of that coming around for everybody once the president signs it. It creates a new working group that will be a White House working group together with members of the Cabinet, and many Cabinet secretaries being involved, where we will explore on a very detailed level what steps the federal government can take to streamline regulations, to make it easier on the states to carry out reforms within state programs.

One example, for instance, in the -- this now has to be fixed by law, but the federal education proposals that the president is making, there's some 60 education programs on the federal government -- that the federal government runs that will be consolidated into five, streamlinings, more flexibility for the states to carry out accountability and reforms in education. That's an example that requires law.

But the working group the president announced today will focus on are what similar consolidations, streamlinings, waivers can be carried out through executive order. And we're going to work very closely with governors of both parties on those -- on that executive order.

QUESTION: So this is the start of a process of which at some point in the future will yield specific streamlining.

FLEISCHER: Precisely right.

QUESTION: You're not doing any of that right now?

FLEISCHER: That's a fair take -- John.

QUESTION: Ari, there's a sense among some governors that Medicare reform is not going to be accomplished, and may not even get through the Congress in the next couple of years. At the same time, there are many states that are experiencing a double hit of decline in tax revenues as Medicare and Medicaid costs are going up. Inevitably, those two will crash headlong into each other and create a crisis in those states. Is the president not concerned that we need to have Medicare reform, meaningful Medicare reform, within the next couple of years?

FLEISCHER: He absolutely is. You put your finger on it. Medicare is a fast-rising -- cost of Medicare rising fastly. There was a new report out in the last couple days about the cost of prescription drugs may be increasing more than previously thought.

All that indicates the need to have a focus on reforming Medicare. Medicare is still essentially a 1965 program with its part A for hospitals, part B for doctors, which is a reflection of how most people received their medical care in 1965. You either went to the hospital or you went to the doctor.

Today, you have a whole change in health care delivery, of skilled nursing facilities, you have home health care. all of that, frankly, is the fastest rising portion of Medicare. You have prescription drugs, which really were not in widespread use back in 1965. And the Medicare program still is a 1965 model, all of which suggests that to get needed medical services to our seniors and to modernize Medicare, we have to have a government that's willing to reform the Medicare program. And the president remains committed to it.

QUESTION: Will he propose reforms, Ari?

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Will he propose reforms? And will he do it this year?

FLEISCHER: He will -- Connie.

QUESTION: Thank you. Two questions: First of all, do you know how long the speech will last tomorrow?

FLEISCHER: Don't have it yet. The president will do his first Teleprompter practice a little bit later this afternoon, and that's when I'll have my first guess at how long it will be.

QUESTION: Generally, do you expect it to be as long as a full State of the Union?

FLEISCHER: Let me wait to see how long it takes on the Teleprompter, and then, of course, we'll have to add frequent applause to it.

QUESTION: Can I ask an energy question? May I ask another one you might have to look into? Does the president have a particular impression or reaction on nuclear energy research? This is in light of the fact that Cornell University, which gets sizable energy federal grants for its reactors, says it's going to be decommissioning its nuclear reactor. So I just wondered, do you have a program on it?

FLEISCHER: As I recall, the president's energy program had one small provision it that dealt with some streamlining of procedures for nuclear licensing. I would want to check that. There was one small area in there dealing with things nuclear. We've handed out the fact sheet on that previously, so...

QUESTION: Is that the same thing?

FLEISCHER: Yes, it's the same proposal. But, of course, we still have our working group that is focused on a national energy policy, so you've got the proposal he discussed during the campaign which will be the core of that. And we'll have to wait and see what they come up with in the working group.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Terry. I'll come back to you.

QUESTION: To accomplish Medicare reform or any is going to take money. The Democratic National Committee has come out with a poll saying that 77 percent of the American people feel that President Bush's proposed tax cut is too big. And while you might dismiss that as a partisan poll, it squares with what a lot of other polls find, that a tax cut is a low priority for people, that they have other priorities, and that they are concerned that the size of President Bush's tax cut will squeeze those other priorities. How concerned is the president about the lack of popular enthusiasm

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Well, let me take the question in the order that you answered it. On Medicare and that reform takes money, I don't think anybody in government should begin with the premise that it takes money. They should focus on what reforms are necessary to deliver a program that works and works well. Several of the proposals up on the Hill, frankly, do not require additional money -- that there are additional costs associated with reforms.

There are also savings in the reforms. And so you want to take a look at the proposal in context, in its entirety. So that premise I don't think is shared by all. Go with the segue. As for the tax cut, two points: One is, the president's proposed it and he's fighting for it because he thinks it is the right thing to do, not what the polls say.

But I differ with your interpretation of the polls. The tax question in the polls is one of the most easily asked questions to get whatever result you want. And if you ask in a poll, "Which should be the top priority: tax cuts, Social Security, Medicare?" it is a false choice because it suggests there's only one priority in the use of surplus.

And, as we know, the surplus can be used for multiple priorities. And all you have to do is ask the question, "Of the following priorities, how would you divide the surplus?" And what you will see is, frankly, the American people will divide the surplus very much like the president has: with the biggest share of it going to debt reduction, with $2.6 trillion saved for Social Security, with only about a quarter of it being used for tax relief.

So all you have to do is ask the question in a more accurate way and you will you find that the American people are very supportive of what President Bush has proposed.

QUESTION: The answer...

FLEISCHER: If you say to people you only have one choice for the surplus, you are giving people a false choice. I've seen many of those questions ask it basically in that manner. They say, "Of the following, what would be your top use?" And you get that top use. And it, in effect, ignores that there are other valid uses.

QUESTION: There is, however, a limited amount of dollars in that surplus. And the president's message is that we can have it all. We can have the debt reduction. We can have his big tax cut. We can have education, defense and other increases. We're in that kind of timeframe in our history where we can have it all.

FLEISCHER: Well, frankly, we are a fortunate nation that we can wrestle with the reality of budget surpluses for as far as the eye can see. That is what the estimates tell us. We have money in the bank. There is an operating budget surplus -- put aside all the Social Security's money.

The federal government today enjoys a very large surplus, money in the bank, money that will likely be spent on more government programs. And I remind you that the surplus would be some $600 billion higher over the next 10 years had it not been spent by both parties in the Congress and by the previous administration last year. So with a $5.6 trillion surplus, we do have room for a lot of options.

And the president's options are -- his recommendations to the Congress are: Pay down the debt an historic amount. Save Social Security. Set aside all the money for Social Security, for debt reduction in Social Security. And fund necessary priorities -- including an 11 percent increase in the education budget -- fund defense, fund our priorities. And the money that's left over, absolutely return to the taxpayers, because they deserve it.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Ari, back on...

FLEISCHER: Major.

QUESTION: Two questions about this new federalism. First of all, can you give us a specific example -- not of a law that you would have to change -- but of a set of rules and regulations that are too meddlesome for states to deal with now, number one? Number two, Governor Engler said he was under the impression that this new federalism approach could help states deal with the energy crisis that may visit their states later on this summer, maybe deal with the access or changing of regulations to allow them to accommodate more energy use in their states.

Do you agree with that assessment?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the proof is in the pudding on that one, in terms of the letter that Governor Davis sent to President Clinton asking the president to expedite permitting, which is under the discretion of the president, to help solve California's energy problem. So there you have a case on energy in the state that is most affected by energy, where a state asked the federal government to take unilateral action to loosen regulatory procedures, to expedite permitting, which has now helped keep California's energy online.

So that's one crystal-clear example. Another example, I think, where you've seen a recent roadblock to reform, frankly, was in the state of Texas, when the state of Texas asked the federal government to change some provisions of the welfare law, where Texas wanted to have some aspects of welfare delivery privatized, allow private-sector competition for the delivery of services, and the previous administration denied the waiver.

The state of Texas, on a bipartisan basis, thought that there could be a savings to the taxpayers on more efficient delivery of care and help for those in need. The government said no. That's an example.

QUESTION: Ari, can you talk a little bit about the preparation that has gone into the speech: When did the president get a draft? How much time has he spent on it?

FLEISCHER: Well, he spent a healthy part of the weekend, right after Prime Minister Blair left. Karen Hughes went up to Camp David. And the president worked through the speech extensively throughout the weekend. He had been working on it throughout last week. His first teleprompter reading of the speech formally, with the screens, will be today.

He's been working through, reading through the various drafts of it, though, for the last several days.

QUESTION: Ari, on the tax issue, on the tax code specifically: The tax code has 44,000 pages. Nobody understands it or can see through. And it's packed with special interests. I wonder if the president will clear up the tax code also, besides the tax cut.

FLEISCHER: Well, there are a couple of provisions in the president's proposal that do represent major simplification of the code. And one is lowering the rates and eliminating the number of brackets, reducing them from five to four. If you recall, in 1986, in the Tax Reform Act, they eliminated a lot of loopholes in deductions, and in its place created two new brackets: a 15 percent and a 28 percent.

And in the 1990 budget agreement, and then again in 1993, new rates started to spring out. And so we have a system now where you have five tax brackets. The president's proposal reduces that closer to the 1986 tax reform level.

The other big area of simplification -- which is major -- is repeal of the death tax. The estate tax, the death tax, is one of the largest loopholes in the code that invites CPAs and lawyers to figure out ends-around, which complicate the tax code. If there is anybody who has a lot to lose in the president's budget proposal, it's tax lawyers and accountants. If you repeal the death tax, a lot of them are going to lose their ability to carry out their livelihood, which is to help people avoid paying taxes.

QUESTION: If you are not afraid of going against special interests, including bills that supported him, like big tobacco, big pharmaceutical...

FLEISCHER: Well, I certainly think a lot of CPAs and tax lawyers support President Bush. If you repeal the tax death, a lot of them are going to find their livelihood redirected.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I will come back to you -- new people.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) I understand introduced or announced a package of energy-related legislation today. I think it includes some of the ANWR stuff. Do you have a (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: The president believes that that's a very good start. And we look forward to working with Senator Murkowski and others on his energy proposals. I know Senator Murkowski's proposal, like President Bush's approach, would open up a small sliver of ANWR for development of oil in Alaska.

And the amount that would come into the United States as a result of opening ANWR represents 20 years of imports from Saudi Arabia. We can replace 20 years worth of Saudi Arabian imports here at home if ANWR is open. And that's in Senator's Murkowski's...

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer at the White House, his daily briefing, touching on many subjects, including the "Miami Herald"'s finding that if the election in Florida had been extended, if the deadline had been extended, that President Bush would have won outright in the election. Ari Fleischer's reaction to that was: We were never in doubt about that election and the "Miami Herald"'s findings mean nothing to us in the running of this White House.

Concern over the income tax cuts and the repeal of the estate taxes -- you heard talk there about whether or not there was concern that the tax cut may be too large and would cut into other programs with needed reforms -- Ari Fleischer deflecting that. He said that the Bush tax cut, according to President George W. Bush, is the right thing to do.

You are going to hear a lot more talk about this. We know that George W. Bush has been working on his budget priorities to present to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night. He worked on the speech over the weekend. He'll be rehearsing it later this afternoon. And you can see the speech at 8:30. Well, our coverage in advance of the speech begins at 8:30 tomorrow night here on CNN. It is a speech with budget priorities of the -- the revealing of the Bush agenda for the next four years.

And there will be a lot of talk about it. And we will do much of that here on CNN.

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