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Special Event

White House Press Secretary Holds News Briefing Previewing President's Address

Aired February 27, 2001 - 3:37 p.m. ET

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

BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST, CNN'S TALKBACK LIVE: I'm sorry, I do have to interrupt here briefly, hopefully, but White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is getting ready to talk to reporters presumably about President Bush's address to Congress tonight. So we'll listen in here.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Let me begin with an announcement. President Bush will meet with NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson on March 8, next week. And that is the only scheduling announcement I have for the day. And with that, I'm all yours.

QUESTION: Who'll be the guests in the family box?

FLEISCHER: We will put out a piece of paper shortly after this briefing with a list of all the guests in the family box. It'll have all their names listed. It'll have why they're there, their general background, a little bit of biographical information for everybody. And for the TV, we'll have an exact seating chart so you know who will be where.

QUESTION: Ari, opponents of the tax proposal on the Democratic side focus much criticism on the priorities, that the president's plan doesn't set the priorities right. There's nothing wrong in itself with giving relief to the middle class or cutting the highest rate, but you don't do enough for low-income people. So I wonder if the president will have much to say to people in the lowest income bracket, to people most in need.

FLEISCHER: The president's plan helps people at the lowest income brackets the most. They receive the biggest percentage of the tax cuts. And it'd be their point in life that they get the most help, and that's because we double the child credit from $500 to $1,000, and also we lower the bottom bracket from 15 percent to 10 percent.

And I think logic simply dictates that if you pay $2,000 in taxes and you have one child and you just got your child credit increased from $500 to $1,000, that means so much more to somebody at the low- income end of the scale than somebody who pays $25,000 in taxes because they make $100,000 a year.

That extra $500 is nowhere near as significant to somebody paying $25,000 in taxes as it is to somebody who pays $1,000 or $2,000. They will benefit the most.

And one of the families that the president will have with him tonight will be a tax family, somebody who pays taxes at the lower to medium end of the scale, who is going to receive a very sizable tax reduction.

The average tax reduction per American family under the president's plan will be $1,600 a year, average family. That's a lot of money to a lot of people.

QUESTION: Ari, following that logic out, though, would the president consider making that credit refundable, so that people who pay little or no income tax but a fairly hefty payroll tax bill would still get benefits?

FLEISCHER: That is already a partially refundable credit. The child credit the president proposes is exactly in line with the 1997 bipartisan budget agreement which provides a partially refundable child credit. And also, the health care tax credit the president is proposing, of $2,000, for people who don't have employer provided health insurance, that's a fully refundable credit.

QUESTION: Would he entertain making it fully refundable?

FLEISCHER: The president thinks the best plan is a bipartisan one.

QUESTION: Ari, there's some talk out there that all of your talk about retiring the, quote, "eligible" debt is just a convenient ploy to carve out enough money in the Social Security surplus to use it to pay the transition costs for private accounts. Could you speak to that?

FLEISCHER: I think it's the soundest of sound economics to pay down all the debt that is available to pay down, but not to penalize the taxpayers, the government or the bond holders by forcing taxpayers to pay penalties for paying down even more.

It would fiscally irresponsible to go down that path, and that's why the president chooses not to do so.

What we hope is that nobody will seek to find new ways to spend more money by arguing against what the president is doing.

QUESTION: And I'd like to just follow that up. You said, in answer to the question, where does the transition cost come from for private accounts, you said general revenues. It sounds to me like you've changed your plan.

FLEISCHER: No, I have never indicated. I haven't really discussed at great length where the transition cost come from on Social Security. That all depends -- and this was my answer to you at the time -- on the exact type of Social Security reform plan that is agreed to because the transition costs are totally dependent on the decisions that are made.

QUESTION: Once I did ask the question, you said general revenues.

FLEISCHER: Ultimately, in about 2030 to 2040, there will be a bridge period where there will be a need for general revenues. That's always been obvious. But the extent of it depends on the decisions that are made.

QUESTION: On the subject of decisions being made on Social Security, what is the president's timetable for appointing the members of this commission? And how fast would he like it to act? And what kind of parameters is he going to lay out before this commission as it deals with Social Security?

FLEISCHER: The president will indicate that this commission will be named some time in the spring. And at that time is when he will lay out the exact members, the details of it, who will be on the commission.

QUESTION: Does he have an approximate timetable for it to act, sometime this year, next year?

FLEISCHER: The president will address that tonight.

QUESTION: Ari, why take the hard issue last, Social Security? I mean, why not take -- you know, getting Congress to approve a tax cut is certainly a much more popular thing to do than to propose restructuring -- and also simpler -- than restructuring Social Security.

Why not tackle the hard one first, when a new president is in office, has momentum, has initiative? Why not do it the other way around?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president's number one priority remains improving education, and that's what he is dedicated to do. And we're also going to pay off an awful lot of debt. And we will fight for the tax relief that the president ran on. That's the order in which we will proceed in the beginning portion of this year.

And the president remains just as firmly committed to getting Social Security done, as ever. But this is the order that the president has decided to proceed in. He thinks this makes the most sense to build the greatest support across the country.

Social Security will never be an easy issue. Medicare -- never an easy issue. Many of the issues we will confront, with the narrow margin in the Congress, are not easy.

But the president has got an order to his approach that he believes will gather and gain the most strength from the American people, so that we can take on some of these other challenges later.

QUESTION: Ari, you propose appointing these folks in the spring. How soon does he think that they're likely to come back to...

FLEISCHER: The president will get into that tonight. QUESTION: Will the commission be charged with finding a way to implement the personal retirement accounts, and will that be an inherent part of their mission? Is that, you know, a fixed part of the president's vision for...

FLEISCHER: The president believes very strongly that one of the best ways to save Social Security is through a bipartisan idea, and that is the creation of personal retirement accounts so people can have a higher rate of return on the money that they invest, that is taken out of their paychecks for Social Security. That is a core principle for the president.

QUESTION: During the campaign, the president said quite often that the Clinton administration did not lead on this issue and, in his words, "We will."

FLEISCHER: That's right.

QUESTION: Why does not the president then, in fact, live up to the words and lead and put a proposal on the table? Why must he turn to some other device, a rather time-honored one here in Washington of a commission, that many times in history past commissions' recommendations are ignored and go nowhere?

FLEISCHER: I would urge you to listen to the president's words tonight and you will hear him and see him lead on saving Social Security.

I also remind you that the last time Social Security was successfully reformed was in 1983, in good part thanks to a commission. There have been commissions since then that did not work.

But the trick to commissions in Washington, D.C., is to create the will, so you can get the way. And that's what President Bush intends to do. He intends to invest the capital to get it done and he will fight to get it done.

QUESTION: Ari, as you know, there have been a lot of rich people who have been speaking out against the abolition of the estate tax. Now, I talked to some people on the Hill who believe that this is really undermining support for abolition of the estate tax on the Hill, which at one point seemed like it was going to happen. Is that your perception, as well?

FLEISCHER: No, the president is going to fight, and you'll hear this tonight, as well. This president, tonight, will fight for a repeal of the death tax. He thinks it's a wrong tax. He thinks it's a tax that is punitive, is double taxation, and it ought to be abolished. And he will fight to abolish it.

And if you recall in the last Congress, there was a vote in the Congress, a rather overwhelming bipartisan vote, to abolish it. So we think that will happen again this year.

QUESTION: Will he address the campaign that's being waged by these rich people who say they don't need it? FLEISCHER: No, he will fight for what he believes, and he won't address those other concerns. He'll just fight for what he believes in.

QUESTION: On the pardon issue, Senator Lott has indicated that the investigation should be handled in the courts. Does the president prefer that the Senate and the House drop their investigations of the Pardongate situation?

FLEISCHER: Well, he has said that the nation should move on and that this White House will move on. We are not even looking at those areas. We are focusing on improving education and paying down the debt, cutting taxes, rebuilding the military. That's the agenda of this White House.

And the president also understands that Congress will do as Congress sees fit. But his preference is to move forward.

The president also understands, he said this earlier today, that investigative reporters will look at this. He can't stop that. He understands.

QUESTION: Has he asked the senators and the congressmen to stop their investigations?

FLEISCHER: Oh, he understands that Congress will do what it's going to do and he can only speak for what this White House will do in this case.

QUESTION: Ari, will he address the question of an emergency supplemental for the military on this maintenance issue?

FLEISCHER: That will not be in his remarks tonight.

QUESTION: Secretary Powell received a lot of criticism on his trip to the Middle East from many Arab leaders critical of the U.S.- British bombing of Iraq, one Arab leader saying that the U.S. was living in a 1991 time warp. Has not the decision on the part of the U.S. and Britain to go for the bombing gained support for Saddam Hussein rather than mobilizing support for the old Gulf War coalition, if that was your purpose in this period of time?

FLEISCHER: The president has made crystal clear and he could not make it any clearer that he will continue to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq, and that's what he intends to do.

QUESTION: Is it more difficult now, when many of the Arab leaders have reacted to the bombing and are not as amenable to supporting U.S. action in the future?

FLEISCHER: I think the president has made clear what he intends to do, and he will continue.

QUESTION: Ari, regarding the president's commendable goal to save money for the people of the United States, the New York Times reports that 625 tons of Clinton archival material were flown from Washington to Little Rock on eight C-5 transport planes. And my question is, why was this flown rather than shipped slow freight, since the groundbreaking for the Clinton library is blocked by two lawsuits as well as insufficient funds? And isn't President Bush willing to ask the Clinton library foundation to repay the U.S. Treasury for the difference between flying and slow freight? Couldn't we adjust this in the name of the economy, Ari? Why was it flown?

FLEISCHER: I think in the spirit of looking forward and not backwards, you should address your question to those who make the decisions on to fly or not fly.

QUESTION: Who would that be?

FLEISCHER: That was the previous administration, I believe.

Yes?

QUESTION: Ari, on Plan Colombia, some of the critics are concerned that this, sort of, smacks of nation-building. A two-part question: One, is nation-building a bad word to this president as it is to some in this city? And, two, is Plan Colombia partly nation- building?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president supports plans to work closely with our allies on a host of issues that make for stronger communities. And that involves trade, which is something that was discussed during the meeting with President Pastrana; human rights in Colombia, as they discussed it; efforts to win the drug war, as they discussed it.

The president considers all of that important parts of a bilateral relationship with Colombia. And he is committed to those areas and to working with the government of Colombia.

Let me also just add, there will be a briefing shortly after this on background, to give a readout on that meeting. And what I would urge reporters to do on any other questions involving that meeting, if you don't mind, gather right here in lower press after the briefing. And then we'll have a background briefing from somebody here who was present at the meeting.

QUESTION: Could I ask you, on the policy point, nation-building, is that a bad word for this president?

FLEISCHER: I really don't have anything for you on that.

QUESTION: Could I just add a follow-up on a question I asked this morning, which doesn't speak to the meeting but to U.S. policy? General Barry McCaffrey had maintained that Plan Colombia was an anti- narcotics operations not a counterinsurgency operation, was and always would be. Does the president share that view or is he concerned that the more involved we get in Colombia, the closer we could get to finding a counterinsurgency operation?

FLEISCHER: I think that's a good question you might want to bring up at the briefing post desk. Yes?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the Taliban in Afghanistan offered that they are ready to hand over Osama bin Laden to Saudi Arabia if the United States drops its sanctions, and they have some kind of deal that they want to make with the United States. Do you have any comment on that?

FLEISCHER: Let me take that and get back to you on that.

QUESTION: And also you have seen the Human Rights Report issued yesterday by the State Department -- if the president has seen it. It's calling on a U.S. resolution against China in Geneva at the United Nations. Now what will be different this time? Every year, there's a resolution, but it has never been passed. How far is President Bush willing to push this year to bring the allies together to pass this resolution against China?

FLEISCHER: That resolution will have the support of the United States because President Bush believes it is the right thing to do, and that is why he is supporting it. We will see what the ultimate outcome is, but that's why the president is advocating it.

BATTISTA: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer fielding questions from reporters today at his daily briefing about the president's upcoming address tonight to a joint session of Congress that will begin at 7:30 p.m. Eastern -- well, CNN's coverage, rather, will begin at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time. And Mr. Bush's speech goes at 8:00, I think, isn't it? 8:00 Eastern Time.

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