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White House Downplays Potential Shift in Power in the Senate

Aired May 23, 2001 - 13:36   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Here we are in the West Wing, in the briefing room, where Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, is expected to step out shortly, and we're watching today because of his huge balance of power story in Washington with the imminent announcement by James Jeffords, the GOP senator from Vermont, who apparently, according to Democratic sources, will bolt the Republican Party and become an independent, throwing the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats.

That announcement is expected by Jeffords tomorrow in Vermont. He says he wants to go back to his people to make that announcement.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: So, many we have talked with today suggest that perhaps Republicans still working to change his mind. There has also been talk of perhaps getting a Democrat here or there to see if there is any interest in someone wanting to become a Republican because every member counts at this point. We also expect Ari Fleischer. We don't know what he will be saying, if anything, on the Jeffords plan, but we also expect he'll be talking about the tax cut, which is still being hotly debated today in Washington as well as efforts in the Middle East.

WATERS: That tax vote is scheduled in just a few minutes in the Senate, and apparently James Jeffords, whether or not he bolts the Republican Party, has said that he will vote for the $1.35 trillion tax cut bill, although the White House and Jeffords got in a squabble because of Jeffords' reluctance to go along with a $1.6 trillion tax proposal of the Bush administration.

Here is Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. I have a serious of announcements to begin today, several personnel and several other items.

The president intends to nominate Douglas Allen Hartworth (ph) to be ambassador of the United States to the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

The president intends to nominate Alberto Jose Mora (ph) to be general counsel of the Department of the Navy.

The president intends to nominate Everett Beckner to be deputy administrator of defense programs for the Department of Energy. The president intends to nominate Thomas C. Hubbard to be ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Korea.

The president intends to nominate William Riley to serve as judge on the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

And the president intends to announce or today announced his intention to nominate Nancy Goodman Brinker to be ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Hungary.

The president has made several foreign policy calls this morning. There are two calls specifically. He spoke with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat this morning and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about the situation in the Middle East and about the Mitchell committee report.

The president urged both leaders to seize the opportunity offered by the Mitchell committee report to end the violence in the region. And the president urged both leaders to work with the United States to develop a framework for implementation of the report's recommendations.

I want to give you a brief overview of next week, and then there is an important tax matter pending before the Senate I want to touch on briefly, and I'll be happy to take your questions.

On Friday, the president will deliver the commencement address at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis before he heads to Camp David for the weekend. In that address, he'll talk about the importance of military service. He'll discuss the valor, the honor and the commitment to country that comes from those who serve.

And on Monday, Memorial Day, the president will host veterans at the White House for a breakfast before he goes to Arlington National Cemetery, where he will lay a wreath at the Tomb of Unknown Soldiers, and he will deliver remarks to commemorate Memorial Day.

That afternoon, the president will depart for Mesa, Arizona, where he will make remarks at a Memorial Day event there. He will overnight in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, the president will travel to the Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton near Oceanside to visit the Marines, to tour their facilities and to talk about how the federal government is going to be a strong partner to the state of California in the cause of energy conservation to help ease the burden in California as they go through the summer months when demand is high and blackouts are most at risk.

Following that event, the president will return to Los Angeles to give a speech on the economy to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, and then he will fly to Fresno to overnight. We'll have more on details on Wednesday's visit shortly. And we return late to Washington on Wednesday night.

Also during his visit to California, the president has invited Governor Davis to meet with him, to get together to talk about issues important to California, including, of course, energy. And the president looks forward to meeting with Governor Davis.

And finally, the tax bill remains pending before the United States Senate. The president urges the Senate to take action as quickly as is possible. The president hopes that the Senate will be able to take action so that the bill can still be conferenced, hopefully still this week. The president is very concerned that any delays in getting tax relief passed will harm the economy, will cause the economic slowdown to continue longer. And the president urges the Senate to take this action immediately.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Ari, what is the president doing to try to keep Senator Jeffords in the Republican Party?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president meet with Senator Jeffords yesterday in the Oval Office for about half an hour, where the two discussed, in a private fashion, what was on Senator Jeffords' mind. And as you know, Senator Jeffords has an announcement scheduled for tomorrow. And we will all wait and hear what Senator Jeffords says.

The president clearly hopes that Senator Jeffords will remain a Republican.

QUESTION: Did he offer him any incentives to stay in the party?

FLEISCHER: It was a private meeting, but it was a discussion that was based on no offers. But it was based on just good dialogue between the two.

QUESTION: Can you rule out, now that you've gotten a 24-hour reprieve, can you rule out the president won't try to reach out to Jeffords again?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to rule anything in or out. Senator Jeffords will make an announcement tomorrow. Senator Jeffords has always been an independent thinker. The senator has his own ideas about what he wants to do, what he intends to do.

And, in all cases, President Bush and the White House will be very respectful of him.

QUESTION: Does the president have plans to call or see Jeffords again?

FLEISCHER: As you know, any time that we have anything that the president does, we'll try to fill you in to the best of our ability.

QUESTION: Ari, has Jeffords told the White House what his position is?

FLEISCHER: You know, it was a private meeting yesterday. And I think the next step of course is to wait and listen to Senator Jeffords.

QUESTION: How much would a shift in leadership in the Senate complicate Bush's agenda?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's an interesting question. You know, the Senate is 50-50 right now. It's a uniquely close Senate. And given its close makeup, the president has been tremendously successful in getting things done in the Senate. And I anticipate that the president is going to continue to focus on the manner to get things done.

He believes he was elected to get things done. And he believes that members of the Congress, whether they're Democrat or Republican, have an interest in getting things done.

If you take a look at the bipartisan coalitions that he has formed with the given 100 members of the Senate, you'll see that from issue to issue, he's been able to assemble healthy, governing, bipartisan coalitions that allow the nation to move forward with his agenda. And he has not been dependent on party-line votes. It's very hard to in a 50-50 Senate.

So that's the president's outlook as he faces whatever the future of the Senate will be.

QUESTION: Well, this wouldn't change any votes on any issues, but it would certainly change the way bills are brought to the floor and particularly the way judicial nominations are treated and whether or not they're brought to the floor.

FLEISCHER: Well, in all cases, the president is going to continue to work very respectfully and productively with members of Congress from both parties. As you know, in the judicial nominations, as you indicated, the president sent up an initial round of nominations that were very well-received, by Democrats and Republicans alike.

When you have a 50-50 Senate, it's important to work closely with everybody, which is what the president has always done. It's also what the president has always done as the governor of Texas. In Texas, of course, he had a Democrat legislature, and he worked very productively and very closely with the Democratic legislature. So regardless of any decisions that are made, the president will always govern in that style, which is to keep things toned down and to keep things productive and to keep things moving.

QUESTION: When you have a 50-50 Senate, Ari, a lot of Senate Republicans are saying today that you don't display your displeasure with any one senator over any particular vote, and not invite him to the White House when a teacher from his state is being awarded the Teacher of the Year award. A lot of criticism from Republican senators, not specifically aimed at Nick Calio or Karl Rove but at the White House in general, that playing hardball was a mistake here.

FLEISCHER: First of all, nobody played hardball, and certainly not the two people you mentioned, and no one did.

On that event specifically, we've heard no complaints, for example, from Senator Jeffords. But I want to remind you, every morning I share with the press in this room, what events the president is going to hold. And you're talking about specifically, of course, April 23 when the president honored the teachers of the year who came from all 50 states.

Let me cite a couple of other examples for you. I want you to reflect on these if you think there's an issue here.

On April 6, the president hosted 59 youth winners from across the United States for the VFW youth awards. They came from all across the country. There were no members of the Congress invited to the White House at that time either. That's often the case where people are honored and receive awards that they get at the White House where no members of Congress come because if you were to invite one, you'd have to invite literally hundreds.

On May 7, the multiple sclerosis parents of the year were here. I think you all remember, you attended the event. The mother of the year was from Tennessee and the father of the year was from Colorado. Again, no members of Congress were invited.

It's not always practical, possible or desirable to invite members of Congress. They don't always want to be able to leave the Hill to come down to the myriad of events at the White House where citizens are honored.

And that's the case in this event as well. That event had 50 teachers of the year honored. And if everybody had gotten invited from the Congress who represents those 50, you would have had 100 senators and 50 members of the House, or 150 members of Congress. So I dismiss that, I don't think that's an issue, and it's not something an issue that Senator Jeffords has made. And there is also...

QUESTION: He said there was one primary teacher of the year. The answer is extremely disingenuous...

FLEISCHER: And so, for the multiple sclerosis parents of the year, is there an issue there?

QUESTION: Teacher of the year, one teacher of the year.

FLEISCHER: The point is the same, if you're going to honor somebody from a state for a distinction, whether they are the parent of the year or a teacher of the year, there is a pattern that it is not always common to have all members of Congress invited down.

FLEISCHER: And again, we have heard no objections from Senator Jeffords on that. I know one Democrat senator raised objections and tried to create an issue with that. But I dismiss that.

QUESTION: Is there not a flip side, though, when you're in a 50- 50 Senate and you're looking for opportunities to make friends? You, say, have a Rose Garden reception for Joe Moakley -- something the president did not have to go out of his way and do, or, say, invite Senator John McCain to dinner tomorrow night here at the White House -- someone you've had some issues with in the past. There are some people you have decided to be extra generous to, extra friendly to, and others who would argue that you haven't.

FLEISCHER: I think you're searching for something that's just not there in the way this president treats members of Congress from both parties. This president has a history of reaching out and working very closely and cooperatively with Democrats and Republicans -- people who agree with him, people who disagree with him. And that's what he'll continue to do.

And again, the president has not heard any complaints from Senator Jeffords on that account. I know you're all looking for a juicy story line, but I respectfully submit to you in this case, it's not there.

QUESTION: To follow up on what John was asking you, is it the case that the president never asked Senator Jeffords about the story about the teacher of the year slight that's been in the papers for days? The president did not say to him, "Senator Jeffords -- Jim -- I'm sorry"?

FLEISCHER: Again, it was a private meeting that the two had. But as I just indicated, there are no complaints received from Senator Jeffords on that score.

QUESTION: Did the president extend any kind of acknowledgement of the story or apology to him?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, there are all kinds of events down at the White House that honor people from various states where no members of Congress are invited.

You're asking me if the president apologized for doing something that is routine and ongoing. The president's conversation with the senator is going to remain private. As I indicated to you, the senator did not raise any objections to what the White House had done. QUESTION: Are you assuring us that the decision not to invite him or not to have him at this event had nothing to do with any vote that he cast or any other reasonable relation with him?

I can assure you of that just as unequivocally as I assured you of the fact that the multiple sclerosis parents of the year came to the White House and no member of Congress from Tennessee or no member of Congress from Colorado were invited for that.

FLEISCHER: It is not at all unusual for people to be honored at the White House without inviting members of Congress to the White House. That is a pattern and a practice of White Houses going back many a year that will continue. And there are no slights when events like that happen. Members of Congress don't expect to spend all their time down at the White House. It's not always practical.

QUESTION: What about the larger issue here, Ari, that a moderate Republican, one of the leading moderate Republicans, feels uncomfortable in a conservative party led by this conservative president?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's important to let Senator Jeffords speak for himself. And I think everybody will listen to him.

But I want to make that point again: If you take a look at the coalitions that the president has assembled on the Hill and if you take a look particularly at the education bill that's moving forward in the House, for example, you'll see a president who has governed and will continue to govern in a fashion that brings people together. And he'll be respectful of those who agree with him, and he'll be respectful of those who disagree with him.

One example in specific: the patient bill of rights. Two weeks ago, the president announced his support for a patient bill of rights provision. That patient bill of rights was authored by Senator Jeffords, Senator Breaux and Senator Frist; a bipartisan coalition. I submit that to you as proof perfect that the president is going to continue to work with people regardless of their party, regardless of their views on where he sees common ground. And that's going to be the ongoing pattern.

I know that Senator Jeffords, for example, is pleased to work with the president on their mutual support of a patient bill of rights.

QUESTION: Doesn't the president take this as something that of warning sign to him?

FLEISCHER: Again, I think it's important to listen to Senator Jeffords to hear what he says, what his reasons are for whatever action he ultimately decides to take.

But you're dealing with a president who has a history and a pattern of governing in a bipartisan way, and nothing will change that. He'll continue to govern in a bipartisan way with big results. Look at the tax bill that's pending. Look at the number of Democrats who support him on the tax bill. That's a governing bipartisan majority. Look at the education bill, that too is a governing bipartisan majority. That's going to be the continuing pattern that the president seeks to adhere to.

QUESTION: Did Senator Jeffords specifically request to attend the Teacher of the Year event?

FLEISCHER: No. I have no information that he did. That's correct.

QUESTION: The White House chief of staff, out of the blue, called the AP reporters in Vermont during the pendancy of the budget resolution and said, "Just wanted to let Vermonters know where the president is and where Senator Jeffords is on this." Isn't that putting the muscle on Senator Jeffords in a rather crude way?

FLEISCHER: The White House is always going to reach out and talk to reporters in the various 50 states. The president represents those states as well. And the president traveled to various states, as you know, with great results.

There are a number of Democrats who support the president's tax provision. I don't know what the ultimate outcome will be, but I understand today, just watching the news, that Senator Jeffords will support the tax bill.

So obviously, the president's approach is going to be continuing to be respectful and courteous. The staff will continue to reach out, talk to reporters from all 50 states. And that wouldn't surprise me if it continues.

QUESTION: Ari, who raised this meeting with Davis? Was it in response to his request for a meeting? His people have been saying, you know, they were preparing to be snubbed by Bush out in California. And exactly what are they going to talk about?

FLEISCHER: I think it's mutual. I imagine Governor Davis wanted to meet with the president; the president obviously wants to meet with Governor Davis, that's why he's invited the governor to meet with him during his trip. California is a very big state. It represents one- sixth of the United States. And it's the sixth-largest economy in the world. And the president is very pleased to sit and talk with Governor Davis. It's important.

QUESTION: Are they going to focus on energy? Or what's the...

FLEISCHER: I think clearly energy is going to be one of the topics they discuss. It wouldn't surprise me if the president wanted to talk about education, maybe taxes. There'll be a series of issues they'll want to talk about, but energy will, of course, be at the top of the list.

QUESTION: Does the president have anything new in terms of offers for federal help for California energy?

FLEISCHER: We'll keep you advised. Obviously, one of the reasons he's visiting a military facility in California is the president has already taken the action to help Californians by directing our military facilities in California to cut back on their use of energy by 10 percent to help Californians get through a hot summer.

QUESTION: Has anybody from the White House been in touch with Senator Zell Miller to talk to him about switching?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think Zell Miller has already addressed that issue. The senator has said that he is not going to change parties. I think it's fair to say the White House is going to be in ongoing conversations with any number of senators about continuing their support for the Republican agenda and for the president's ideas. But Senator Miller, I think, has laid that issue to rest.

QUESTION: But that wasn't -- today we're told that White House people worked him over overnight.

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to...

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: What were the verbs?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to characterize any of the conversations that may or may not be happening between individual people at the White House and anybody on the Hill, but I think it is fair to say that the senator has laid that issue to rest.

WATERS: All Jeffords all day today. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont meeting with the president and the vice president. As you heard, Ari Fleischer said no comment on the contents of that meeting. All Ari Fleischer would say is the president hopes Jeffords will remain in the GOP.

We have White House correspondent Major Garret with us. Major, although, the White House spokesman says that reporters are trying to make an issue where there is none out of Jeffords not being at the White House for this teacher, this Vermont teacher of the year award, there certainly is something there. There was some squirming going on, didn't you think?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, on situations like this, Lou, what the White House always wants to say is, look, we didn't believe there was any slight. We don't believe anyone was insulted. We had don't believe anyone's feelings were hurt.

Well, that's not what matters. What matters is the person who does believe feelings were hurt, who did feel slighted, who did feel insulted, and clearly in this case, that person would be Senator Jeffords. But I think it's also important to understand that there is a broader context here.

Members of Congress -- I covered Senate and the United States House of Representatives for seven years. People don't switch parties because they were insulted once by their president. There has to be a preponderance of things that lead them to make a move as monumental as we are led to believe Senator Jeffords will make, and sources I have talked to on Capitol Hill and throughout the Republican Party say it was series of things.

Senator Jeffords was upset with the White House about the way they dealt with him on the tax cut, about how much they deferred to him putting the education reform bill together, about moves from this president on environmental policy, about the energy bill; there were several key issues where he felt himself estranged from this White House on a policy basis and also, in his personal relationship with not only the president but some of his key advisers, taken together, those things, may have led to what we expect tomorrow will be a shift in party and a monumental shift in the balance of power in the Senate.

WATERS: So, even though Ari Fleischer said there was no hardball in all of this, there was hardball.

GARRETT: Well, there is also hardball in politics. I mean, this is not a sport for people who are not willing to fight hard for issues, to understand that there are levers of powers and understand how to use them, and as Ari Fleischer did say, in a 50-50 Senate, you do have to consult a lot.

But I can tell you this as an absolute fact, when the White House lost its way on budget resolution, when Jeffords cast that decisive vote bringing the tax cut down from $1.6 trillion over 10 years to $1.35, the White House wrote him off their list of people to negotiate with on that tax policy, completely separated him from any conversations they were going to have.

They had to search for votes among moderate Democrats. They gathered as many as they could. They now have a bill that they are willing to accept. Senator Jeffords was not part of the equation, and they specifically ignored any attempt from him thereafter to get back in the conversation. Senator Jeffords didn't like that treatment, but that's the way White House handled it.

WATERS: Is the White House having second thoughts about all that?

GARRETT: If they are, they are keeping them very close to their chest. I talked to a senior administration official this morning, and he said the attitude here is quiet calm, quiet professionalism. One administration official was at a staff meeting this morning, he said, you know, in politics, there are problems, and there are facts. That Senator Jeffords may switch party is a fact. We hope it won't be a big problem.

But clearly, the balance of power will shift in the Senate. Much of the president's agenda will have to be dealt with differently if there is, in fact, a Senate majority leader who is a Democrat. The White House plotting strategy to deal with that eventuality should it occur tomorrow.

WATERS: We're going to explore more of that in the minutes ahead in our next hour, but you mentioned the tax bill. We expect a vote, which has been delayed for a couple of days now, to take place within the next hour. Can you tell us about that? Are we going to get a vote? Is this the end of it today?

GARRETT: We are expecting a vote to start about 2:15 Eastern time. That would conclude around 2:30. Sources I have talked to on Capitol Hill expect eight to nine Democrats to side with this Republican president in favor of that $1.35 trillion tax cut over 10 years. That tax bill will then have to be conferenced with the House bill, and you can already see, Lou, in Ari Fleischer's briefing, there is going to be an emphasis at this White House that no matter what Senator Jeffords does, his education bill will largely be passed the way wanted it to and his tax bill will largely be passed the way he wants to, and there will be a concerted White House effort to say look, a good part of the president's agenda is already passed the Congress.

Regardless of this party shift, this president has shown he can governor in bipartisan way and bring new ideas to Washington. That's going to be the positive spin the White House is going to try to put forward in what is clearly a setback, not only for the Republican Party generally, but clearly for this White House. WATERS: Yep, some sophisticated spinning going on today. Major Garret at the White House. We'll hear from you again.

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