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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired March 7, 2002 - 12:34   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.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Here is Ari Fleischer now, in the press room of the White House.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... a new 10-point program aimed at corporate governance.

This is a follow-on to an announcement the president made, directing his secretary of treasury to convene a working group to learn from the lessons of the Enron debacle, to take whatever actions are possible to help protect investors from any actions, required to tighten up, to protect shareholders and to protect individuals across the country from any of the ramifications of the Enron collapse.

He's having his weekly lunch with the vice president, and early this afternoon in the Rose Garden, the president will meet with Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg and members of the New York delegation, Democrats and Republicans, to discuss the importance of the aid package for New York.

The president gave his word about providing aid to New York, and the president will always keep that word, and the president has an announcement to make in the Rose Garden.

Later this afternoon, the president is going to meet with a group of labor leaders who are coming to the White House. I anticipate the energy bill that's up before the Senate will be a topic they discuss. And the president will also meet with members of Congress who are coming to the White House, members of the Senate as they consider the energy bill in the Senate. The president will urge them to take action, to provide for energy independence for our country.

The president and Mrs. Bush will welcome British Prime Minister Blair and his family to their ranch at Crawford, Texas, on April 5th through 7th. The visit is an important opportunity for the president to spend time with the leader of one of the United States' most important allies and exceptionally close partner in the war against terrorism.

They'll consult against the ongoing campaign against terrorism, as well as other key foreign policy issues.

Also today, the House of Representatives will vote on a package of unemployment insurance extensions as well as tax relief for corporations to help hire more Americans and to keep Americans who are either -- they might lose their jobs -- fully and gainfully employed.

This also includes aid that is vital to New York, including a New York liberty zone which is a provision of tax incentives to help businesses locate and hire as well as bond issuance in New York City to help New Yorkers recover from the attack on the United States.

The president endorses this compromise proposal. It's a scaled down stimulus package that includes the unemployment extensions that he has sought. He urges the House of Representatives to vote yes on this package. He will sign it into law if it is sent to him, and with that, I'm more than happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Is the president willing to accept a scaled down stimulus package because of forecasts that the economic recovery is underway? Was it as crucial to get everything that he wanted?

FLEISCHER: No, I think the president's preference by far is to get the exact package he sent up to the Congress. But the House of Representatives was able to pass what the president sought, and a compromise had been reached with a group of Senate Democrat moderates as well as Republicans in the Senate which could have guaranteed that the package passed and was sent to the president.

It was blocked in the Senate however. So the president, as well as the House of Representatives, have now come to the point where we believe it's important to compromise. And the president thinks this is a good compromise. He'll sign it.

QUESTION: Does he agree that the comprehensive package that he was pushing for is less urgent now that the recovery appears to be underway?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's increasing signs that the economy is recovering. The president's approach is to err on the side of America's workers, and that means that people who are currently clinging to their job, who worry whether or not they'll be able to keep their job, that's where the president is focused on. He wants to help people who have already lost their jobs by extending unemployment insurance for 13 weeks.

But he would still prefer to have an acceleration of all the individual income tax rate cuts as the House of Representatives and as the bipartisan coalition in the Senate preferred to do and could have done had it not been blocked by the Democratic leadership in the Senate. Given the fact that it's been blocked, the president believes the House action today is bipartisan, is helpful, and it ought to be the law of the land.

QUESTION: The president has not himself said what you just said -- signs the economy is recovering. As recently as yesterday, he was still saying the economy seems to be in some degree of trouble. Is he looking at economic data that others are not, and is he not yet ready to conclude that the economy has turned a corner?

FLEISCHER: No, it's an important parcel of what I'm saying. There's no question when you look at some of the statistics, there are signs that the economy is recovering.

The president's concern is that this not be a jobless recovery, and that unemployment typically lags. The economy starts to come back, but people still don't get hired at the speed at which the economy begins to recover.

And the president is pleased to see these increasing signs of economic recovery from a statistical point of view, but he also worries about them from a human point of view. And that focuses on America's workers. And there are still people, particularly the manufacturing sector, and the high-tech sector who are working, but they worry whether they'll be able to keep their jobs.

And that's why the president's pleased that what the House is doing today includes provisions that are accelerated depreciation, for example, net operating lost carryback provisions, for example. All of those are helpful to employers so they can keep their employees. And that's what the president would sign.

QUESTION: One follow up. The president often said Americans don't want unemployment checks. They would rather have a paycheck. In the totality of this package, do you think this package is more skewed towards unemployment checks or paychecks?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's a $40 billion package over 10 years. And the interesting thing about it as well, in the immediate years, it actually has a bigger tax bang for the buck. And that's because of the way the tax provisions kick in. There is an acceleration in the immediate years of the tax provisions. And that does give more incentive to businesses to keep the workers they have and to hopefully hire more.

And that's what the package is all about. As the economy comes back -- that's correct, depreciation. There's a depreciation of 30 percent expensing, and as...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) which you theoretically believe will provide more money to retain or higher workers?

FLEISCHER: Well, the more money a business has, the more money they can use for their employees. They don't have to let people go. Which is what employees worry about right now. Will they be the next ones let go? That's the big concern America's workers have, even in these early stages of seeing some good statistics.

But it's a focus on America's workers and a recognition that the best way to help people is to let them keep their jobs.

QUESTION: Has the president decided to send General Zinni back to the Middle East, and if not, what has to happen before he will?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is always looking for an opening, looking for a way to help, and make a contribution to help the parties find a way toward peace in the Middle East. The president is always reviewing that matter. You could say it's a day-to-day issue where the president's always seeing what can be done. And that's where it stands.

The president is always looking and hoping for an opening. I can't say that -- speak to the timing.

QUESTION: What does the president think of Army Secretary White failing to divest his Enron holdings after he promised a Senate committee that he would?

FLEISCHER: Let me read to you a statement from the White House on that. "Secretary White has complied with all executive branch ethics requirements as regards conflict of interest. He has not worked on any Enron related matters, since day one, and therefore has avoided any conflict of interest or appearance of conflict since joining the Department of the Army.

"The Armed Services Committee has traditionally had an additional requirements that appointees are asked to comply with in regard to divestiture. Secretary White agreed to comply with these standards and has been working toward meeting them. It takes time to divest from complex financial arrangements, and Secretary White has worked with both the Armed Services Committee and the Office of Government Ethics toward that end.

"The administration is confident that through working with the committee and with the Office of Government Ethics that Secretary White will meet all committee requirements."

QUESTION: Is the White House concerned about his contact with Enron officials in October just as the company was about to implode?

FLEISCHER: The statement speaks for itself. That's the point of view from the White House.

QUESTION: Ari, Treasury Secretary O'Neill has proposed and suggested that corporate executives should be held accountable for their negligence in the management of corporations that lose large amounts of money by way of making them open to lawsuits on that. That's what he proposed would be the best way to toughen and reform corporate management. Why did the president reject that?

FLEISCHER: Well the president wants to make certain that we toughen up provisions against corporations, particularly making it easier for people to in effect be disbarred from corporations and from boards on which they serve, or forcing them to give back in effect their bonuses if the only reason they got them was a result of personal malfeasance of the accounting that allowed them to get that bonus in the first place.

But the president also at the same time wants to make certain that the reforms don't become a haven for opening up lawsuits all across our society, because the president has long-standing held a view that the opening up every matter in our society that somebody's suing somebody is not the best solution to these problems.

QUESTION: So is it fair to say that Senator Daschle has -- that the president's package at the end of the day isn't as tough as the treasury secretary had proposed?

FLEISCHER: Well I think that, from a trial lawyer point of view, they would like to be able to sue as many people as possible. But in the end, is that the best way to have a reform for a system -- is that a best way to force accountability, and the president thinks not. And it shouldn't surprise...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Secretary O'Neill of course is part of the recommendation that was made today. And what happens in this process is there are a number of people who give their opinion who weigh in. They can make their opinions at different points. Information comes up, it evolves. And it came together in the decision the president announced today.

QUESTION: On this same subject Ari. The president in his speech this morning basically made the case of executives, particularly chief executives have to go beyond just the legal requirement so that people are confident that the overall financial statements they're seeing reflect their best knowledge of the company.

You just a read a statement in defense of Secretary White. We now know that his own division was one that whose statements which presumably he was aware of, turned out to be those most under suspicion at Enron. Can you try to square these two positions for us and understanding that you're creating a new standard here, Do you have somebody in your administration right now who may not have lived up to the spirit of what the president has discussed?

FLEISCHER: Anything particular to Enron, I would refer you to the Department of Justice. As you know, they have an investigation under way of the facts and the specifics and the particulars dealing with Enron.

I don't reach any conclusions about any one individual. I don't think that would be appropriate to do.

QUESTION: Let me put it in a different way then. If those investigations came to the conclusion that Secretary White knew or should have known about these kinds of issues within his division, would it still be appropriate for him to be serving?

FLEISCHER: Again, the president has confidence in Secretary White that he will comply with the ethics requirements that the committee has above and beyond the requirements of the federal government.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: And what you're asking about is hypothetical, which, as you know, I don't get into.

QUESTION: Back to the Middle East, does the president think that his hands-off policy has contributed in any way to the hopelessness and the rising violence in the Middle East? And anticipating your answer, I have a follow-up.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: Why don't you just get it all out of the way?

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Well, American weaponry is being used, so why are we so passive in this conflict where people are dying on both sides?

FLEISCHER: Well, I just have to disabuse you of your premise that the United States is hands-off, the United States is not involved. The United States has been deeply involved. The United States is always deeply involved.

QUESTION: How? How? I mean, the president has never met a Palestinian, and he seems to be so detached. Let's hear something positive.

FLEISCHER: The president has spoken out on this any number of occasions. As you know, he just welcomed President Mubarak to the White House and he talked with President Mubarak, as he's talked with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdullah, and any number of others in the Middle East about how to achieve peace.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: But the premise of your question is that the United States is to blame for events on the ground in the Middle East.

QUESTION: No, that's not the premise.

FLEISCHER: And I don't accept that.

QUESTION: I'm saying, by not participating in any sort of -- as a mediator, as we've always been (inaudible), how come -- I mean, of course -- why are we not really actively involved?

FLEISCHER: The United States has been, will be and continues to be. So we disagree on the premise of it.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about Judge Pickering. You said this morning at the gaggle that he had been notified that voting has been postponed (OFF-MIKE) if voting had been today he would have lost, because Democrats are united on this issue (OFF-MIKE) committee would not have a clue. How do you expect to get the votes in Judiciary Committee if it's delayed for a week (OFF-MIKE) is the president going to try to talk to the senators?

FLEISCHER: I think the president will talk to the Office of Congressional Affairs and make an assessment about whether or not any individuals on the committee can be swayed, and that always helps determines what the president personally will do. But at any other number of levels, you can anticipate that members of the committee will have communications with the White House and with others. You heard the president yesterday and you heard the Democrats from Mississippi yesterday and leaders of the Mississippi civil rights community yesterday urged the Senate to vote for Judge Pickering. The president hopes that's a message that will be heard, and we'll find out over time whether it does.

QUESTION: Can I ask you this? Do you think the Democrats -- I don't know if it's hypothetical or not -- do you think the Democrats are trying to send a message to the president in case there's an opening in the Supreme Court about the type of nominee he would have send up?

FLEISCHER: You know, I can't guess what the Democrat motives are for changing their vote on the same man that many of them voted to confirm when he was up for the district court. They just have changed their minds about the same man. And I can't guess what their motives are for that. The president indicated he thinks there's politics going on.

QUESTION: Can I follow-up on that? At the meeting this morning, some of the Democrats indicated that the president should always send up to them choices who are consensus choices, that's their words -- "consensus," several of them used that word. Was there any point where the president felt that Pickering was a consensus choice for this post?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say he remains a consensus choice. And we can find out if the Senate would only schedule a vote on the floor.

But what the Senate Democrats want to do is create a system in the committee that prevents him from going to the floor. Now, this stands in contrast to other issues in the Senate.

For example, the energy legislation that the president is going to discuss today with members of the Senate. The Senate majority leader made a decision not to allow that to go to committee, because he thought if it did it might likely reflect something that's much closer to the president's view of energy independence, which enjoys bipartisan support on the Senate Energy Committee. So in that case, the committee was not allowed to proceed. The energy legislation went straight to the floor.

In this case, the Senate is looking for a way, again, to stop what the president believes, and many bipartisan -- Democrat, Republicans in a majority likely believe -- as a man who can get confirmed on the Senate floor. So it's an inconsistent approach procedurally. The one consistent thing is, it seems to be a way to play politics and block the president and a bipartisan majority who supports the president from having their point of view achieved and carried out into law.

So it's more representative of the actions of a minority vote that can use politics for partisanship, as opposed to letting the majority will prevail. QUESTION: Ari, another angle to this. Since the administration began, it seems that the nominees that the president has picked has had much opposition from many minority groups, civil rights groups, in dealing with issues of racial bias. What does the administration attribute that to, especially with Pickering and in the latest case with the gentleman at the Department of Agriculture?

FLEISCHER: Everybody has their right to speak out and oppose as they see fit. And I wouldn't question or guess what people's motives are. That's their right. That's a prerogative.

But again, it appears that in the case of Judge Pickering, there is a slim bipartisan majority that would confirm him. And so, I really think the question is, why is there a partisan minority that is using unusual parliamentary devices to stop us from reaching the floor of the Senate.

QUESTION: So the racial bias thing is unusual?

FLEISCHER: I can't speak to that. I don't question people's motives or why they -- it's anybody's right in society to speak out as they see fit.

QUESTION: Ari, on the steel, did the president consult with any foreign leaders before making his decision on the steel tariffs?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say he heard from foreign leaders, yes.

QUESTION: Any specifics?

FLEISCHER: I don't get into discussions of specifics in that detail with foreign leaders.

QUESTION: Does he expect any retribution from foreign countries at this point?

FLEISCHER: Well, the action the president took is permissible under the World Trade Organization rules and under Section 201 of the law. And, obviously, Europe has the right to challenge other nations, including Europe have the right to challenge that under the WTO rules. There's already been indication that they will do so. So that's a matter that will get taken up, likely, by the World Trade Organization.

QUESTION: Ari, as you know, we're approaching the six-month anniversary of 9/11 now. I realize the president will say something, but I wondered what your thoughts are on the way the American people and the country have changed in the past six months.

FLEISCHER: Let me answer that. The president hopes that the American, as we approach the six-month anniversary of September 11, will do two things: One is look back and look forward. He hopes that they will look back to the day of September 11 and remember the lives of those who were lost, remember the families of those who still suffer, and he hopes they'll also look forward and look at the great sacrifice the men and women of our military are making to keep the world free from the terrorist who will bring more harm to our nation if they were allowed.

The president also hopes the American people will look around the world and recognize how the world has rallied to cause of fighting terrorism, and the world stands as one with the United States.

QUESTION: What do you hope to get out of this meeting with union leaders today?

QUESTION: And how do you rate your chances of having ANWR in the energy legislation at this point?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president will be meeting in the afternoon with a group of union leaders that includes the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, the Teamsters, the Iron Workers, AFL-CIO, Building Trades, the Seafarers.

A number of people who aren't exactly bedrock Republicans are coming here to send a bipartisan message to the United States Senate that America needs energy independence, that America ought to produce its energy here at home and not overly rely on foreign supplies of oil, and that it's good for the economy, it's good for energy independence and it's good for jobs for America's workers. That's a message the president hopes that these union leaders will be able to help take to the Senate.

Certainly, the president's comprehensive energy plan passed with a nice bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives. It's another example of where the president, working with House Democrats and Republicans alike, is creating bipartisan consensus in Washington. The only question is, will the United States Senate stand with or against bipartisan consensus?

QUESTION: You said AFL-CIO will be part of that?

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: On steel, some analysts in Europe are sort of perplexed at the timing and the decision in this regard: They say it could not only prompt a trade war of some magnitude, but also it could lead some of our allies in Europe to question commitment to the broader goals of the war on terrorism. Does the administration see any danger of that happening, A, a trade war; or B, a lessening of enthusiasm in Europe for the overall goals of the war on terror?

FLEISCHER: The answer is no on both. But as to the timing, the timing is dictated by the rules under section 201 of the trade laws. That sets up a statutorily defined period of time in which the president had to act. So the president had no choice about the timing of it, having initiated the 201 investigation to see whether foreign imports of steel were hurting America's steelworkers. That began back in June, I believe, of 2001, and that required a March date.

QUESTION: Why don't you believe there are any dangers of either a trade war of any magnitude, large or small, or any lessening of commitment on the war on terror?

FLEISCHER: Because the president believes that this was a situation that is permissible under the World Trade Organization rules, and the World Trade Organization rules are set up to help nations deal with what's inevitable frictions and differences as we engage in free trade. But the president also, who is an ardent free trader, who took on his party in the cause of free trade, who stood up in Republican primaries if you recall to people in his own party on behalf of the cause of free trade, believes the best way to have additional free trade is by enforcing the laws we have on the books.

QUESTION: Does the president agree that it was a good idea for (OFF-MIKE) Corps of Engineers?

FLEISCHER: Let me say I'm not going to get into that at any great length, but let me simply say that the president welcomes a diversity of views in his administration. He welcomes questions. He welcomes critiques, and that's all part of the process by which budgets are put together.

Once they are put together, they are a statement of administration policy, and the president does think it's appropriate for his staff to support the administration's policy.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) my question is, is there a lesson in here for other administration officials that you better adhere to the president's agenda or you're in trouble?

FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave it as I said. The president welcomes a healthy debate, but there's also a matter of once the debate is settled and the president has proposed a budget, the president does think it's reasonable for the people who work for him to support the budget.

QUESTION: Ari, your statement a couple of minutes ago, saying that Democrats are holding up the Pickering nomination in the committee is quite reminiscent of what some of your Democratic predecessors used to say Republicans were -- so what's changed?

FLEISCHER: What's changed is there's a president that came from Texas who was not part of the partisan polarization that has taken place in Washington for years. And the president talked about changing the tone.

He's referring to these constant battles between the Congress and the president that just seem to switch parties. And the Democrats did it to the Republicans. The Republicans do it to the Democrats. The president believes it's time to stop. This is not in the national interest.

QUESTION: So you're saying Democrats are playing Gotcha here?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that both parties have done it in the past, but that doesn't make it right, and particularly at a time when there does look like there are enough votes on the floor of the Senate for this man's nomination to proceed, even if there aren't enough votes in the committee, it is entirely within the rights of the Senate to allow this vote to come to the floor of what they call an unfavorable recommendation from the committee.

It's been done before, but in this instance, because the votes are likely there to pass Judge Pickering onto the Circuit Court, a parliamentary maneuver is being used to block his consideration, to block the bipartisan will of the Senate, even if it is arguably a narrow will. But it is a bipartisan narrow will.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Republicans did that during the Clinton years?

FLEISCHER: No question. Republicans did it as well.

QUESTION: Ari, back in the Mideast. In light of Secretary Powell's remarks yesterday, is the Bush administration turning up the heat at all on Israel in terms of violence in the Middle East?

FLEISCHER: Well, I would refer you to what the president said when he stood with President Mubarak. And his statement at that time was perfectly clear and very much what Secretary Powell said as well, that it's very important to find a way to stop the violence in the Middle East. The violence doesn't serve either party either cause.

The president continues to believe that Chairman Arafat can and must do more to stop the violence. And the president is very worried about the impact on the Israeli people, on the Palestinian people. But he does not want the region to get spun up into war. He wants the region to find ways to reduce the violence. And that's the president's view.

QUESTION: Did the White House view Powell's remarks as more pointed against Sharon than the president had said in recent comments?

FLEISCHER: No I think the secretary's remarks were a reflection of just what I indicated the president said.

QUESTION: Ari, the Middle East. Would the administration support a multi-nation force to attack the terrorist organizations in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria that are waging war against Israel?

FLEISCHER: The president has long said that there are no good terrorists, there are no bad terrorists. And one of the effects of the war against terrorism is that nations that are engaged in terrorism are taken a second look to determine whether or not that's an industry they want to remain involved in.

Beyond that, I'm not going to go about any steps that the president may or may not take in continuation of further into that policy. Yes sir in the back?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) reporting this morning that the Pentagon is considering banning all U.S. citizens from computer projects that are unclassified but sensitive -- things like payroll and software. Defense contractors say it could cause job loss and make it difficult for them to do their jobs. Does the president support the plan? FLEISCHER: I have not heard that report, and so I can't speak to it. I can't tell you.

QUESTION: On the steel decision, administration officials said that steel workers as well as other unemployed could have healthcare benefits through a health insurance tax cut. Does he know the House Republicans just dropped that provision from a stimulus package, because it just appears too pretentious received by partisan support? Is the administration open to the avenues you're providing healthcare benefits?

FLEISCHER: Well, let's take it one day at a time here. Let's hope the House today can pass one that is a compromise, but many things were dropped in the cause of getting a compromise that can be signed into law. The health package was something the president supported.

So, too, are across-the-board income tax rate reductions. There are other provisions in there that we're not able to pass.

But today could be a day of real progress in Washington. The president hopes so. So let's wait for the vote, to see if the House is putting their votes behind compromise and bipartisanship. The president hopes they will.

QUESTION: Ari, when we had the debate on the stimulus before, it was, as you've noted, roughly twice as big as it is now. And there were plenty of people on Wall Street who were questioning the need for the package at the time, predicting an economic recovery of which we've now seen, in the last couple weeks, a lot more evidence.

So the question is, if the economy really is coming back and the package is smaller than it was before when there were questions about whether it would provide any kind of stimulative effect, what would this package really do in terms of benefits?

FLEISCHER: I think you've got to remember what the president said when he ran for the office. The president gave a warning as a candidate that he believes that people in Washington should not just focus on statistics and letters like OMB, CBO. They need to remember the real lives of people who are effected.

And if there's somebody who's unemployed today, they don't want to be rehired in June or July as the economy comes back over time; they want to be hired today. So, too, does their family want them to be hired. If there's somebody who's got a job where the boss is announcing they may have layoff, they don't want to be laid off, they want to be able to keep their job.

And therefore, the president believes that the package that the House is taking up today represents a good compromise to getting the job done, to helping America's workers.

There is not everything in it that he wanted in it. There's not everything in it that Democrats wanted in it. There's not everything the Republicans on the Hill want in it. And that's called compromise, and that's how Washington, over time, need to get its work done. There's been a lot of wrangling on this issue. The president hopes the wrangling has come to an end.

QUESTION: Ari, two quick ones on the Blair visit.

FLEISCHER: On which?

QUESTION: On the Blair visit?

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what's going to top the agenda there? And why did the president want to meet with Prime Minister Blair in Crawford as opposed to here at the White House?

FLEISCHER: Nothing against Washington, he just happens to like Crawford a lot. I think it's a sign of the closeness of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. They've met on many occasions. They talk on the phone often. If you recall, Prime Minister Blair's first visit to the United States was at Camp David; it wasn't at the White House.

And the two have really just hit it off, have a good relationship. When the president went to England in June, they met at Checkers, they met at the Camp David of England, for example. So they have their meetings not necessarily at their typical meeting places.

The president welcomes him to his home. He's a good friend, and the president enjoys taking leaders to Texas.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) anti-terror campaign will top the agenda?

FLEISCHER: Well, the agenda is -- the meeting is a month off. We'll have a lot more specificity on the agenda closer to it. But I think it's fair to say the war on terrorism will be still going on, and the president will talk to the prime minister about it at that time.

QUESTION: Two things on campaign finance. Twenty-seven House Republicans wrote to the president a couple of days ago asking him to veto the House campaign finance bill. And I wondered if there was any reaction to that?

FLEISCHER: I haven't seen the letter, but the president has made it clear. He has not changed his view on that topic.

QUESTION: On the nomination to the NIH, are you going to announce that today (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: As you know, I don't speculate about personnel. When the president has personnel announcements to make, he'll make them.

QUESTION: The fast-track bill that's emerging in the Senate includes an expansion of the trade adjustment assistance act? Does the president have a position on that particular configuration that the Democrats are proposing which does in fact expand the program rather significantly?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say it's not exactly clear what provisions, when you get into the detail level, will be there as the Senate takes up trade promotion authority. This is legislation the president is committed to, wants to work very closely with Senate Democrats and Republicans and so that trade promotion authority can be signed into law.

The Senate has historically been a supporter of trade promotion authority. In reversal, the House, which has previously been against it, has now voted for it. It's one other issue the House has now taken action on. The president's going to work with the Senate, so the Senate can do what the House has done.

On the specifics of it, I think it's just too soon. We'll have to see exactly what the details are.

QUESTION: It's pretty clear then that trade promotion authority or fast-track will not be passed by the time the president heads south for Central America, where trade issues are going to be a prominent part of the agenda. Is that going to be a problem for the president in terms of the credibility, the kinds of things that he'll be able to...

FLEISCHER: Well, the president's been calling on the Senate to pass trade promotion authority for months. And the president does not control the timing or the calendar in the Senate. So, I can't speak to that. That's a question that the Senate leadership would need to address. The president would like to have had it done yesterday, but he understands there's timing issues in the Senate.

He'll work with the Senate. That's all he can do.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) moving more quickly?

FLEISCHER: Again, the timing is up to the Senate. The president would like to have it done before the trip. I don't know if that's possible or not, but the president most importantly wants to have it done for America's workers.

QUESTION: Does the administration believe that the Macedonian government, as it claims, has broken up an Al Qaeda ring of non-Balkan terrorists who were planning to carry out attacks against U.S. interests in the Balkans?

FLEISCHER: Let me take a look into that and see if there's anything I can get you, and if so, I'll post.

QUESTION: On Pickering. One of the subtexts of the conversation in the Senate is because the president won election so narrowly, he is disqualified essentially from nominating judges who cannot attain a more broad consensus support than what you've talked about, the narrow bipartisan consensus Judge Pickering would receive now.

QUESTION: Could you respond generally to that attitude from Senate Democrats and how it shapes not only circuit and appellate court justices, but could very well influence Supreme Court nominees?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there is no precedent for that idea. There is nothing in the Constitution, nothing in the statute that supports that. That would suggest that in 1984 the Senate and the House should have done everything Ronald Reagan told them to do, because he wanted a 49-state landslide. And that's not the way our system is built.

Thank you.

HEMMER: Some wide ranging topics today. We pretty much ran the gamut there at the White House, including Judge Pickering, which has generated quite a bit of conflict in Washington. This is man the White House wants to put on board an appeals court, but apparently, the Senate Judiciary Committee has delayed that vote, in committee anyway, for at least a week's time there. Orrin Hatch, the Republican out of Utah, has granted that. The White House says they want a full vote on the floor of this Senate. They think can they get a slim margin of victory for Judge Pickering, but apparently, that is not moving anywhere at this point.

Also, you may have heard about the 9/11 Fund. We are getting a lot more information on that today. We anticipate at about 1:20 Eastern time, about 10 minutes from now, President Bush will be in the Rose Garden, back into the White House, to talk about the new deal that has been struck that will actually increase the offering to survivors or the families of victims of September 11.

And certainly, the Middle East continues to be major topic right now. Yesterday, you may have heard some rumblings not only from the White House, but also the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, that perhaps the administration is starting to lean harder on Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister. Today, though, the White House insisting that the violence must stop -- in the words of Ari Fleischer, "It is important to find a way to stop the violence. The president is always open to new ideas." In his words.

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