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White House Press Briefing

Aired July 31, 2002 - 13:28   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: To the White House now, where White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is addressing reporters. We are going to listen in.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ...prescription drug coverage is disappointing for America's seniors.

America's seniors, particularly those who are low-income, have waited too long for a modernized Medicare program that provides better benefits, including prescription drug coverage. Seniors once again will have to continue to wait for long-overdue prescription drug coverage. Seniors once again will be denied the right to have a greater say in choosing the coverage that best meets their health-care needs.

The president believes that where there is a will, there is a way. And he hopes the Senate will find a way to get prescription coverage to seniors.

If the Senate leadership is truly committed to reaching a real bipartisan consensus, they should start by allowing the Senate Finance Committee, where a bipartisan bill had been created, to have the opportunity to reconsider that bill and to move it forward so that it can be passed and passed as quickly as possible this year.

And finally, also in the Senate, I indicated yesterday that Senator Daschle had made a commitment as far as the confirmation of many of the remaining positions that have not yet been confirmed which are ready for Senate floor action. It appears now that some senators may be raising objections and placing holds to Senate action on many of these conferees.

There are 60 nominees who are waiting for a vote. If the Senate does not act, many critical positions will remain vacant. These include the deputy secretary of energy, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the deputy administrator of NASA, the deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, 29 foreign policy nominees, which include critical positions, like assistant secretaries for arms control for verification and compliance and, of course, the judicial nominees, as well.

The president believes in the commitment he got from Senator Daschle, and the president will be looking to the Senate to honor that commitment this week.

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

QUESTION: Ari, Senators Grassley and Leahy would like the White House to reconsider the interpretation of the whistleblower section of the act which was issued last night. They say that a flawed interpretation which would discourage whistleblowers risks chilling those who would report corporate securities fraud.

FLEISCHER: We'll be very pleased to continue to talk to the Senate about the provisions. As the Senate knows, it's up to them, the application of the whistleblower protections that the president believes in, they were passed in the corporate corruption legislation. Leave it up to Congress to determine through their own rules and procedures who would get whistleblower protection.

So if the senators want to designate an individual on their committee to conduct investigations, that's their prerogative. And anybody who provides them information would then have whistleblower protection of course.

QUESTION: They maintain, Ari, that it should apply to any member of the House or Senate or any committee?

FLEISCHER: Then done. If that's what they believe, it's up to them to do.

QUESTION: But, Ari, if I could just follow up, the language of the provision here, it states that, in Section 1514(a) (ph), "whistleblower protection for employees of publicly traded companies have federal law relating to fraud against shareholders when the information or assistance is provided to or the investigation is conducted by."

It's a choice, but is it, A, federal regulatory or a law enforcement agency, B, any member of Congress or any committee of Congress and, C, a person with supervisory authority over the employee? I mean, the language here clearly recognizes two different groups that this will apply to.

FLEISCHER: And there's nothing in the statute or the signing statement that would prevent the Congress from granting that authority to whoever it chooses. So Congress has that authority if they so choose it.

QUESTION: Well, to follow up on that, why make Congress jump through new hoops to change the way investigations are allowed under their rules to provide protections that clearly Congress already provided in the statute?

FLEISCHER: Because there are clarifications needed in the statute, and the Department of Labor has to enforce it, and so we needed to settle on some type of definition. And that's what was provided. And we thought the safest course was to look to congressional rules.

QUESTION: The Congress said that -- you know, Leahy, Grassley, other members of Congress are saying that the statute is very clear, and from the commonsense reading of it, it doesn't look like it needs much clarification.

FLEISCHER: I think that if you talked to different lawyers involved as usual when you take a look at congressional statutes, you'll find differing interpretations of different provisions. I'm not certain that you've seen every single provision that Congress has applied to this Rule 11 (ph), for example, and the Congress would lend somebody to a different conclusion, which is why lawyers can take a look at the same language and have different opinions, and one lawyer will look at one paragraph, another lawyer will look at a different paragraph. So typically when that happens in the form of legislation, some type of clarification is sought to help the process.

But the bottom line remains the same. Under the interpretation the administration put out last night the bottom line remains this is a congressional determination. So it's up to the Congress to make that call.

QUESTION: The Congress feel that it's already made that determination, so why ask them to go through another...

FLEISCHER: Well, a couple different individuals feel that way, but I think if you talk to others, you'll see they read the statute, and they read it differently. Welcome to the statutes, that's why statutes are often complicated, and that's why somebody created lawyers. Their job is to look at these things, and they often differ.

QUESTION: Why did the White House feel it necessary to issue an interpretation?

FLEISCHER: For exactly the reason I said, because the Department of Labor needs clarity on how to interpret it, because the statute and rule 11 (ph) don't always line up consistently.

There are different people who will look at different parts of each of these sections and come to different conclusions. That's not a surprise.

QUESTION: I have some questions about the president's time at Harken Energy. Can you confirm for us that, when he was on the board of directors at Harken, that the company set up an overseas subsidiary...

PHILLIPS: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer addressing reporters there in his daily briefing. One of the main topics today, we have been talking about this with Kate Snow up on the Hill and that is the prescription drug benefit, talked about a lot. Shot down by the Senate today. Ari Fleischer saying that that is very disappointing for America's seniors, especially low income seniors, seniors that depend on these costly prescription drugs. He says it now denies the right to choose healthcare needs on behalf of seniors.




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