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Ari Fleischer Holds White House Press Briefing

Aired November 6, 2002 - 11:48   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We see the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is making his way to the podium, and we suspect there's lots of politics coming from the reporters. So we'll listen in.
I want to fill you in on the president's day.


I want to fill you in on the president's day. After a very late night in the residence last night, the president this morning has been making a series of phone calls to talk to the candidates from last night's election. He has spoken to Senator-elect Pryor. He looks forward to talking to other Democrats as well. He's made additional calls to Republican candidates. He spoke to some 30 or so candidates last night, and that's how the president will spend his day. He has no public events on his schedule for the day.

I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: In the early going of this administration, there was a lot of talk of bipartisanship and wanting to work with Democrats when you held control of the Senate. But at the same time, the administration was pushing through a partisan agenda to the point that Senator Jim Jeffords, as you know, defected. We're hearing the same talk about bipartisanship now, but why should we believe it'll be any different than it was in the early going?

FLEISCHER: I think the only real valid way to measure partisanship -- bipartisanship is in the votes. And if you take a look at the key issues that the president presented to the Congress, they were met with large bipartisan votes.

The centerpiece of the president's economic policies, of course, were a tax cut that was supported by 12 Democratic senators; a large bipartisan show on the education initiative that the president put forward that was passed into law. It was passed with overwhelming bipartisan votes. And so, too, the trade promotion authority of the president has.

So I think when you take a look at these issues, you see a real history of bipartisanship. Members of Congress are within their rights to speak out as they see fit, to vote as they see fit. In the political process, there is room for people who feel very deeply about something to be opposed to the president, if that's what they choose, and the president respects that and understands that. But at the end of the day, people were sent here to work together and get something done. And that's what the president views is the lesson from last night. The lesson from last night is for people to work together across the partisan aisle to get things done for the country.

QUESTION: Did you also learn a lesson with Jeffords' defection in 2001 that there's a limit to what you can push and how fast you can push it and the way in which you push it?

FLEISCHER: I think there were a whole variety of circumstances that entered into that, and I think that many of them were unique. The president is going to continue to press for his agenda. He thinks it is worthy and deserving of bipartisan support. And I think that was the message we heard last night from the country.

QUESTION: Does the president consider there's some mandate to fulfill his agenda -- going to war with Iraq, privatizing Social Security (OFF-MIKE) with Civil Service Commission and so forth?

FLEISCHER: Helen, you sound like a commercial that didn't work.



FLEISCHER: Number one, the president has not made any decisions about war with Iraq. As you know, the president has gone to the United Nations and asked the United Nations to help preserve the peace by passing a strong and effective resolution that will make Saddam Hussein disarm.

But the president was heartened by last night's results. And the president believes it's a reflection of the strong reflection of the candidates that we had running across the country and that the results are really a testament to those individuals.

QUESTION: So it's not a mandate?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think issues of mandates are best left to the voters to judge. And you will have your ultimate test every time a vote comes up on the floor of the House and the Senate to judge whether or not the president's agenda will be able to move forward.

He certainly hopes that it will. And he's going to work very hard to let it go forward. If you take a look at some of the things that have stock in the Congress, there's a lot of work that the American people want Democrats and Republicans to team up on that's not getting done.

If you take a look at judges for example, there are many cases where the judges that the president named had bipartisan support. It would have been passed on the floor of the Senate had they only been allowed to come to the Senate floor. Even in a Democrat-controlled Senate, there are enough Democrats to confirm the president's judges. But the process was used to keep them bottled up and killed in committee. I think those days may be over. When you take a look at energy legislation to make America more energy independent, when you take a look at protecting people's pensions, those are two of the important issues that did not get passed by the Congress that the president thinks are in the national interests that perhaps now have a better chance.

QUESTION: So this is a verdict? I can't quite make out what you're saying. This is a verdict on the president's agenda?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly the candidates who ran, ran very strongly on the president's agenda. And they won on that agenda. And I think it's impossible to make any prediction about whether or not the votes will all be there in the end. The president hopes so and worked hard to do so.

In the words of the president -- the president met with senior staff this morning. And as the president looked at the results, these were the president's words, this is how he summed it up. He said, quote, "The credit goes to the candidates and to those who focused on changing the tone, people who want to work together to get things done." That's what the president saw as a message from last night.

He hopes that it's a mandate for Democrats and Republicans to work together to get issues passed and enacted into law. The president will work very hard himself to make that the case.

QUESTION: Why are you having to read us the president's words? Why is he not coming out, given this is such a big victory for Republicans and for him? Why not come out and talk about his agenda to the American people?

FLEISCHER: It is a big victory, and the president thought that the most appropriate way to mark it today would be with a touch of graciousness. And so the president is not going to have any public statements today. He, of course, looks forward to talking about all the issues with the American people and will do so.

Did you have a follow-up?

QUESTION: Yes. I mean, you don't have 60 -- you don't have enough seats in the Senate now to stop a filibuster.


QUESTION: So what does this mean in terms of the priorities? If you could talk a little bit about homeland security, the economy, what you mentioned this morning, and what you actually hope to get accomplished and how, given that the majority is so slim.

FLEISCHER: The president has two major priorities for the future, and they involve the protection of the homeland, including our national security, and strengthening America's economy. Those are the two presidential priorities that he wants to work very closely with Democrats and Republicans alike to make happen. And I think as the new year approaches the president will have a lot more to share with the American people about any initiatives that may be on the horizon. The president looks forward to doing so, and he looks forward to working with the new Congress to get it done.

QUESTION: First, to follow up on that. You said one of the two top priorities is strengthening the economy. Can you talk at all about the first action item on that?

FLEISCHER: Well, there still is some unfinished business for the lame duck Congress to deal with when they come back. And let me address that.

The most important item of unfinished business for the Congress to deal with this year is the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. America remains a nation at war. We remain a nation where there are enemies who are trying to attack us. And the president thinks that it remains a vital priority of the Congress this year to pass the Department of Homeland Security.

The president still thinks it would be very constructive for the Congress in this lame duck session to create jobs.

There is legislation pending in the Congress, particularly to help blue collar construction workers, to create some estimated 300,000 jobs as a result of the passage of terrorism insurance legislation. So those are some of the issues that are immediately pending.

And, as I have indicated, typically as the new term begins in January, there are additional announcements. There's the State of the Union, of course. The president looks forward to discussing these various issues and initiatives with the American people.

QUESTION: You quoted the president earlier as saying, the lesson of this election is changing the tone works. Some of these races were some of the most bitter, vicious races in modern history, expensive, brutal races. Where was the tone changed?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think if you take a look, for example, at Senator Coleman -- anybody who watched that debate saw Senator-elect Coleman say repeatedly how important it is to change the tone. And I think what Democrats and Republicans and Independents and people who just plain don't care about politics want from Washington is leaders who come to Washington to get something done.

There are enough people who can either stay at home or come to Washington to stop things from getting done. But what makes a difference in America is people who come together to get things done. And that's the part of Washington that the president would like to expand. That's where the president sees room for a consensus, for agreement.

He's going to fight for his ideas and fight for his principles because he believes very strongly in them. He's going to continue to show leadership on his ideas about how to strengthen the economy and how to protect the homeland. And in the process, just like on education and just like on trade promotion authority, of course, there are going to be people who legitimately and on principle oppose him, but he's going to work real hard to have more votes than the people who oppose him, and put together those bipartisan coalitions.

QUESTION: What steps might be necessary to stimulate the economy? And are you contemplating a shake up of the economic team here?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me deal with the question of the economic team. The president knows that he has a very strong team, and he knows that he gets very good advice from each and every member of his economic team.

If you take a look at what's happening with the economy, for example, is when the president came into office, the economic, as we know now, was in recession in January of 2001, and the recession lasted until the fall of 2001, and, of course, the economy suffered the blow of the terrorist attacks on September 11.

Since then, the economy has come back. It has not come back as strong as the president would like. But if you look at the economic data, growth for the first quarter of 2002 is about 5 percent, it was approximately 1 percent in the second quarter and 3 percent in the third quarter. That's an average growth rate of 3 percent for 2002. The economy is indeed coming back. The fundamentals are strong, inflation is low. Interest rates are low. Productivity is high.

So the president praises his economic team, has confidence in his economic team, and knows he gets good advice from them.

QUESTION: So there's no need for a shake up then?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I can only answer how the president views his team. You know, the White House has a long-standing policy about any personnel issues anywhere, about not speculating. And I'm not going to.

QUESTION: What about ways to stimulate the economy?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is always reviewing different ways to possibly create more growth. And the president's immediate focus right now is on the possibility of creating those 300,000 jobs. That remains still, even after the election, the quickest most effect way to create jobs in American economy through government action. And beyond that, anything else would come from the president at the appropriate time if he has anything to say.

QUESTION: Ari, a week ago, I think, you said that the election is really return on local issues. And now you just said that...


FLEISCHER: You left out all the other factors that I cited in that same sentence. You're truncating my quote.

QUESTION: Can you tell me the difference, what happened? Why do you switch the tone?

(CROSSTALK) FLEISCHER: Switched the tone? If you recall what I said last week -- with precision, I remember it -- was that this election in the view most analysts is coming down to a variety of factors. And those factors are, the president's strong -- favorable opinion across the country, the work the president's doing on behalf of candidates, a variety of local issues, the strength of our candidates.

So I said, last week, and it's just as valid today in the immediate aftermath of the election, that it's a variety of factors that lead to the final judgments the voters have made. There's no one factor.

And just have to point out, nobody indicated to you that it was only one factor. It was, if you recall the sentence, a variety of factors.

QUESTION: Are you at all concerned that now the Republicans have such control that anything that goes wrong that the president cannot blame the Democrats any longer?

QUESTION: I mean, you've got a tough two years ahead of you with the economy.

FLEISCHER: The American people are not interested in blaming one party or the other. The American people are interested in the two parties working together to get things done. And that's how the president approaches these issues. That's why the president enjoyed such bipartisan support for major items on his domestic agenda. Tax initiative, education initiative, trade promotion authority, all those passed with large bipartisan votes.

QUESTION: Ari, as far as this election is concerned, how much role the war against terrorism played? It must be (inaudible) against terrorism. And two, as far as foreign policy is concerned, what the president has in mind in detail to get things done that...


FLEISCHER: Foreign policy and national security are always important issues to the American people. It remains a fundamental core mission of the federal government to defend the country. And the president is very proud that he will defend this country. And we are in the midst of a war against terrorism. The president will continue to do everything possible to fight and win that war.

QUESTION: Ari, do you expect the president to use the Republican's new control or regained control of the Senate to press for things like an amendment banning late-term abortions or some of the more conservative elements that have not been addressed in the first two years of his career?

FLEISCHER: I can't speculate about every legislative initiative that may or may not come down the pike. I think you've got a good example of the way the president leads based on his first year in office when there was a Republican Senate for at least the first six months of his tenure. Again, the president is going to fight for the principles that he believes in and try to bring people together.

QUESTION: Let me then try and turn the question around, would you expect him not to use the new control of the Senate to press for this? What benefits will we see in terms of the president's agenda from Republican control of the Senate?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me say again, the president's top priorities on his agenda for the future involve the protection of our country and the strengthening of our economy. He wants to make America stronger, safer and better.

The president looks forward as the new year approaches and into the new year with announcing legislative initiatives. I don't think it would be appropriate for me as a staffer today and within 12 hours of an election to preview anything the president may or may not say down the road. There will come an appropriate time for the president to discuss that with the public.

QUESTION: If I could press you just a little bit further. Presumably...


QUESTION: ... the protection of the country and the strengthening of the economy are things that can be accomplished with a bipartisan agenda.

You now have Republican control of the two houses of Congress and the White House. What about elements of the conservative agenda? What can conservatives look for to gain from this?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, the president's view is that good ideas attract support, and the good ideas that the president believes are keeping taxes low, increasing spending for the vital priorities that we face as a nation, such as education, such as for community health centers to serve predominantly low-income Americans who need primary health care, homeland security, bioterrorism -- to fight bioterrorism. These are among the president's priorities, and the president leaves it to the individual senators and members of Congress to make up their mind about whether they will support those initiatives.

The president views all of this as a compassionate conservative agenda, and he's going to keep pushing it.

QUESTION: What's the timing on the replacement -- getting a replacement for Pitt? And is there a candidate (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: The timing will be as soon as the transition allows. I can't guess what ultimately that will be in terms of weeks, months. I don't know that anybody has a firm handle on how long that could be.

And as far as anybody -- again, this fits the same definition of speculating about personnel. It's just not something that we've done going back to the transition. QUESTION: Looking beyond the lame duck session (OFF-MIKE) in the new Congress, does the election sweep last night for Republicans improve the prospect for action on some of the high profile items that have been talked about, such as getting Social Security overhauled or changes -- the fundamental changes to the tax code?

FLEISCHER: I think there's no question that last night's results increase the likelihood of getting things done for the American people. There are many initiatives that could've and should've been done in the last Congress that got bottled up and stopped, that now have a much stronger chance of getting done.

Having said that, of course, in the Senate, if members decide that they still want to exercise all of their parliamentary rights, they can block. They can filibuster. They can use 60 votes to thwart a growing bipartisan consensus.

But let me -- let me walk through a list of things that were left undone from the last Congress that the president still remains very interested in: One, protecting people's pensions.

It was passed by the House, not passed by the Senate. The president would like to see action taken to protect people's pensions.

Homeland security I mentioned. Faith-based legislation to help predominantly low-income Americans have a better economic shot at making it in America. Welfare reform, another way to help predominantly low-income Americans have a better life in America, was not passed in the Senate. Energy legislation to make America more energy independent was not addressed; that has a better chance at passage now. The Treaty of Moscow, the ratification of the treaty to have reductions in the number of offensive weapons the United States, was not passed.

Some issues got stuck in a House-Senate conference committee. One of the key issues there that the president would like to see passed was a patient bill of rights. The president thinks it's very important to give people enhanced abilities to deal with their health maintenance organizations. He would still like to push for that. He thinks it is important.

I cited earlier increasing funding for community health centers to help people with their health insurance needs. A ban on human cloning was passed by the House and not taken up by the Senate.

So there remain a wide variety of issues that have not gotten done in this last, closely divided Congress. There is not an overwhelming majority for the Republicans in the new Senate. History was made because the historical trend of presidents losing in the midterm did not take place. In fact, for the first time in history, Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives in a midterm election, which was the first time in history, as well as taking the Senate was the first time.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) outlook on fundamental tax reform and Social Security overhaul? FLEISCHER: I think it's too soon to say. Particularly for some of the major issues, it's important to have as broad a consensus as possible. And it still remains a closely divided Senate, even though party control has switched.

QUESTION: Talk a little bit about the process now that goes into replacing Harvey Pitt. SEC is an organization that doesn't exactly have probably the confidence from most Americans that maybe it should. Where does the president look now to find an able replacement, and what is the background that he's looking for in somebody to fill that role?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president wants to find somebody who will be dedicated to enacting the legislation that's been passed to help crack down on corporate corruption that the president feels so strongly about and who also will continue Harvey Pitt's very successful record of taking action against corporate corruption.

Let me cite to you some of the facts about what's taken place, because the SEC in fact has one of the strongest enforcement records of any SEC in history.

They have thrown record numbers of noncompliance corporate officers and directors off of corporate boards. They're recovered compensation bonuses and stock options from corporate wrongdoers. And they filed a record number of actions for financial reporting and company disclosure violations.

The Department of Justice, of course, is very much in the middle of a whole series of announcements about prosecutions against people who've engaged in corporate wrongdoing.

So even if there are personnel changes to be coming at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the fact of the matter is, the SEC and their career officials have done a very strong job in taking action and in bringing cases against people who do wrong, and that will continue.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer already plunging ahead into the difficult issues of governance, just hours after it became clear that this president has helped Republicans win a resounding victory, taking back control of the United States Senate, winning more seats in the House of Representatives, historic pluses for a president in his first midterm after his election.


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