US: Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:29 P.M. EST
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. I have nothing to begin with this Friday, so I will go straight to your questions.
Q Could you give us a readout of the Vice President's meeting with the South Korean official?
MR. McCLELLAN: With Foreign Minister Ban?
MR. McCLELLAN: They had a good discussion about a wide range of issues. The two reaffirmed our shared view that North Korea must end its nuclear weapon program, and that's really the extent of the readout.
Q Any details on how to get --
MR. McCLELLAN: The Foreign Minister is here in town for some visits, previously scheduled visit. This was something that was scheduled over a week ago, and I know that he's expected to be visiting with Secretary Rice, I believe early next week.
Q Scott, rumors* about an attempted coupe against Kim Jong and North Korea -- anything on that?
MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't heard anything about it.
Q Did the Vice President reiterate the U.S. position that there could be no one-on-one talks with North Korea, that it has to be --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think all parties in the region recognize that they have a stake in North Korea ending its nuclear weapons program. This is a regional matter that affects the countries in the region, and we've made very clear our view. It is a view shared by the other parties to the talks. The six-party talks are the way to resolve this matter in a peaceful and diplomatic way.
We've also made very clear that North Korea has ample opportunity to visit directly with us in the context of the six-party talks. And they have had ample opportunity in the past to do so.
Q So let me just follow up, if I may. So there are no circumstances or conditions under which the U.S. would talk one-on-one with North Korea?
MR. McCLELLAN: Bill, the problem is we've been down that road before. The 1994 agreed framework was the road that we went down before. It was a bilateral approach between the United States and North Korea. North Korea violated that agreement and continued to pursue nuclear weapons. As I mentioned, all parties in the region believe they have a stake in making sure that there is a de-nuclearized Korean Peninsula. That's why we're working with all parties in the region to say to North Korea: You need to come back to the six-party talks; you need to permanently dismantle your nuclear weapons program; that's the way to realize better relations with the international community and end your isolation.
Q But as you're surely aware, the critics -- including some of the people who participated in the previous administration's talks with North Korea -- are suggesting that the six-party talks are simply a recipe for ensuring that nothing ever gets done because of China's very difficult position, not to mention that of the other parties.
MR. McCLELLAN: China has played a helpful role. Japan has played a helpful role. South Korea has played a helpful role. Russia has played a helpful role. I think you're hearing from all those nations that they believe North Korea needs to come back to the talks so we can talk about the way forward on the proposal that we outlined at the last round of talks.
This was a forward-looking proposal that provides for North Korea to realize better relations with the international community if they make a commitment to dismantle and eliminate its nuclear weapons program.
Q Scott, what are the consequences of not coming back to talks, and North Korea being free to continue its nuclear program and develop more nuclear weapons? Is there -- there is no hindrance on their development of these --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I pointed out the development of nuclear weapons was beginning when they were violating the '94 agreed framework. And in terms of "what-ifs," we are in consultation with other parties to the talks. We will continue to be in consultation with them, and we would obviously discuss those matters with the other parties to the talks. But I think North Korea -- we've heard a lot of rhetoric from them in the past. They tend to say things from time to time and ramp up the rhetoric from time to time. We've also seen probably some mixed signals coming from them over the last couple of days, with some saying that their intention is to come back to the talks, and others talking about that they've simply suspended the talks.
Q But there's no impediment right now for them to do anything to continue their program, is that right?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that all parties in the region are making it clear to North Korea that it needs to end its nuclear weapons program, that it needs to permanently dismantle that program and eliminate it for good.
Now, they're also making it clear to them that they only deepen their isolation from the rest of the world when they take actions and express words like they have over the last couple of days. We've made it very clear that no one has an interest in attacking North Korea. That's very clear to North Korea. Our interest is moving forward on the proposal that was outlined at the last round of talks. It is a proposal that addresses the concerns of all parties, and it provides a way for North Korea to become a part -- a better -- to be a participant of the international community if they will commit to dismantling and eliminating their nuclear weapons program.
Q So why does the White House think it's ratcheting it up now? Why is North Korea doing that?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would never try to guess their motives, but we've seen this from time to time. It's nothing new.
Q Scott, why -- why did the President cut down on food stamps and child care and a thousand other -- well, not that many -- social causes, and so forth, and give huge tax cuts to the rich again?
MR. McCLELLAN: He didn't.
Q He didn't cut down on food stamps and child care, and so forth?
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of the President's compassion agenda and providing a safety net for those in need, we have made a strong commitment to helping those who are in need. And I think you should look at our budget and look at what we've done, because I disagree with your characterization. You might want to look at our budget to see the specifics. We've continued to support those programs that are providing aid to those in need.
Q And everyone who has been getting food stamps --
MR. McCLELLAN: If you've got a specific, I'm glad to talk about it, but you should go back and look at the briefing earlier this week by our OMB Director, and he addressed these issues. And your characterization is just --
Q In such a vague way and he didn't really hit them.
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, John.
Q Scott, last year during the 9/11 Commission, one of the key points it looked into was whether the administration had taken the al Qaeda threat seriously enough before 9/11. Condoleezza Rice, in defending the administration, wrote an op/ed piece in The Washington Post, in which she said, "No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the administration" -- meaning from the Clinton administration when the Bush administration came in. Now the sort of infamous Richard Clarke memo from January 25, 2001, has been released over to the National Archives center. And in there, there is an attachment of a strategy -- the 2000 year strategy of the Clinton administration. It's entitled, "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al Qaeda Status and Prospects." Was Dr. Rice telling the truth?
MR. McCLELLAN: Was she telling -- yes, she addressed this matter previously. I'll be glad to take a look at that. I haven't taken a look at it, John.
Q She said there was no plan turned over from the previous administration.
MR. McCLELLAN: John, I'll be glad to take a look at what you have. I've not seen it at this point. But, remember, we made it very clear during that time period that al Qaeda was a threat we took very seriously. You have to look at the actions that we took during that time period.
You also have to remember that we were not on war footing prior to September 11th. We are now a nation at war on terrorism. The President is leading the effort to go after those who seek to do harm to America. We're staying on the offensive and bringing them to justice. We're also working to advance freedom and democracy in the world to make the world a safer and better place, and we will continue to pursue that agenda.
But I know of no reason for anything to change from what we've said previously. And I'll be glad to take a look at that document that you cite. I haven't seen it.
Q Basically, you are saying there was no plan turned over -- if you're sticking with Dr. Rice's op-ed, then you're saying there was no Clinton plan turned over?
MR. McCLELLAN: I have no reason to believe anything changes from what we've said previously, and I will be glad to take a look at that document that you cite, because I have not seen it.
Q Scott, you referred previously to the diplomatic strategy on North Korea, I'd like to turn you to the question of assessing the nature of the threat. During the Iraq experience, the President was out several times a week describing his concerns about what would happen if Saddam Hussein obtained a weapon, or, secondly, what would happen if he exported nuclear materials.
If you believe, as American intelligence seems to now indicate, that the North Koreans have several, and if you believe that they may have been caught in at least one case of export, can you explain to us why this threat would be any less urgent than the Iraqi threat?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sure.
Q And why the President hasn't been out discussing it on regular occasion?
MR. McCLELLAN: Iraq was unique, that's why. And we talked about that previously, about why they were unique and how they had defied the international community for some 12 years, and how they had defied resolution after resolution. It was Saddam Hussein's choice to make, and he chose continued defiance. Iraq was a country that had invaded its neighbors, and --
Q North Korea has not defied the international community? Because this -- as I recall, this all started in the President's father's administration --
MR. McCLELLAN: I was giving you the reasons behind the Iraq threat and why it was unique. And we stated that very clearly before.
We believe that the best way forward to resolving the nuclear issue in North Korea is the six-party talks. It is an issue that impacts all of North Korea's neighbors. They all have a stake in the issue. They all recognize the importance of a nuclear-free peninsula in North Korea. And that's why they're all urging North Korea to come back to the talks. We have a proposal on the table that is the way forward, and we believe it's important to continue to pursue the peaceful diplomatic route for resolving this matter through the six-party talks.
Q Scott, I asked you to assess a threat, and you came back and told me about a future diplomatic way forward. Putting aside how you solve it, could you address the comparative threat?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you asked me why North Korea -- you asked me why North Korea and Iraq were different --
Q I'm asking if North Korea, with weapons and with a record of export is --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and I pointed out that we talked about the situation with Iraq. Iraq was a unique situation, particularly in a post-September 11th world. We've talked about that on numerous occasions. And in terms of North Korea, we've been talking about it in this room. We remain concerned about North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, and their proliferation activities. We've expressed that about how that is a destabilizing force in the region, and that's why we're working through the six-party talks to address the matter. And all parties in the region are sending a clear, unified message to North Korea about the way forward, and the way to resolve this, in a way that addresses everybody's concerns.
Q So it's your position that Iraq, because it defied the United Nations -- but may or may not have had the weapons -- was a greater threat than North Korea, which may not have had the record of U.N. resolutions, but has the weapons? That's --
MR. McCLELLAN: I stated the reason for Iraq, and why it was a unique threat, and why we addressed it. It was Saddam Hussein's choice to make, in the end -- he chose continued defiance. We've been working through the six-party talks. We've made some progress. It's progress that we were able to get North Korea to sit down and talk with the other parties in the region about how to address this issue in a way that North Korea agrees to eliminate its nuclear weapons program, and a way North Korea can realize better relations in return. The proposal spells out some very clear, practical steps. It's a comprehensive approach to resolving the matter. And that's why it's important for North Korea to come back to the talks, so that they do not continue to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.
Q Since North Korea joined the talks, which is now a long time ago, what have been the positive results that have come of the talks?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think it is, first of all. The fact that they were sitting --
Q No, I'm asking what positive results have come out of the talks since North Korea --
MR. McCLELLAN: You said, "A long time ago," and I disagree with that. First of all, you have to remember that the bilateral approach of the previous administration did not work. North Korea violated that agreement. They did choose to defy the international community in that sense. That's why this President thought that the best way to approach this was through the six-party talks. And the fact that North Korea sat down and talked with all its neighbors in the region is important progress in itself. And we were -- we continue consultations with the parties in the region. From those talks, we developed a comprehensive, practical proposal for the way forward to resolving the matter. We presented that proposal at the last round of talks last summer. And now we want to talk about how we move forward on that proposal in a substantive way.
So that's what I'm referring to when I'm talking about progress. That's important progress, Keith.
Q My understanding is that the progress of North Korea sitting down was -- that was about a year-and-a-half ago. Since then, the only progress that you're citing is proposals. What concrete results have come of the talks with North Korea?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no. A comprehensive proposal that we put on the table, Keith, and we discussed it at the last round of talks. And North Korea took that proposal and -- so that they could talk about it. We talked about it with all the parties in the region. It's a proposal that we believe -- that we believe addresses all the issues concerning the parties. It's a forward-looking proposal, and it's a way to resolve this in a peaceful and diplomatic way. That was important progress through the last round of talks.
Now, we're ready to talk about how we can move forward on that proposal in a substantive way. And all the parties in the region, you've heard from them over the last couple of days. They sent a very clear message about their concern and about their desire to see North Korea to come back to those talks. Those are parties that have a direct stake in what is going on in that region. And we're all sending a unified message.
The fact that the President has sat down and visited with leader after leader in the region, and all of us agree on the same approach for resolving this matter, that is significant progress, Keith, because North Korea chose to violate the '94 agreement and continue to pursue nuclear weapons over the course of the last decade or more. That's why we need to resolve this issue now, through the six-party talks.
Q Has North Korea built nuclear weapons while this proposal has been on the table?
MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, our intelligence community has spoken to that issue, in terms of their assessment and their belief regarding North Korean nuclear weapons. That's why I pointed out to you, as well, that it was the '94 framework that North Korea violated, and they were continuing to pursue nuclear weapons during that time period, when they had made a previous agreement with the United States through the bilateral approach. It takes time to develop nuclear weapons, as you are well aware.
Q Scott, the President used a word today that we don't often hear from him, saying he would veto any Medicare legislation that came his way -- if there is such legislation -- that would weaken the prescription drug benefit, in his view. Did he have something specific, either someone in Congress specific in mind or some proposal specific in mind when he said that today?
MR. McCLELLAN: He was making a general statement. There are some who would like to undermine the reforms we've put in place to expand benefits for America's seniors and make health care more affordable for our seniors. The President was making very clear to America's seniors that we stand with you, we made a promise to you, and we're going to keep that promise. And he's not going to let anybody take away what we have provided to you that you waited on for way too long.
Q Is it just -- is his veto threat just on the parameters -- the benefits of the prescription drug benefit? Senators McCain and Kennedy, for example, have talked about legislation that would revisit the issue of bulk purchasing by the government. Others have talked about revisiting the reimportation issue in a way inconsistent with the test laid out by the task force of the administration. If you touch those things, but not prescription drug benefit, is that a veto --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said the President was making a general statement. I'm not trying to get into individual, specific ideas that people have talked about, but you've heard from a number of people who are seeking to undermine the Medicare reforms we put in place for America's seniors that provides them with prescription drug coverage, that provides them with more preventive care, so that they can have the care they need, when they need it, and have more affordable health care. Seniors will realize significant savings through this. The President was making a very strong statement that we made a promise to you; we're going to keep our word, we're not going to let anybody undermine these important reforms that we are working on putting in place right now.
Q Would he consider revisiting the bulk purchasing issue, for example, undermining the reforms in place?
MR. McCLELLAN: We've made our views very clear when it comes to that. I think that all you need to do is look at the Congressional Budget Office, and their analysis. They looked at the issue and pointed out that there would not be any significant savings through that approach; that the approach that was put in place, where private plans can negotiate those prices is an approach that is going to provide seniors with significant savings. And we believe that's the way to move forward on implementing these reforms.
It's historic legislation that modernizes Medicare for the first time in its history. It provides greater competition and choice for seniors. It gives them more options and better benefits. It gives them the kind of preventive care they need to prevent costly surgeries from happening in the first place. As the President said earlier today, it made no sense why Medicare wasn't providing some of that coverage and bringing competition and choice into Medicare. We'll improve the quality of care, make it more affordable, give seniors what they have waiting on for far too long, and it will help provide savings to Medicare in the long-run.
Q To just sort of refine on John's point, then, Scott. These are Republican majorities we're talking about on Capitol Hill, so when the President is issuing a veto threat, presumably he's saying to members of his own party, he's going to fight their desires to scale back the growth of this project. How does that play for this Republican President?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that you've seen some Democrats in recent weeks talking about undermining these reforms. And in terms of Congress, we're working very closely with the congressional leadership to address the important priorities for the American people. The congressional leadership, I think, recognizes the important of putting these reforms in place. The Medicare reform legislation enjoyed some strong support. And the President believes now is the time to focus on putting those reforms in place. And we're going to continue to work with Congress to make health care more affordable and more accessible for all Americans.
Q So it's a veto threat to congressional Democrats?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, the President was making a general statement, Carl. I know you're trying to get me to get into specific people. The President made a general statement. And you heard from members of the Democratic Party earlier this week who really were trying to move forward on an attempt to undermine the reforms that we put in place. We're not going to let that happen. The President was making a general statement that these reforms are something that we promised to America's seniors, and we're not going to let people take them away.
Q So, Scott, you're saying that this is nothing new for North Korea, and you've basically seen this before. So how has that --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not saying; it's a matter of fact. I think it's been documented that they've said this on -- this kind of rhetoric on a number of occasions.
Q So how have you gotten the process back on track in the past? And how will you get it back on track this time?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why we're consulting with other parties in the region now. The Foreign Minister of South Korea was here in town. The Vice President met with him earlier today. He will be meeting with Secretary Rice, as well. And we will continue to consult with other parties in the region. There is -- there have been instances before where North Korea said they weren't going to come back to talks.
But North Korea made a commitment to work through the talks. And the talks are the way forward for all of us to address the nuclear issue in North Korea and for North Korea to lessen its isolation from the rest of the world.
Q But what, specifically, do you say to, you know, the parties in the process?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the other parties, as you're well aware, have discussions with North Korea from time to time, as well. And they're all sending the same message to North Korea about the importance of coming back to the talks, and the importance of North Korea eliminating its nuclear weapons program. They all want a nuclear-free peninsula. They've made that very clear. They all have expressed their support for the six-party talks.
The President met with some of those leaders as recently as his last trip to Chile, and had good discussions with a number of those leaders. He's remained in contact with some of leaders more recently. I know he had a good conversation with President Roh just last week. So we'll continue to consult with our allies and to consult with those in the region about how to move forward on this issue.
Q Scott, for the last couple of years you've been dealing with both North Korea and Iran on their nuclear policies in multilateral forums. From both we've heard nothing but conflicting statements, contradictory statements. What is there out there that can give anyone any hope that these talks have any chance of success with either party?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, on North Korea, if North Korea did refuse to return to the talks, then we would discuss the next steps with other parties to the talks. But everybody involved in those talks is saying to North Korea, come back to the talks, because this is the best way to address this issue and to address any concerns you may have, as well.
With regards to Iran, I think we've made it very clear that Iran made some commitments -- they made some commitments to the international community. We expect them to live up to their obligations. We've also made it clear that they need to know that they're -- if they continue to defy those commitments, then it is a matter that we believe should go to the Security Council for discussion about next steps. And Iran has said that they would abide by their international commitments. We will see; we want to see through their actions, not their words. We appreciate the efforts of our European friends to address this issue. We're pursuing diplomatic approaches on both these matters. And there's important progress being made on both when you have the international community saying with a single voice: This needs to stop, you need to live up to your commitments.
Q Are we going to pursue a date certain in terms of Iran having to show good faith before we go to the U.N.?
MR. McCLELLAN: We're going to continue to consult with our European friends about the matter.
Q On Social Security, can I ask the "where are we" question? The President made his proposal in the State of the Union speech, we've been traveling, he's got more travel next week. And he repeatedly says, if you've got good ideas, come forward. Does he now want lawmakers to come forward with specific legislation, or is he preparing to do that, himself?
MR. McCLELLAN: He welcomes all ideas, he has made that very clear, with the exception of increasing the payroll tax. That's something the President has made very clear. He's going to talk more about this in his radio address tomorrow. We are also talking directly with the American people about the serious problems facing Social Security. You have survey after survey showing that the American people recognize that Social Security faces major problems, and that we need to address it. We need to make sure that Social Security sees no changes for today's retirees. It's fiscally sound for today's retirees, and it's working. But it won't be for tomorrow's, and that's why we need to strengthen it for our children and grandchildren.
And so the President is going to continue reaching out to the American people and talking about the problems facing Social Security, and the reason why we need to act now to strengthen it, because it's something that only gets worse over time. In 2018, you're going to have the system paying out more than it's taken in. And each year after that, the shortfall only grows worse. And then in 2042, of course, it becomes bankrupt.
So the President is going to continue emphasizing the problem facing Social Security, he's going to continue to reach out to members of Congress, as well. He's had a number of meetings, he will continue to have a series of meetings to talk about ideas for solving this problem. Part of the solution is personal accounts, so that younger workers can realize a greater rate of return. Everybody is going to have a guaranteed benefit under Social Security. We want them also to have a voluntary option of a new benefit that would help them realize a greater rate of return.
Q But my question is the tactical one. Do you want lawmakers, someone on Capitol Hill to produce a plan and come to you? Do you want to produce -- or you still want to wait months with the President trying to sell it to the American people first?
MR. McCLELLAN: I wouldn't describe it either way, Mark. The way I would describe it is that the President wants to move forward in a bipartisan way to talk about how we can solve it. So that's why he's having discussions with members of Congress. That's why he's having discussions with the American people. And if you look at The Washington Post poll that was out this week, it showed 73 percent of the people thought that it was either a crisis, or it faced major problems. And so it's very clear to the American people that Social Security does face some serious challenges, and that we do need to address it.
The President believes we shouldn't be passing the problem on to future generations. We should be solving it now. So he will talk with members of Congress about the best way to proceed forward. He put an idea out for personal accounts. He mentioned some ideas that were advocated by Democratic leaders for solving the issue. He said, these are all on the table; let's talk about how we can move forward together to solve the problem; I welcome all ideas and I intend to move forward in a bipartisan way. And that's the best way to approach this issue, because it is an issue that affects all Americans.
Q Scott, thank you. Some civil liberties groups are criticizing the tough border control bill passed by the House as a thinly disguised attempt to demand national identification cards for all Americans. Does the President support national ID cards?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President supports the legislation that just passed the House. We sent out a statement of administration policy. He had previously said that there should be some standards and that we would work with members of Congress, including Chairman Sensenbrenner, and they were moving forward on that legislation this week. We put out a statement of administration policy expressing our support for the legislation. There are certain aspects of it we'd like to see addressed as it moves through the process. But you should look at that statement of administration policy.
Q Scott, the President has said that the only non-negotiable point in Social Security is a hike in payroll taxes. You talked about this a little bit on Air Force One yesterday. I just want to make sure I'm clear. Would raising the cap from $90,000 to, say, $145,000 qualify as a hike in payroll taxes in the eyes of the President?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would go back to the President's news conference toward the end of last year. He said there are going to be a number of ideas expressed by members of Congress. He has expressed his views on some ideas and about the ways to proceed forward. He's made very clear what his principles are. But he said, because this is important that we move forward in a bipartisan way to resolve the matter and to solve the problem, he's not going to go and get into ruling things in or ruling things out every time ideas are expressed, because he wants to welcome all ideas for addressing the issue. But he has made clear what his principles are.
In terms of the issue of raising the cap, we've previously stated that it does not solve the fiscal problem facing Social Security, that Social Security is on an unsustainable course right now. And this only pushes it out a few more years. The President wants to make Social Security permanently sound. The promise to today's -- I'm sorry, the promise to tomorrow's retirees is an empty promise because the system is unsustainable. It cannot afford to pay the benefits it is promising to the American people.
That's why the President believes personal accounts are an important part of the solution. And that will help younger workers, if they choose -- it's a voluntary option -- to realize a greater rate of return on their benefit, coupled with the traditional benefit. It's similar to the Thrift Savings Plan that was outlined.
But right now, you have money being paid into the system to support today's retirees. So people are not able to set aside money into an account. There is no account there where your money is being set aside in Social Security. It's a pay-as-you-go system. Today's workers are supporting today's retirees. And the number of workers supporting those retirees is growing smaller, and the number of retirees is growing larger, because people are living longer. And we've seen, I think dozens of times, when payroll taxes have been increased to try to address the matter it has not solved the problem facing Social Security. The President wants to make it permanently sound and address it once and for all.
Q I just want to be clear, though. Is a raise in the cap a raise in payroll taxes?
MR. McCLELLAN: And I want to be clear, too. I mean, the President stated very publicly, to everybody, that you're going to come in here -- members of the press corps -- and we understand that's your job to do, to try to get us to get into talking about various ideas that are out there. We view that as negotiating with ourselves, and we're not going to do that. But the President did make very clear what his views are and what his principles are for going forward. But that's why I pointed out some of the things that I did in my remarks in response to your question.
Q Well, I don't want you to negotiate, I just want to be able to have clear in my mind as I report on Social Security whether or not when Congress talks about raising the cap, whether that's -- whether that action is defined by the White House as a --
MR. McCLELLAN: We could go down issue after issue, and you could ask me what our view is on it. What the President has said is that all ideas are on the table, with the exception of increasing payroll taxes, and that we're going to work with members of Congress, listen to their ideas, and talk about how we can move forward together in a bipartisan way. The President set the tone for moving forward in this debate, and he made it very clear that he welcomes all ideas.
Q Would we try to physically prevent any attempt by North Korea to export nuclear weapons?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, say that again?
Q Would we try to physically prevent any attempt by North Korea to export nuclear weapons?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, proliferation is a top priority for this administration. The President led the effort to establish the Proliferation Security Initiative to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to stop the proliferation of longer-range missiles and things of that nature. There are some 60 nations that are working on that effort. It is a top priority for this administration.
We achieved a great success when Libya agreed to dismantle its WMD programs. And we've achieved an important success when it comes to dismantling the A.Q. Khan network. And we continue to learn more and more about that. But proliferation will remain a top priority for this administration. I previously expressed that we -- that's one of the concerns we have with regards to North Korea.
Q Scott, in addition to Medicare and Social Security facing solvency problems, Medicaid also has funding problems. And there's been talk on the Hill calling for a Medicaid reform commission. Would the President support the idea of bipartisan commission to reform Medicaid?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President supports the plan that he outlined for strengthening Medicaid. And Secretary Leavitt has talked at length about the importance of addressing some of the loopholes and gimmicks that are used to double-charge, or to use Medicaid money for purposes other than what it was intended, and how that's hurting the program. We want to make sure that governors have as maximum of flexibility as possible in the Medicaid program so that they can cover as many people as possible at an affordable cost. And that's what we're moving forward on. Secretary Leavitt has spoken to this issue, the President spoke about it in his remarks earlier today, as well. By giving more flexibility in Medicaid and the S-CHIP program, so that states can cover those who it was intended to cover, and maybe even cover some more.
Q And with respect to Social Security solvency and personal accounts, could you clarify that these are two distinct issues? The one addresses ownership, and the other long-term solvency, in terms of whether --
MR. McCLELLAN: They're both part of the solution, is the way the President views it, because we need to strengthen Social Security for our children and grandchildren. Right now people in my generation and younger don't expect to have any retirement benefits from the Social Security fund when they do retire. And the President wants to help them build a nest egg of their own.
And that's why personal accounts are so important. It will help them realize a greater rate of return on their own retirement savings. It's about trusting in people. It's a philosophical issue. It is about building an ownership society. We trust in people to make the right decisions and the best decisions about their future, and the best decisions about how their money is spent. That's why we want to give them the voluntary option to realize a greater rate of return on their own savings, much like federal employees do now, through the Thrift Savings Plan, which has been a huge success. We're talking about investing in conservative bonds and stocks. There are safeguards put in place to the system. The Social Security commission talked about it. We also need to take steps to make sure Social Security is permanently sound, and to address the unfunded liability facing Social Security.
Q But whatever measures the President agrees to go forward with can address the issue without actually establishing these accounts, correct?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, say that again.
Q Whatever measures that the President decides to advance or to embrace, in terms of addressing the issue of Social Security solvency, that that can be taken without necessarily establishing these accounts.
MR. McCLELLAN: Correct. But there's more of a problem facing Social Security than just that. That's why the President believes we need to help workers realize a greater rate of return on their savings, if they so choose, by investing in secure bonds and stocks, and how that's part of the solution.
Q It's a follow-up on Sarah's question. Mexican authorities are saying that it's an offense to Mexico, that the President is supporting a bill who call for the construction of a wall or fence in the border. What is your response to that? And does the President believe it's a good idea to have a fence on the border to fight terrorism -- or stop terrorism coming to the U.S. and illegal immigrants?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President's views are very clear to the government of Mexico. He has talked about this issue at length with them. We have taken a number of steps to strengthen enforcement along our borders. We also need to take steps to address the problem of illegal immigrants coming to the country to seek a better way of life. And that's why the President is continuing to urge Congress to move forward on his temporary worker program, that will address an economic need and will also show the compassion of America by addressing some of the issues that affect those who are coming here illegally. It will also free up our ability to go after those who are coming here for the wrong reasons.
The President recognizes there are a lot of people coming here simply to provide for their family and to realize a better way of life. Now, long-term, that means continuing to expand trade and improve the quality of life for people in Mexico, so that they have less desire to come to the United States. But there are also steps we need to take to address some of the enforcement side of things. And the President made a commitment to Chairman Sensenbrenner last year when the intelligence reforms were being discussed that he would work with him this year, early this year, on some of the issues that he had brought up during that time period.
Q Does the President support, specifically, construction of the wall on the border?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that there are different areas that are addressing the issue, in a number of different ways. And if you look back at the policy statement that we put out, it talks about the President's views on the various issues in this legislation. But the President believes the best way to address the problem of some 8 million illegal immigrants coming to the country to seek work to provide for their families is to move forward on the proposal that he outlined, and that he stated very firmly in his State of the Union address.
And he also went to the Republican retreat in West Virginia and made it very clear it's important that we move forward on this program. This is the way to address this issue, and to have a more humane migration system into the U.S.
Q Can I just try to refine a little further the question about solvency and the personal accounts. Is it right that the administration has two goals when it comes to Social Security, and that they're really separate goals: one is to get the personal accounts, which the administration is no longer saying is going to secure the solvency of Social Security. It may do many wonderful things in the administration's view, but that's not what it does. So you've got that goal to get the personal accounts.
Then you've got the other goal of trying to secure the solvency of Social Security, and that's separate. And you have to go down -- maybe they'll be intertwined in the negotiations, but they are two separate things; is that right?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, it's one goal. And I see someone is leaving that I'm getting ready to mention here in a minute. (Laughter.) She can listen to it.
No, it is one goal to strengthen Social Security for our children and grandchildren. And both of those are part of the solution for meeting that goal.
Q But the personal accounts are not part of solving the solvency problem?
MR. McCLELLAN: They're part of strengthening Social Security, and that's -- the problem facing Social Security right now is that younger workers are facing either massive benefit cuts or massive tax increases if we don't act to address it now. The status quo is massive tax increases or severe benefit cuts. And that's not a solution. So both are part of the solution. Yes, personal accounts in and of themselves do not solve the fiscal problem facing Social Security, but they are part of the solution for strengthening Social Security for our children and grandchildren.
And seniors are not going to see any changes. The President will continue to make that clear, that if you're born before 1950, nothing will change for you.
One last thing I want to mention, as she unfortunately walked out of the room because I was talking too long, but maybe she is watching this right now: Claire Buchan, who has been deputy press secretary here for the last four years, I've worked very closely with her during that entire time period, is going on to be chief of staff to the Secretary of Commerce, Secretary Gutierrez. And I want to extend best wishes to her from the Press Office -- I'm sure from each of you, as well.
She has done an outstanding job helping to support the President's agenda and to work with each of you all. And we will miss her here. And just from a personal standpoint, I express my deep appreciation to Claire for all that she did to support me in my role, and personally wish her all the best.
Q So it is true that Andy Card is telling people to leave?
MR. McCLELLAN: You all have a good weekend. Thank you. (Laughter and applause.)
END 1:10 P.M. EST