Briefing by Scott McClellan April 10, 2006
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 10, 2006
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
12:44 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me begin by talking about Medicare and some of our efforts that we've got going on this week and this month. May 15th is the open enrollment deadline for seniors to sign up for the new prescription drug benefit. We're continuing to step up our efforts to educate seniors and encourage them to sign up, if they so choose, to make sure that they get the lowest premiums.
Our goal has been, by the end of the year to have 28 million to 30 million seniors covered. Thus far, you have more than 27.5 million seniors that have enrolled. The estimated average beneficiary will be -- the estimated savings to the -- on average, for the beneficiary will be more than $1,100 this year alone. That's a 50-percent or more in savings. The average premium is now $25 per month, down from the projected $37 per month.
This week the President and 25 members of the administration will -- more than 25 members of the administration will travel across the country to discuss the new drug benefit with Americans. Tomorrow the President will be visiting senior centers in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Des Moines, Iowa, to highlight the new benefit. Wednesday the President will be making remarks in Annandale, Virginia, on Medicare and the new drug benefit.
Also this week, Cabinet members and other officials are spreading out across 25 states to talk with Americans about the prescription drug benefit and help them get enrolled. They are speaking at hospitals, senior centers, businesses, health centers. They are reminding seniors that they must enroll by May 15th to ensure that they get the lowest premiums. And for those seniors who want to get enrolled, they can call 1800-MEDICARE, or go to www.medicare.gov.
And with that, I'll be glad to go to your questions.
Q Scott, can I ask you about the --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me go to Steve first.
Q Scott, the remarks the President made this morning about the NIE, was that in response to Senator Specter's call for him to tell the American people what happened?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you heard the President say that there's an ongoing legal proceeding, investigation; it's a serious matter and we don't want to do anything to jeopardize that, so we're not commenting on it. We want to see due process and a fair hearing. But the President did remind people, yes, the President did authorize the declassification of the National Intelligence Estimate. I think you've seen editorials and other comments over the weekend talk about how that was important because it was in the public interest.
And that's -- remember, there was a lot of discussion going on in the summer of 2003 about the prewar intelligence that was used in the lead-up to going into Iraq. The President felt it was important for the American people to know what the executive branch and Congress was using to make their judgments, and what they were basing their public statements on before the war. And the National Intelligence Estimate was the underlying basis for how we viewed Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.
The bottom line is that the previous administration, this administration, members of both parties in Congress, foreign governments all saw that -- all felt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Now, we know that much of the intelligence was wrong, and that's why the President put in place an independent, bipartisan commission to look at those issues and to recommend reforms. We are moving forward on those reforms and putting them in place. It's important for the President to make sure that he is using the best possible intelligence when making decisions about how to confront the threats that face this country and face this world.
Q Well, Scott, can I go to the war in Iraq? There was a -- Time Magazine is running a piece by Lt. General Gregory Newbold, who is Director of Operations in the Pentagon, which, as you know, is an extremely important position in that building. He said --
MR. McCLELLAN: I will confess I have not read my Time Magazine this week yet.
Q Let me read some of it to you. He said: "The distortion of intelligence in the buildup to the war, McNamara-like micromanagement kept our forces from having enough resources to do the job." He says, "It is my sincere view that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with the casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions or bury the results." And he's calling for Secretary Rumsfeld to resign. I think this is probably the highest ranking person we've had come out and say these kinds of things about the war. Any reaction to that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Any reaction? Do you have something specific you want to ask me about? I think we've --
Q Yes, I want to -- okay, how about the distortion of intelligence?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- expressed our views on those various issues --
Q He talks about the distortion of intelligence. He was there in the building in the buildup to the war.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if you want to talk about the intelligence, that's an issue I just brought up. Let's go back and look. There was an independent commission, the Silberman-Robb Commission, that looked at the intelligence relating to Iraq, and they came back and said that there was no evidence of political pressure, that these were errors, serious errors, and they stemmed from poor trade craft and poor management. That's what the Robb-Silberman Commission stated.
The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report said that they did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments. And then there was the British Butler report, as well. So this was intelligence that was shared by countries around the world, with Congress, with the United Nations, and the United States. Now, with that said, we have pointed out that the intelligence was wrong. That's why we have implemented important reforms.
Q Scott, you've got a senior officer here who was there in the buildup to the war, saying it was a mistake, saying this war should never have been fought, resources were taken --
MR. McCLELLAN: The President strongly disagrees. It was the right decision to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power. And let me talk about why. Remember, September 11th changed the President's thinking. He talked about this in his remarks earlier today. We are a nation at war, engaged in a global war on terrorism. And the President made the decision after September 11th that we were going to go on the offensive, that we were going to take the fight to the enemy. And that's exactly what we are doing. And the President talked today in his remarks about what we have accomplished. And he talked about why it was the right decision to go in and remove Saddam Hussein from power. The regime --
Q It has nothing to do with 9/11.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- the regime is gone. It is no longer sponsoring terrorism. It is no longer destabilizing the region. It is no longer undermining the credibility of the United Nations. It is no longer threatening the world.
And it's important that we succeed in Iraq, and that's where our focus is now. And I think people understand the importance of succeeding in Iraq, because look at the consequences if you fail. If we fail in Iraq it will embolden the enemy, it will give them a victory in the war on terrorism. It could lead to a safe-haven in Iraq. And that's why it's so important that we continue to work together to support the Iraqi people, who have shown that they want to chart their own future. And that's what we're going to continue to do.
Q But, Scott, what he was saying is this wasn't part of the global war on terrorism. In fact, what he said is the actions taken in Iraq were peripheral to the real threat, al Qaeda.
MR. McCLELLAN: Martha, I haven't read the whole article. The President has expressed his views very clearly about how this is part of the broader war on terrorism. He takes a comprehensive approach when it comes to fighting and winning the war on terrorism. And we will prevail. We are leading from a position of confidence and strength, and we will continue to do so going forward.
Q Can I just follow on the NIE?
MR. McCLELLAN: Bill, go ahead.
Q The President made his decision to declassify and release the NIE at a time when he was fighting the perception that the intelligence leading up to the war was wrong, at a time shortly prior to Mr. Libby's identification of the CIA agent as the wife of someone who was sent there in an effort to discredit the value of the trip. Why should we not believe that the timing of the President's decision was connected to the decision only days later to out the CIA agent?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, now you're getting into questions about an ongoing legal proceeding and investigation --
Q No, it's a timing question.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- you know that we've had a policy in place going back to October 2003 that we are not going to comment on it while it's ongoing. It's a very serious matter, and --
Q I'm not asking about the investigation, I'm asking you to talk about the question of the President's timing.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- I would encourage you not to make assumptions that are not based on the facts. I would encourage you to wait for the facts to be known. Mr. Fitzgerald is pursuing this legal proceeding and pursuing the investigation, and we need to let it proceed. We're not going to do anything that would jeopardize an ongoing matter like that.
Q Why did the President choose that particular time to make that intelligence public?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll go back and reiterate to you what I said on Friday, and let's make clear that there is a distinction between declassifying information that is in the public interest and leaking classified information that could compromise our national security. There was a lot of discussion going on, there were allegations being made against the administration -- I think irresponsible and unfounded accusations -- saying that we had misused or manipulated the intelligence. There's nothing further from the truth. We were basing our decisions based on the intelligence that was provided to members of Congress, that was pulled together --
Q So it sounds like his timing was connected to that.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- by the intelligence community. And I think you've seen numerous people speak out, including major editorial papers speak out and say that it was the right thing to do to provide this information to the public, so that the public could look at the facts and look at the intelligence and see what the statements were based on. And that's what the President talked about earlier today in his remarks.
Q But it was -- the timing was connected to those things which you say were erroneous reports.
MR. McCLELLAN: It was in the public interest because of all the debate that was going on at the time about the intelligence that was used as an underlying basis for going into Iraq.
Q Scott, let me just follow on that point. When the President made the decision to get the NIE out there, to make it public, for the reasons that you stated, was he aware at that point that information would be leaked to a reporter?
MR. McCLELLAN: David, that's getting into this ongoing legal proceeding, and you shouldn't read anything into it one way or the other when I say I just cannot comment on an ongoing legal proceeding. I've seen reports --
Q There's been reports about --
MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on, hang on. I've seen reports, including today, in The New York Times, talking about this very issue that you bring up. I read that story with great interest, just like many of you in this room did. I would say that I cannot speak to whether or not the parts of that National Intelligence Estimate may have been declassified at some point prior to the release of the National Intelligence Estimate that we made on July 18, 2003.
And let me back up. The entire portion of the National Intelligence Estimate that was released on July 18th went through a declassification process. And I spoke to that issue back on July 18, 2003, and I'll stand by the remarks I made at that time. I have had a chance to go back and look further at information from that time period and I will leave it where I did. But again, I cannot speak to whether or not certain parts of it may have been declassified prior to that time.
Q But you're not challenging that report?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I just cannot speak to it because of the ongoing legal proceeding.
Q Let me ask this follow-up question. No matter when the information was released from the NIE, why isn't it a fair charge to make against this President that he, frankly, played politics with declassified intelligence in the run-up to the war to defend his case for war?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think a lot of people have disputed that. If you look at the evidence, the intelligence is in the National Intelligence Estimate. The National Intelligence Estimate is the collective judgment of the intelligence community. And it was, as I said, the underlying basis for how we viewed Saddam Hussein's weapons program -- not just us, but the Congress, foreign governments, the previous administration, the United Nations. So this was intelligence shared by many people. Now, the intelligence was wrong. And that's why we took steps to correct it and make sure that we have better intelligence going forward.
Q But that's not quite my question. The President has been outspoken about how dangerous it is for the country to mishandle, to leak classified information. Yet, in this case, nobody challenges his legal authority to do it, but you could make the charge that this was a rather political move on the part of the President to pick and choose what he'd like to --
MR. McCLELLAN: The declassification of the National Intelligence Estimate?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, actually because -- go ahead.
Q -- for the purpose of, frankly, defending his own judgment. So somebody who has been so clear about the fact that you should not leak classified information made a kind of cherry-picking decision to let this stuff out.
MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, the President has the authority to declassify information as he chooses. He would never declassify anything if he felt it could compromise our nation's security. The National Intelligence Estimate, back in the summer of 2003, was more of a historical document at that point because it was the intelligence which we used as a basis for making the decision to go into Iraq. It was the collective judgment of the intelligence community. So at that point, it was providing good historical context to the American people when there was a serious debate going on in the public about that intelligence. So it was important for the American people, in the President's view, to be able to look at the underlying intelligence that was used for the statements that were made by the administration, and made by Congress in the lead-up to going to going into Iraq.
Nedra, go ahead.
Q Scott, the President was talking today about how this is an important and serious investigation going on, but there are those who are also saying, these are important allegations against the President, and that he needs to come out and explain himself to the American people, including Senator Specter.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that anyone said -- allegations against the President?
Q Well, that he needs to answer about his role in this release. Does he agree with Senator Specter that the American people deserve an explanation?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's not a question of whether or not we would like to talk more about it. The fact of the matter is that this is a legal proceeding and an ongoing investigation involving this administration. It's being headed by a special prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald. We don't want to do anything that could jeopardize this ongoing investigation, legal proceeding. We want there to be due process. We want there to be a fair hearing. And that's why we made a policy not to comment on it while it continues.
Q At what point does the President plan to explain himself to the American people then? Is there a point in the investigation -- does the trial have to be completely over?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Mr. Fitzgerald has commented on it some, and you can direct questions to him, but we've made it clear that as long as it's an ongoing legal proceeding and investigation, we are not going to comment further on it.
Q Scott, does the President approve of the way the Vice President handled this information during the declassification process, before and after --
MR. McCLELLAN: Now you're getting into a question that's relating to an ongoing legal proceeding, and I'm just not going to go there, Ed.
Q It's more on whether he approves of his own Vice President, whether he stands behind --
MR. McCLELLAN: He's specifically mentioned in a filing by Mr. Fitzgerald. I can't get into commenting on it. It's a policy that I didn't establish, but I'm obligated to adhere to.
Q Okay, one other question on Secretary Rumsfeld, when you were talking before. This is now the second or third retired general to come out in recent weeks and say that he should step down. Does the President still have confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld? And if so, why, given all of these top military officials saying that he mishandled the war?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President thinks Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job, having overseen two fronts in the global war on terrorism. We have liberated 25 million people in Afghanistan and 25 million people in Iraq. The Secretary has also been leading a transformation of the military, to make sure that we're better prepared to meet the threats of the 21st century. And the President has great appreciation of the outstanding job he's doing.
Q What's your reaction to Sy Hersh's article over the weekend and the kind of follow-up articles in The Post and The New York Times? Is the President troubled by these indications that the U.S. is considering or looking at or has plans for --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think those kind of media reports are based on wild speculation, and not on the administration's thinking. The President has made it very clear that we're working with the international community to find a diplomatic solution when it comes to the Iranian regime and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. And that's exactly what we're doing.
The international community has spoken very clearly, in a united way, from the United Nations Security Council. It has said to the regime what it needs to do: It needs to make a commitment to comply with its obligations and to suspend all its uranium enrichment and enrichment-related activities, and come back and negotiate in good faith. They have 30 days in which to make that commitment from when the presidential statement was adopted by the Security Council. If they don't, then we're going to be back at the Security Council talking about the next steps to take. This is something that the international community is very concerned about, and that concern is only growing because of the behavior of the regime. This is a regime, by its own actions and statements, is only further isolating itself and the people of Iran from the rest of the world.
Q Is the President concerned by these reports? Does he find them troubling? Are they counterproductive?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you heard the President's views. We'll let you all critique them. But, I mean, I notice that the one article you brought up was based on a lot of anonymous sources from former administration officials and outside advisors. And it is what we described it.
Q Two questions. One, as far as this immigration is concerned, the debate has been going for the last two weeks in the U.S. Congress and also among the illegal community, and also small business is also worried about what is their future, as far as finding the workers they need and -- now demonstrations been going on for the last two weeks, including today in Washington, thousands are going to march. Where do President stand as far as making them legal here, so they can pay tax and they can come out from the hiding, not to be tortured by their employers and taken advantage of them?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the United States Senate came together in an agreement last week, a bipartisan agreement to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform. This is a difficult and complex issue. And it requires letting voices be heard and letting amendments be considered. But the Senate Minority Leader decided to stand in the way and block comprehensive reform from moving forward. Those who are out there peacefully expressing their views for comprehensive reform may want to direct their efforts toward the Senate Minority Leader. He is the one who is standing in the way of comprehensive reform moving forward.
There was a strong bipartisan agreement reached with Senator Frist and Senators Hagel and Martinez, working with Democrats, to come together and move this to the conference committee, where we could continue to move forward on getting it passed. This is a high priority for the President. He believes that if we're going to fix the immigration system, we must do it in a rational and comprehensive way, and that's what he's continuing to advocate.
Q Egyptian President Mubarak has already said that Iraq is in a civil war. Doesn't that create a real problem for the President, who says it is not, and it emboldens the enemy?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the Iraqi leaders spoke out on that very issue and disputed any such assertion. And the President has talked about it at length, too. The Iraqi people and the Iraqi leaders looked into the abyss and they didn't like what they saw. And so they have been coming together to try to move forward on forming a government of national unity and coming together to continue to move forward to defeat the terrorists and Saddam loyalists who want to return to the past. And we're continuing to support the efforts of the Iraqi leaders. It's time for them to move forward and get a unity government in place. We have made tremendous sacrifices. The American people have made tremendous sacrifices to get to this point, and it's time for the Iraqi leaders to move forward -- that's what the Iraqi people want -- and get their government formed.
Q What if they don't soon?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they are moving forward. The President talked about it in his remarks. He talked about how they have already agreed to a 33-point agenda for the new government once its in place. And he talked about how they have agreed to a national security council that would be represented by all branches of government. So they are taking steps to move forward. We believe it's time to get that unity government in place. I think the Iraqi people want that. I know the American people expect that. We have made tremendous sacrifices in Iraq. And it's important to our long-term security. We're laying the foundation of peace for generations to come. And we will continue to support the Iraqi people as they move forward.
Q Before the President declassified the Intelligence Estimate, had he read it?
MR. McCLELLAN: Had he read it?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes -- I think we talked about at the time that he was briefed on it --
Q A 90-page document --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we talked about that at the time.
Q -- and the whole question of the accusation against Saddam trying to buy uranium was on page 24, with many caveats. It was very dubious and --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not the issue here, Helen.
Q -- an annex to it, questioning this whole business. So did he take note of all these caveats?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not the issue here, Helen. The issue was the underlying intelligence that was used as part of the basis for going into Iraq. You're singling out one specific part which we --
Q Yes, I am.
MR. McCLELLAN: --- which we already spoke to.
Q Is that your defense, though?
MR. McCLELLAN: We already spoke to that issue. We spoke to it back at the time.
Q Why would he put that out when it's so dubious?
MR. McCLELLAN: Why would he --
Q It's so questionable.
MR. McCLELLAN: Why would he put what out when it's --
Q Using that as your defense to go into Iraq.
MR. McCLELLAN: Using what, the National Intelligence Estimate?
Q No, the whole business that Saddam --
MR. McCLELLAN: That was the collective judgment of the community -- no, you're singling out one thing, and that's not the issue here. The issue here is that back in the summer of 2003, there was a real debate going on in the public about the intelligence that was used as part of the rationale to go into Iraq.
Q But the issue centers on outing Valerie Plame -- wasn't that the issue that dealt with Niger and uranium?
MR. McCLELLAN: You're getting into something that's part of an ongoing investigation, and you know I'm not going to comment further on that.
Les, go ahead.
Q Yes. Reuters reports from Jerusalem that the government of Israel has announced "Israel will have no contact with the Palestinian Authority, which is a hostile entity, and will work toward preventing any entrenchment of the Hamas government's rule." My first part: Does the Bush administration find any fault in this statement or in Israel's firing shells into Gaza in response to Palestinians' firing rockets into Israel?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you need to direct those questions to the Israeli government about the actions that they take. I mean, I think we have expressed our views. Now, in terms of Hamas, I think we spoke to that issue most recently on Friday. The Secretary of State put out a statement in terms of our assistance to the Palestinian people when it comes to meeting their humanitarian needs. We are increasing our efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, but what we will not do is have any dealing with an Hamas-led government. We will not fund or support them in any way as long as they are not abiding by the important principles that the Quartet outlined.
The Quartet said that they need to renounce violence, they need to recognize Israel, and they need to abide by the previous agreements of the Palestinian Authority. And until they make those commitments, we will not have anything to do with that government.
Q Since The New York Times reports that 200 homosexual families are planning to attend the annual White House Easter Egg Roll one week from today, can you assure us that next year's egg roll will not bar other sexual orientations, as well, such as --
MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, in terms of the Easter Egg Roll, the President and Mrs. Bush, I know, always look forward to it. And there are guidelines that are in place for -- tickets are made available so that families can come and bring their kids to participate in the Easter Egg Roll. We welcome all those families that follow those guidelines that are in place.
Q Was The New York Times wrong in reporting --
MR. McCLELLAN: This is something that is being overseen by Mrs. Bush's Office, and that's our view.
Ed, go ahead.
Q Scott, there was a -- San Francisco Chronicle had a story over the weekend saying an Air Force website listed details about Air Force One, including specific information about the anti-missile defenses on Air Force One --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me stop you, I'm not going to have any comment on it.
Q Is the White House aware of this --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to talk about security measures.
Go ahead. Sara, go ahead.
Q Thank you. Scott, my question is on immigration and you have already answered some, but as many as 180,000 supporters of immigration reform are in Washington today, perhaps the largest rally since the 1963 March on Washington. Many of those attending oppose the tough bill passed by the House. Will the President demand a guest worker provision in that --
MR. McCLELLAN: Will the President be -- I'm sorry?
MR. McCLELLAN: Demand. Well, I think he already has been talking about how he wants a comprehensive piece of legislation. It begins with securing our borders, and that's where we have been focused. We have taken a number of steps to better secure our borders. We've increased the number of Border Patrol agents along our border. We have also deployed new technologies to prevent people from coming into this country illegally, and we are continuing to build upon those efforts. And some of the legislation you bring up addresses that. So it begins with that.
But the President believes if we're going to fix the immigration system, we have to address it in a comprehensive way. And that's why a temporary guest worker program is so important. A temporary guest worker program will help relieve pressure off the border and help us do a better job of securing the border, by allowing our Border Patrol agents to focus on those who are criminals and terrorists, smugglers and traffickers, that are trying to come into this country for the wrong reasons.
And so the President is going to continue speaking out on that and he's going to continue working with Congress. Senate leaders have expressed their desire to get this moving after they come back from their two-week recess that they are on now, and we'll continue working with them to get that done. We continue to call on the Senate Minority Leader to stop using blocking tactics and let the comprehensive bipartisan agreement move forward.
Q Scott, Hilary Clinton, in an interview today, attacked the administration for its economy -- handling of the economy -- health care, trade deficits, budget deficits, and so forth. But she had a specific recommendation; that was that the government should help auto companies such as GM -- should help them relieve some of the costs for retiree health care in exchange for helping them expedite the moves toward energy-efficient production.
MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen the interview, Roger.
Q Okay. Does the President have any thoughts on helping out GM if it does go bankrupt?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that, first of all, the auto industry is in a transition period and they're taking a lot of steps to make sure that they're successful. That's what they're doing.
In terms of the President's views on the economy, we have a very strong economy in place. We would welcome a debate about how we continue to move forward to keep our economy growing stronger. Because of the policies we have put in place, and because of the hard work of the American workers, our economy is growing in a very strong way. We saw just this last month more than 200,000 jobs created. We have seen about 5.2 million jobs created since the summer of 2003. The unemployment rate is down to 4.7 percent, below the averages of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Consumer confidence is at its highest level in some four years. Productivity is high.
We need to continue to move forward on pro-growth policies. And the real discussion is -- or the debate is on taxes: Are we going to make tax cuts permanent and keep taxes low to keep our economy growing, or are we going to let Democrats have their way and increase those taxes, which would have a very negative effect on our growing economy? And so that's where the debate is focused. The President has been talking about that. And we'll continue to make clear what the choice is.
Q If this President wanted to go to war with another country, at any time in the near future, is the U.S. military physically and financially --
MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, I don't think any President ever wants to go to war. War is a last resort. The President talked about how it's one of the most difficult decisions you can make. In fact, one of the students asked him earlier today about such a decision, and I think you should look at what the President said.
Q All right, then being the last resort, as he said it was the last resort with Iraq, is this country, on April 10, 2006, able financially and physically to go to war with another country at this time?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think our military has spoken to those issues, and I don't have anything to add to what they've already said.
Q But the White House gets a daily assessment several times a day --
MR. McCLELLAN: We are prepared to meet the threats that we face.
Q Scott, what are the prospects of extending the deadline for the Medicare prescription drug sign-up?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, that's the open enrollment deadline. That's why we're making the point that you need to sign up now, and encouraging people to do so. The President does not think that would be a good idea. After that time period, I think there's a penalty of up to 1 percent for enrolling in the program at that point. But there's a reason that's in place, and that's to encourage as many people as possible to get signed up.
And I think what you're seeing with the Medicare prescription drug benefit is that the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of seniors are very satisfied with it and believe it's working well for them. They are realizing significant savings. As I pointed out, the average beneficiary will save an estimated more than $1,100 this year alone. The original estimates or projections on the premiums are significantly below where they were when we first started this program. So the overwhelming majority of seniors are saying, this is working well, and they haven't had any problems with their prescription drug benefit, and they're, in fact, very pleased that they're realizing significant savings.
Q But given the ongoing confusion for many --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't -- I don't know that I agree with that, Peter.
Q Well, I mean, there are some members of Congress who are still hearing from their constituents that they're confused about this and some --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think there are still some members of Congress that are trying to politicize this issue. The AARP recently spoke out about that. They said -- they said -- "The focus should be on helping people, not playing politics. Discouraging enrollment is a disservice to the millions who could be saving money on prescription drugs." This is what the AARP said. And that's where all of us should be focusing, is on making sure that this program is working as well as possible for those who depend on it and those who need help with their prescription drugs.
Q So there's no chance it will be extended past May 15th?
MR. McCLELLAN: We don't think that would be a good idea, and the President has expressed his opposition to doing so.
Q Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.
END 1:15 P.M. EDT