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Press Stakeout with GOP Leaders Following Senate Policy Luncheon

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

HEADLINE: PRESS STAKEOUT WITH GOP LEADERS FOLLOWING SENATE POLICY LUNCHEON
 
PARTICIPANTS: SENATE MAJORITY LEADER BILL FRIST (R-TN); SENATOR JOHN WARNER (R-VA); AND SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA)

BODY:
SEN. FRIST: Good afternoon. We have three weeks to go before our August break, and it will be a very busy and, I am confident, a very productive three weeks. To continue, really, the pace and the momentum that we've had over the last 5-1/2, now 6 months, over the last six months we have focused on issues important to the American people; we've responded with legislation, working as aggressively as we could in a bipartisan way to address issues that ultimately make the lives of Americans and, indeed, people around the world, better, more fulfilling.

We are currently on appropriation bills. The plans are over the next two weeks to stay on those appropriation bills. We would like to do as many of those bills as possible. The House is delivering those bills in a timely fashion. They're being considered by the Appropriations Committee, and as they leave the Appropriations Committee, I will bring them to the floor. The plan is to work very aggressively over the next two weeks. We're on the Defense appropriations bill, which I hope that we can finish either today or tomorrow. The next two bills will likely be -- in no particular order -- Homeland Security, as well as Labor HHS. Then, as other appropriation bills are considered, I plan on bringing them to the floor under the leadership of Chairman Stevens.

This week we will be meeting with Secretary Powell in a closed session, in a bipartisan way, tomorrow morning. On Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Blair will be visiting the United States Congress in a Joint Session at 4:00 in the afternoon.

Following the next two weeks on appropriation bills, we will be addressing returning to the energy bill and completing the energy bill before we leave for the August break.

An ambitious agenda, one that I'm confident that we will be able to stay on course for; one that the American people expect.

In the meantime, there are other conferences that are under way -- the child tax credit, the Medicare conference, both of which I hope we can make significant progress on over the coming days, weeks, as we go forward.

With that, let me turn to my colleagues, and I'll be happy to answer questions after that.

SEN. WARNER: Mr. Leader, we should also add that you've arranged for Ambassador Bremer to be here from Iraq. As you know, he's handling the civil side of the Iraqi situation, and he will be here before the Senate next week and hopefully before my committee in an open session.

I want to say that it's very important -- the leader's comments about the Defense appropriations bill on the floor. I'm in almost daily contact with troops throughout the world, and they follow what's going on in the Congress. And they're anxious to see the Congress passing that legislation that means so much to them and their families.

The military today is a far different one than when I was in it many years ago. It's a married Army and Navy and the Marine Corps and an Air Force. And these pieces of legislation are followed by the home front ever so closely. So I'm doing my very best, working with our leadership, to help Senator Stevens get that bill passed today or early tomorrow.

Furthermore, I talked to George Tenet by phone this morning -- one of our usual conversations. I feel very strongly. I've known George Tenet for many years. When I was ranking member -- that is, vice chairman -- of the Intelligence Committee, he was our staff director. And I've worked with him very closely throughout his tenure at CIA. He'll be appearing tomorrow before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

I have full confidence in George Tenet and full confidence in our intelligence system. Perfect? Nothing is perfect. But both the president and George spoke up very forthrightly about the problems containing in the Niger story, and we will be developing on the Intelligence Committee, I'm sure, further facts relating to that. And in due course, I'm hopeful that the chairman and ranking member of that committee, in consultation with others, will be able to make those facts public.

But let's never take our eyes off the responsibility to -- of every citizen to support our president and the men and women of the armed forces, because, as you well know, we're taking casualties daily throughout the operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

In talking with the Pentagon this morning, I was able to get some clarification on a subject that's of concern to so many here in the Congress, and that's the rotation of our troops back from Iraq, particularly the remaining two brigades of the 3rd ID.

Those units bore a very heavy brunt of the assault during the active military major phases of this campaign. Certainly minor phases of equal importance in terms of life and limb are going on. And we're hopeful now that they can be returned by early fall. The secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are doing everything to make that possible. And we're hopeful that other nations will be giving us support. I say "us", the coalition of forces. Eight nations are now involved, and we're hopeful that additional nations will be forthcoming. I felt yesterday, when Senator Frist and I and others met with Kofi Annan, that he was encouraging about additional support, not necessarily in the security area, but additional support by the United Nations, to both the operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

So I'm optimistic about the future. I'm optimistic, and I returned from Iraq just a few days ago -- 10 days ago. When I stood there and looked at those fields where there were close to a thousand body bags lying there without identification, with the families of Iraqis trying to determine if it's their lost members.

We cannot take our mind off the bigger picture and get lost into minor facts with regard to while this and that may not have gone perfectly, our people are there taking casualties, the Iraqi people suffered enormous personal losses. And I'm encouraged by Ambassador Bremer, as again, he'll be here next week, and the progress that he's making in putting together the council, which is now operating. And shortly thereafter, he'll be announcing the constitutional group that will be writing a new constitution for the Iraqi people. The sooner we can get an Iraqi face on the daily operations security and otherwise in that nation, the sooner we can get our troops home and out of harm's way.

SEN. FRIST: Rick?

SEN. SANTORUM: Thank you very much. And I just want to say what John Warner's laid out is a very compelling case for us to move forward quickly on this defense appropriation bill. We're seeing already a slowdown; hopefully this will not be a permanent slowdown, that we will get this bill passed as well as the homeland security bill.

These are priorities.

We have shown in the few short months that we have been in control of the United States Senate that we can get the job done. We can deliver for the American people, we have solutions and we are willing to work together in a bipartisan way to move things forward. And we're going to try to do that on these appropriation bills. This is about personal security and economic security and homeland security, and we're going to work in concert on a bipartisan way to try to get these bills done. It's time to get our appropriations business done -- something we did not do last year. We had to clean that up at the beginning of this year. We are focused, as you heard the leader say, to get our business done. And part of our business is to pass 13 appropriation bills. We promised the American public if they elected us, we'd get our job done, and we are focused on that. We're going to stay on that to deliver for the American people and the spending priorities that have been set by this president and do so in a way that will get, I hope, broad bipartisan support.

Questions?

SEN. FRIST: Why don't we -- we'll take a few questions on these or other issues.

Yes?

Q Could you just kind of go over -- (off mike) -- from OMB. Do you think that Congress is going to -- (off mike)?

SEN. FRIST: The deficit -- the mid-session review that is being announced today -- you know, we just had the opportunity to review in our caucus briefly and we'll all study the figures, but we all know it's about $455 billion, which is significantly higher than we had anticipated; than had been projected just a few months ago. It is high, it is too high. Indeed, the United States Congress will address that aggressively. The reasons are many. I'm sure they'll be discussed today, be written about today, be reviewed by the administration today. And we all know what they are.

It is a sluggish economy, an economy that just came out of a recession and has been slow to recover. And indeed, that's why we passed a jobs and growth bill; to stimulate that economy.

It's because of the inevitable investment and important investment, critical investment that we just referred to, and that is to fight the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and that takes increased spending, as have some other spending assistance to states, the unemployment compensation which we have passed in this Congress.

And the third is our investment in the jobs and growth package, the tax relief package. Indeed, in the short term -- in the short term, it has an impact that is negative on the deficit. But the reason we make that critical investment is to grow the economy so that we can increase those revenues in the midterm and in the long-term. And indeed, we are seeing those figures and those actions and those bills and that legislation, coupled with this very sluggish economy, reflected in these numbers.

As we look forward, we will continue to find ways to invest in our economy, to create jobs. We will do our very best through these appropriation bills to slow spending, the non-critical spending outside of the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the necessity and importance of investing in our troops as we go forward.

So, these figures are high; they're too high. We will aggressively address that. But they're manageable. And indeed, that's our job -- our jobs, to be able to manage that deficit, and I'm confident we'll do so.

Q Senator Frist, Senator Warner, Senator Santorum, how serious is this Niger uranium claim? I mean there are -- the president says that the CIA okayed everything, and yet there are concerns about who knew what, when. And now Senator Graham, your colleague, is getting into the impeachable offense category if the president, he says, seriously misled the United States.

SEN. FRIST: Part of the answer, I think, is what Chairman Warner just referred to. If you step back and you look at what has been accomplished, I daresay that few, if anybody, in government today, and indeed, Americans, would say that the world is not better off without Saddam Hussein. And that's really -- backing up, and looking at 20,000 or 30,000 feet looking down, the world is a better place having Saddam Hussein and his regime no longer in power.

It doesn't diminish the fact that we want accurate intelligence, we want throughout our intelligence community. So that sort of questioning is natural, it's important that you hear senators do.

But again, it's indisputable that Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction, killing thousands of his own people, killing thousands of people from other countries; that he has had weapons of mass destruction, that he's used those weapons of mass destruction. And with that, our intelligence needs to watch very carefully to see if he is out trying to accumulate -- or was trying to accumulate weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary -- or Chairman Warner, when he mentions the thousands of body bags, the whole image of that demonstrates, I believe, how, yes, 16 words in the State of the Union message you need to address, and yellow cake is important for us to get to the bottom of. That is important. But as you step away, what's important to the American people, what's important to the freedoms and democracy we enjoy here in this country is that we did the right thing; we did it with the right motivation, and on a very strong fact base, of which that's a tiny little sliver that happened to be used, but a tiny little sliver upon which the overall aggregate of the information was powerful, was strong, and we all trust in that.

Do you want to add to that?

Q But, Senator --

SEN. WARNER: I could not add more facts to what the leader said.

I would like to talk a little bit about Liberia. There again, I've been following this situation very closely.

And I've talked to the seniors in the Department of Defense again today.

The president is going about this very cautiously, very prudently, receiving the thoughts of the secretary-general yesterday, listening to the secretaries of State and Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Just speaking for myself, I'm concerned. Our forces are stretched very thin worldwide. The Army only has 10 divisions. And would you believe it? Almost six to seven are committed now between Afghanistan and Iraq.

If we do make the decision to send forces into Liberia, I'm hopeful that they will be adequate not only to carry out such mission as is necessary until, as the secretary-general said, the U.N. forces can take over, but also go in with sufficient strength to protect themselves. Force protection on a mission like this, no matter what pictures are now shown with the joy in the faces of the Liberians about the prospect of troops coming in, I hope every caution is used to size that force so that it can protect itself carefully and carry out such mission as the president may have in mind. Until the inspection teams, which I'm told will be arriving back tonight and tomorrow morning, who have made that evaluation can clearly lay out the facts and they will be shared with us here in the Congress, I think we'd better move on the side of caution at this point in time.

Q But Senator, when it comes to the issue of intelligence and this issue of Iraq and the yellow cake uranium, was this a question of bad speech writing or bad intelligence gathering?

SEN. WARNER: Ah! If I had the precise answer, I would share it with you. But at this point in time, I commend the chairman of the Intelligence Committee and the ranking member -- I'm on that committee for a second tour -- we are going about the evaluation of that and we'll tomorrow have George Tenet before us for opening questions for a lengthy session. And I just ask patience on behalf of all to await the work that the Congress in its oversight and has responsibility to do so before the appropriate committee, which is the Intelligence Committee. They, under our rules here in the Congress, have the mission. And so far as I know, the chairman and the ranking member and the membership are going about it very carefully.

Q But should the --

SEN. SANTORUM: Hold on, hold on, hold on. I'd just -- I'd like to make -- I'd like to make a response to that.

I think what's missing in the reporting of this is perspective. The fact of the matter is, the Congress had already acted. The Congress was convinced that there was a reason for us to go into Iraq when we had voted and we voted overwhelmingly.

And the support of the American public at the time of that speech was very, very strong.

The fact of the matter is that this is one piece of information -- one piece of information -- amongst a whole laundry list of pieces of information, all of which are still standing as legitimate, that Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction program. That has not gone away, and there is certainly substantial evidence that there were programs available, programs in place. The fact that one piece of information is now dominating this whole discussion, I think, is looking -- is missing the forest for a tree. And there are plenty of trees still standing to support what the president wanted to do.

And this focus is understandable. I understand, and I think the committees of jurisdiction are going to follow through and determine the problem. But the trees are still there, and we have to keep our perspective in that regard.

Q Senator Frist, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts is expected to rule any day on the notion of gay marriage. Now I know earlier you said that would support a constitutional amendment. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage, will that spawn (sic) your leadership and others to move that faster through Congress?

SEN. FRIST: You know, we will look at what decisions are made by state courts and federal courts. It's important for us to do. I have made it very clear, not really speaking for leadership or our caucus, but from a personal standpoint, that the law of the land, defined by legislation passed here, signed by President Clinton -- 85 United States senators voted for the definition of marriage and 15 against -- and the restatement of that is that marriage is very simple: a union between one man and one woman, not two men or three men or four men, or one man -- or one woman -- or two women, three women, or three women and three men. It's not that. It's one man, one woman. It's what the law of the land is. I will support that.

My comments earlier about -- as you know, there's not a proposal on the Senate side for a constitutional amendment. If you have time to sort of walk through it, it's really basically if the courts -- state and federal courts were to systematically begin to tear down what is the law of the land now -- which, I think, the overwhelming majority of Americans agree with -- that marriage, not civil unions or other definitions, but marriage, is one man and one woman, then we would at least need to think about what our alternatives are. One alternative is a constitutional amendment.

Right now it is too early. It's too early to speculate even what the Massachusetts court will do. Once they make a decision -- might be today, might be in the next several weeks -- I'm sure there will be a lot more discussion on the issue.

And we look forward to that. We need to be prepared for that. I think the discussion should continue right now -- start right now, continue right now, and then we'll react appropriately.

Q Senator, you said that you thought that it was good that there would be more discussion on this issue, but do you think the White House is satisfied that this has put this issue on the national radar screen?

SEN. FRIST: Well, you know, I don't know if it needs to be on the national radar screen. We've got a law of the land that -- 85 versus 15, signed by President Clinton -- that one man, one woman, that's what marriage is today. Until you systematically start to tear that down and you threaten that fundamental law of the land, you can -- to some people it's a strong personal belief. We all have that image of what marriage is when we go to a marriage ceremony. When you start tearing all that down, I'm sure it's going to be addressed a lot more. I don't want to speak for the White House. The White House can speak for themselves, or individual United States senators.

STAFF: Thank you.

SEN. FRIST: Okay.

Q On North Korea? Sir, Senator Warner, on North Korea?

SEN. WARNER: North Korea.

Q How serious a problem is it? And are we doing enough about it?

SEN. WARNER: The situation in North Korea continues to worsen; there's no question about it. It is very serious today, as it has been for months. And I think our president has very clearly said that no solution can be achieved simply by the United States and North Korea, it must be a multinational decision; that is, China as a full partner, South Korea as a full partner, and indeed Japan as a partner on this issue, and perhaps even Russia should be very concerned about this.

I happen to know Secretary Perry very well and I have a very high professional opinion of him. I worked with him closely here when he was in the Department of Defense. I read through his comments today, not only once, but twice, and I must say I differ with the conclusion that he is reaching that we are on the brink of war or that there is no policy in this administration.

I would urge my good friend to work as a team. This should not be a partisan issue, the solutions for North Korea, because every single one of us, here and particularly in other areas of the world closer to North Korea, could suffer enormously from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction which North Korea at the moment seem to be hell bent on a course to distribute.

So it's just not the United States, it's a worldwide situation that must be addressed, and most particularly for those nations which are bordering the region of North Korea.

Q Senator, you said that the Army may be over-extended, in your opinion.

SEN. WARNER: I said our military, I used the broader sense, yes.

Q Would you propose that the army be expanded by one or two divisions? Does it need to be expanded?

SEN. WARNER: The issue of the sizing of our military forces is before the very conference that I'll be participating in in about 20 minutes; that is the House-Senate conference on the authorization bills.

At the present time, we do not have a request specifically from the president for the increase in size of our military forces. I presume that that decision -- and indeed, the secretary of Defense assures me that that type of decision is constantly under review. So I cannot at this point in time indicate what the conference may do.

But we are mindful of the stress on the men and women of the armed forces. As I say, when I was in Iraq here just a few days ago, the soldiers don't complain. They are proud. They'll grumble a bit. I was a sailor and a Marine myself once. That's always a part of military life, a little bit of grumbling. But they're very proud of what they're doing. They're proud of this country. They're concerned about their families and, obviously, anxious to join again with their loved ones here at home.

And I assure you that the president and the secretary of Defense and the chairmen and the Congress are working to get a rotation base for those troops who bore the brunt of the major military action, and to get them home as quickly as we can.

Q Senator, as a follow-up to that question, how will these new budget figures impact on the possibility of increasing the size of the armed forces?

SEN. WARNER: Well, the personnel accounts are among the, if not the fastest spend out accounts in any budget of the military. I'm certain that this president, and all presidents in the future, hopefully, will put as a top priority the security of this nation, the welfare of the men and women of the armed forces, and the costs of their training and equipment. So on budget matters, they have to be at the top of the priority.

Q Senator, should the person or persons responsible for that inaccuracy in the State of the Union --

SEN. WARNER: What inaccuracy?

Q The inaccuracy about the uranium purchase. I mean, should they be fired? Should someone's head roll?

SEN. WARNER: Well, look, folks, we're co-equal branches of the government -- the executive and the Congress. It is our duty and oversight to try and determine those facts which in any way -- and in my judgment, the facts are not there yet -- to impair the intelligence system of this country.

It was acknowledged to have been a question of the prioritization and the quantum of facts to back it up. But it does not shake this senator's confidence in our intelligence system and those that are now collecting and preparing, around the clock, our intelligence not only for domestic consumption, but indeed, for our military.

So, I'm not going to stand here and predict what the executive branch may do in terms of its decision with regard to such facts as they're educed that require decisions regarding accountability.

Thank you very much.

Q Thank you, Senator.

Q Thank you, Senator.

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