PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA)
SPEAKER PELOSI: Good morning.
Q Good morning.
SPEAKER PELOSI: My apologies. We had a leadership meeting that went longer than anticipated. This sound is interesting. (Laughs.)
This is a very exciting week for us because our new-direction Congress has made remarkable progress in how we meet the needs of the American people -- how we protect our country, how we grow economy, how we strengthen our families, how we preserve our planet, how we do so in the most fiscally sound way and the most honest and ethical manner, with accountability to the American people.
Today, I want to focus on aspect of strengthening family because two pieces of legislation are emerging on that score. I congratulate the president for signing the biggest expansion in college assistance since the G.I. Bill was signed in 1944. He signed that bill yesterday, the college -- under that bill, the interest on student loans will be cut in half, and we'll have an expansion of Pell grants. This is about opportunity for the American people.
And today, Senator Reid and I will enroll the SCHIP bill and send it on to the president. Under the legislation, 10 million children will receive health care for the next five years. We're very proud of the bipartisan effort that has made this possible, strong votes, bipartisan votes in the House and in the Senate.
Again, as you know, as part of our strengthening families, the increase in minimum wage that went into effect in July and now accounts for an increase in real wages for the American people in the quarter since its been in effect -- so the health, the education, the economic security to America's families, and we're very proud of the actions taken by this Congress in that regard.
The -- on just a completely different subject, I wanted to comment on what's happening in Burma. In Burma this week, as you know, courageous people are standing up to a corrupt, illegitimate military regime that has oppressed the country for the last two decades.
Many of us for decades have been standing with Aung San Suu Kyi. We salute her courage and the sacrifice she has made in her lives -- in her life for democracy in Burma.
The international community cannot stand by while peaceful demonstrators are arrested, beaten and murdered. Let there be no doubt that we stand with the freedom-seeking people of Burma in their just cause.
In Congress we plan to bring legislation to the floor with strong as possible language to condemn the crackdown of peaceful protestors and tighten economic sanctions on those responsible for these gross violations of human rights. I commend the president for his strong statement on Burma and sanctions on Burma. I'll be meeting with Mr. Lantos after -- a little bit after the enrollment ceremony to talk about the timing on that legislation.
With that, I'd be pleased to take any questions you have.
Q Madame Speaker, the SCHIP bill is funded with a more than doubling of the cigarette tax.
SPEAKER PELOSI: Yes.
Q Poor people and minorities smoke in disproportionate numbers. Do you not feel uneasy about that way of funding this type of program?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Poor people disproportionately are disadvantaged when their children do not have health care. And just on the score of that cigarette tax, I remind that all but three Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for a 45-cent tax on cigarettes.
Q Madame Speaker, (if I might ?) follow this. I mean, the point is, it's a very regressive tax and it seems like it's out of line with the general Democratic agenda.
SPEAKER PELOSI: No, our Democratic agenda is to pay for all of the initiatives that we have put forth. Pay as you go. No new deficit spending. So the $35 billion that this bill will cost will be paid for.
And if you want to make a decision between smoking and providing for children's health, we can have that national debate.
I might also note that it's maybe a month and a half, two months, in Iraq, the cost of that would pay for 10 million children in America receiving health care for five years.
Q The leadership meeting this morning was -- (off mike) -- to be focusing on Iraq, on Iraq legislation -- (off mike) -- last night. Have you reached decisions about how you're going to move forward with votes?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, actually, that wasn't the focus of our meeting this morning, but we have discussed this. It's the focus of every meeting that we have, practically, but we had a different agenda this morning
On Iraq this week, we will be taking up the Abercrombie-Tanner legislation. That'll be probably Tuesday. On Wednesday, we'll be taking up the Pryce legislation. That is -- I guess that's Tuesday -- will strengthen laws governing contracting abuse. And then, Mr. Hoyer has a proposal that we'll be taking up -- improving government accountability, strengthening the role of inspector generals as watchdogs in the federal government. It might be interesting for you to note that there are no -- there is no inspector general for Afghanistan, so all of that spending is not accounted for or inspected.
Q Madame Speaker?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Yes, Mike.
Q This week we learned that the administration -- (off mike) -- $190 billion to cover war operations for the next 12 months. All year long, you and Democratic leaders have said you will not cut off funding for troops in the field. Is that still operative, and do you anticipate giving the president eventually, whether it be next month or next year, the full $190 billion?
SPEAKER PELOSI: To respond to your question, let me just say this. For months the committees of jurisdiction have done dozens of oversight hearings. What we have uncovered is waste, fraud and abuse, real corruption in the spending of this money in Iraq. No systems are in place for accountability and to prevent -- find and prevent the abuse.
So what we are seeing is billions of dollars in cash missing, no fraud inspector for reconstruction money in Iraq, weapons given to Iraqi security forces unaccounted for Iraq, no special IG, as I mentioned, for Iraq. So what we're -- I'm saying to my Appropriations Committee is that I want them to scrub this request. What is the mission, and where is the money going before we take up any other legislation.
Q (Off mike) -- strategy for getting a two-thirds majority on the children's health insurance bill?
SPEAKER PELOSI: We only need 15 Republicans in the House of Representatives. First, may I say, eternal optimist that I am, I still hope the president will sign the bill. I know he's hearing from his Republican friends. This is a bipartisan legislation. We all have to make certain concessions to the Senate and to the Republicans for what is in the bill, and it's an excellent bill. The president says that he supports SCHIP, but he doesn't want anymore children to have it. Well, does he want to be the decider as to which child will receive health care and which will not? When does a good initiative, as he described SCHIP, become an expansion of the federal role? Which child is the tipping point?
So I'm still hopeful that he will sign the bill. I know that members are hearing from everyone, from AARP to YMCA say it over and over -- (inaudible) -- in between -- Catholic Hospital Association, Families USA.
It's the array of support for this that every -- anyone who has to deal with children and their health is for this legislation, and so I know members will be hearing. And we only need 15 Republicans to make this big difference, so I hope the president would think in a little bit of a different way about signing the bill.
Q Madame Speaker, on the triad of Iraq bills that you talked about moving next week, why isn't important for your Democratic majority to move legislation that -- these bills all seem very movable -- whereas the Senate was stymied on things like Jim Webb's proposal and so on? These seem movable in what you can do to show the public that you're active on Iraq.
SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, we have said early on that every chance we get, we will hold this administration accountable for the conduct of the war in Iraq and certainly the taxpayers' dollars involved in that. And that's what we will do here. No longer will we try to get past the 60-vote margin in the Senate.
I think when the United States Senate -- when the senators decided that they could not even support an initiative for the readiness of our troops -- 15 months same time in theater, same time at home -- then it spoke very eloquently to the fact that we in the House cannot confine our aspirations for changing the direction in Iraq to what might be possible today in the United States Senate.
Q Madame Speaker, several years --
Q (Off mike) -- and talk about what's going on in San Francisco. Your spokesman told a Bay Area reporter that the Folsom Street Fair advertisement mocking the Last Supper would not harm Christianity; I'm wondering if you find that advertisement personally offensive. And as a follow-up, the city's Grants for the Arts Program, funded by the city's hotel tax, is subsidizing the fair; do you think that it's fair to tax everyone who visits San Francisco and stays in a hotel to support that kind of activity?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, that's not really a local question. That's a constitutional question. That's a religious question. That's as global a question as you can ask.
I'm a big believer in the First Amendment and, therefore, as I said in my statement, I do not believe that Christianity has been harmed by the Folsom Street Fair advertising.
Q Madame Speaker, Madame Speaker, can you talk about the concessions that you needed to make on the children's health care bill?
SPEAKER PELOSI: The -- the --
Q The major concessions that House Democrats made --
SPEAKER PELOSI: That we made, yes.
Q Do you take away any lesson on that? I mean, you did get support from Republicans in the Senate and 45 Republicans in the House. Did you take away any lesson on what you did on children's health care that you might be able to bring to another issue?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Oh, no. I find the experience one that is very encouraging. We always have lessons learned. But the fact is is that one of the lessons that we have is that we, again, can never confine our ideal presentation of the bill -- well, nothing's ideal -- but the best bill that we can put forward to what might pass the Senate.
I don't want to confine, for example, the interest that many of us have in having children who are here legally receive health benefits. It wouldn't -- it didn't -- it couldn't pass the Senate, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't put it on the table. So some of this legislation is, we go forth with our strongest possible bill; we get all we can in terms of a compromise, in order to make it bipartisan. And we serve notice that we'll be back for the rest of the bill.
Q What you said about the triad of Iraq bills and about the Senate, was that, in a way, an admission that nothing really is going to change about Iraq policy until we have a new president?
SPEAKER PELOSI: No, it means that we will appeal to the American people from the House of Representatives in a way that it will be less dependent on what is legislatively possible in the United States Senate. I believe that Senator Reid, not to speak for him but just watching his leadership, really in good faith has hoped and worked to have bipartisan cooperation, to at least have the bills heard. The 60 votes -- important for the American people to known that you need 60 votes just to hear -- have the vote heard. So what the Republicans in the Senate said, we will not allow a bill that honors the principles of readiness to be heard in the Senate of the United States. Well, we can't go as slow as that ship.
Q Madame Speaker, you're saying that, you know, you're not going to confine your aspirations towards getting 60 votes from the Senate. But Mr. Boehner has said he would encourage the Republican Caucus to vote for Abercrombie-Tanner. Are you -- does this --
SPEAKER PELOSI: I'm talking about the Senate. We still hope to have bipartisanship in the House.
Q Does this reflect a desire on -- in the carrying out of Iraq strategy to reach out more to Republicans to get their support?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, we always want to do that. We have a responsibility to the American people to try to find common ground on this issue. We're talking about votes for a bill in the House. In the Senate, it's whether you can bring the bill up or not. I don't want to get too bogged down in process, but that's a different story. And so just because they cannot achieve bipartisanship there, to the extent that a bill can be brought up, they do have bipartisanship. Every bill they have put forth has had Republican support, but not enough to hear the bill and to send it to the president's desk, except for the one occasion when the president vetoed the bill.
It is my belief the president suffered such consequences from that that they decided they should protect him from that, and therefore themselves as Republicans from that. So no, in our House, we will always strive for bipartisanship, because we're talking about growing the number of people who are speaking out for a new direction in Iraq. They're talking about whether you can bring up a bill or not, and we can't wait until that process changes in the Senate.
Q Madame Speaker, on the energy talks, any progress being made with Senator Reid about trying to get to a conference or any other means of having House-Senate talks, whether it's a formal conference or not?
SPEAKER PELOSI: I believe that we will have an energy bill on the floor in the House and the Senate before we leave this fall.
Q Madame Speaker, seven years ago you led --
SPEAKER PELOSI: Did you already have a question?
Q He did.
SPEAKER PELOSI: (Laughs.) I keep getting -- (off mike).
Q You led the opposition to Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China --
SPEAKER PELOSI: Yes.
Q -- which President Clinton was pushing for and eventually became law. Do you believe that in the years since, that trade with China has cost American jobs, lowered wages in this country? And how do you apply those lessons to the future trade deals, Peru and the other ones?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Thank you for asking a question about China.
Eighteen, 17 years ago, we began this debate on normal trade relations with China. At the time, the trade deficit with China was about $3 billion a year. We thought that that gave us great leverage with the Chinese government to free the prisoners arrested at the time of Tiananmen Square, lower barriers to U.S. products going into China and stop China's proliferation of weapons and technology to countries like Pakistan, for example, which they were transferring technology to. Three billion dollars a year. We thought that was a huge amount of money and gave us a tremendous amount of leverage.
I lost that fight. It didn't seem like people cared so much about human rights after a while, and we had to fight the Clinton administration on this. And so they said that if we just engaged -- which we wanted to engage anyway; we weren't saying to isolate, we were saying engage but on the basis of principle -- that if we engaged China, that all these things would happen.
Well, what happened is that the trade deficit went from $3 billion a week -- I mean year -- to $3 billion a week. Yes, I think it has had an impact on the American worker, and we see also an impact on the safety of our children and their families in terms of food supply and toys and the rest.
Secondly, they still haven't lowered their barriers. That's why we have over -- what's the trade deficit now, close to $200 billion? It may be $4 billion a week by now.
And they sufficiently proliferated to Pakistan that Pakistan was strengthened and was able to proliferate to other countries.
So it didn't achieve any of the goals, but it did -- was a big success for K Street.
Q (Off mike) -- future trade deals?
Q You said that you were hopeful the president would still sign SCHIP.
Have you had some conversation with him that gives you that hope?
SPEAKER PELOSI: No, no. But I'm thinking about calling him today, just to extend the hand of friendship, just say, "Mr. President, let's put our differences aside here, and you sign the bill." We've come a long way in reaching a bipartisan compromise, and we think that it would be a good idea to sign the bill.
Q Madame Speaker, you said --
SPEAKER PELOSI: Yeah. Wednesday I told the president we think he has 10 million reasons to sign the bill.
Q On Iraq-related resolutions, you said that you will always strive for bipartisanship in the House. Does that mean that you are ready to compromise with Republicans, or simply that you want Republicans to come over and join Democrats?
SPEAKER PELOSI: We have such an array of ideas, of legislation being proposed by everyone, that I think deserve a fair chance for us to review and see if they're in furtherance of three things: promoting our national security, bringing stability to the region, and also strengthening the readiness of our military. That's what our responsibility is.
The Bush administration policy in Iraq has failed on all three scores. And so we want to divert -- change the direction in Iraq, so that we can focus on the real war on terror -- terrorism, which is an important -- which is a serious threat to the safety of the American people.
Q But no more withdrawal timetable --
SPEAKER PELOSI: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying we'll review this as we go along, and when we see -- we scrub that -- the president's request. It's ironic that in the very same week that the president says he's going to veto the bill because we can't afford it, that he is asking, what, for $45 billion more over and above his initial request for the supplemental for the war in Iraq, money that we know is being spent without accountability, without a plan for how we can leave Iraq, without a reason to stay, and without any cooperation from the government of Iraq in terms of honoring any of the responsibilities they have to create the political environment that will end the sectarian violence.
Q (Off mike) -- war votes -- (off mike) -- October?
SPEAKER PELOSI: As long as we have good legislative proposals to put on the table that are in furtherance of keeping the American people safe, strengthening the readiness of our troops and bringing stability to the region.
Thank you all.
Q Madame Speaker -- (off mike) --
SPEAKER PELOSI: (Inaudible.)
Q (Inaudible) -- updates -- (inaudible) -- updates --
SPEAKER PELOSI: We will continue the conversation. Now, we might have this meeting every day, especially if the meetings are short. (Laughter.)
Q Can I get a promise of California wine for -- (off mike)?
SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, I don't know. Maybe we can have the Californians provide the refreshments, and here we'll just have our conversation.
Thank you all very much.