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Kelly Wallace: Economic stimulus package and the war on terror

Kelly Wallace is a White House correspondent for CNN. She joined the chat room from Washington, DC.

CNN: Welcome, Kelly Wallace, to the chat room for our weekly review of politics.

KELLY WALLACE: Good to be with you.

CNN: What's the latest on the economic stimulus bill?

WALLACE: Well, both sides have said they are going to work through the weekend and into next week to try and resolve their differences and get a bill to the president which he can sign. Lawmakers on the House side were busy today with the issue of trade and Senate Democrats were focusing on trying to add $7.5 billion for homeland security to the annual spending bill. So the issue of the economic stimulus package was not front and center but negotiations are expected to continue behind the scenes. Both sides say they want a bill and there is certainly lots of political pressure to get one. American consumers might not be happy with the Congress if they leave town without getting a bill to the president.

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But big stumbling blocks remain. In very simple terms, Democrats are pushing for more federal spending to help the unemployed and targeted tax cuts to lower and middle income workers while Republicans want to provide block grants to states to help laid off workers and are pushing a series of tax cuts which they believe will give a boost to the economy and create more jobs.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can the President stop the congress from going on break until they come up with a stimulus package?

WALLACE: He could certainly say he won't sign some spending bills, which are needed to fund the government, unless lawmakers finish work on an economic stimulus package. But it does not appear he will do that with bills, such as those that are needed to fund the military and to fund the education and labor departments. Instead , the president is calling on Congress to get its work done and get a bill to him by Christmas. If the president does not get a bill, look for the blame game to get fairly intense quickly. The White House and the Republicans will likely blame Democrats -- in particular the Democratically controlled Senate -- for standing in the way of a bill they say consumers needed. So, with the political stakes fairly high here, the thinking is that Democrats and Republicans are going to do what they can to get some sort of agreement over the next week or two.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where does the trade bill stand at the moment?

WALLACE: Well, this one was a squeaker. The bill, giving the president the authority to negotiate trade agreements without Congress being able to amend them in the future, passed by just a hair. Now the question is what will the Senate do. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has already said he won't bring the bill to the floor until next year, but Republicans are accusing him of playing politics and are calling on him to reverse his position. President Bush, in a statement, also called on the Senate to get a bill to him quickly. We will have to follow up with Daschle's office but if his earlier words still stand, this issue will likely be on hold until lawmakers return in January.

CNN: What is White House reaction to the Taliban surrender in Kandahar?

WALLACE: The White House says it is watching the situation closely and that the situation is still fluid. [It said] that Mullah Mohammed Omar would not be able to be given amnesty under any surrender. There was some indication that as part of the negotiations in Kandahar Thursday, that Omar would be able to stay in Kandahar under tribal protection. The Defense Secretary and the White House press secretary both said that would be unacceptable and that Omar must be brought to justice.

What the White House would not do is speculate on the various possibilities that it might be confronted with, for example, what if the new transitional government decides it wants to prosecute Omar as opposed to having him tried in any U.S. criminal justice system or through any U.S. military tribunal. The administration [said] it won't agree to a settlement that does not meet the objectives of the U.S.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Kelly, is there any chance that Omar would be tried by U.S. authorities? Is there any mechanism for extradition of foreign nationals from Afghanistan?

WALLACE: You have probably heard that President Bush has said he is retaining the option of using military tribunals, as opposed to civilian courts, to try suspected terrorists. Many believe Omar is a likely candidate for such a tribunal. The tribunal could take place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, in another country, at sea or in the U.S. Administration officials have said a tribunal might be used in cases where the prosecution of cases could threaten the security of Americans or could reveal important intelligence information that would be helpful in prosecuting other members of the terrorist group. Right now, the Defense Department is working on guidelines for the use of such tribunals. If Omar is taken into custody by the U.S., U.S. officials would be faced with questions of what to do with him and the issue of a military tribunal would likely be considered. But again, the White House is saying it is not going to speculate on any of these possibilities until the fate of Omar is resolved.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where does Congress stand on the expansion of war efforts beyond Afghanistan?

WALLACE: That is an interesting question because I believe a number of lawmakers have written a letter urging President Bush to make Iraq the next target of the war against terrorism. In September, Congress gave the president the authority to take whatever actions he needed to apprehend those believed to be responsible for the September 11 attacks. If he decided to expand the campaign to include strikes against Iraq, and there was no direct linkage between Iraq and 9-11, I would imagine that lawmakers would want the president to at least consult with Congress before taking his next move.

Clearly the ten House and Senate lawmakers who signed the letter believe Bush should target Iraq. It is not clear if the move would be supported at this time by a majority of lawmakers in both houses. And as for the president, he has only said that strikes against other targets are possible. White House officials say the next phase of the campaign is more likely to involve countries like Yemen, the Philippines, Somalia and the Sudan crack down on al Qaeda operatives in their countries, and not be focused on Iraq.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can you give us the latest on the controversy of Capt. Charles Frank Burlingame III.

WALLACE: Well, today we learned the White House has stepped in slightly, with chief of staff Andrew Card calling the Pentagon today and yesterday to check and see where things stand. President Bush, according to his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, is hoping the family and the Pentagon can reach an "amicable" agreement. Right now, the family wants Burlingame to be buried in his own grave at Arlington National Cemetery. But the Army said that reservists must be 60 years or older to be buried there. In a compromise, the Army has offered to have Burlingame buried with his father at the cemetery, or to have his ashes (along with his wife's when she died) placed in a wall at the cemetery. These options don't appear to be acceptable for the family. So that's where things stand right now. The White House says the Pentagon is working hard to reach an agreement. Fleischer would not say if the president could step in and with a presidential waiver allowing Burlingame to be buried in his own grave. Lawmakers from Virginia are also looking at passing a measure which would allow the burial the family desires. All sides say this is a sensitive and difficult issue. It certainly is a story we will continue to follow.

CNN: Thanks for joining us today. Do you have any closing comments for us?

WALLACE: It's been another busy week at the White House. In the days ahead, look to see what happens in Kandahar, what happens to Omar and whether the U.S. gets any closer to finding bin Laden. Also, tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Bush will travel to Norfolk, VA, home of the USS Enterprise which returned from Afghanistan a few weeks ago. The president will talk about how in 1941 and on September 11, the U.S. was attacked, how the U.S. did not look for war but how the U.S., in both cases will fight hard to defend freedom. It should be a very comprehensive speech and likely a memorable one for this president. As for next week, look to see if the Congress can get an economic stimulus bill to the president and if the Senate will send a defense bill to the president with extra federal spending which he says he will veto. There will be a mad rush to get finished quickly so lawmakers can return to their constituents and their families for the holidays. We'll see how long it takes for Congress to get its work done!

CNN: Thanks again for joining us!

WALLACE: Good to be with you as always. Have a great weekend and we'll talk next week.

Kelly Wallace joined the chat room by telephone and typed for herself. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Thursday, December 6, 2001.



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