Is there any danger that the atmosphere is becoming so poisoned or that you're spending so much political capital that it could imperil your agenda items like Social Security, energy?
BUSH: I don't think so. I think when it's all said and done, we're going to get a lot done.
I mean, after all, one of the issues that people have been working for a long time is class action lawsuit reform.
And I signed that bill.
An issue that people have been working for a long time is bankruptcy law reform. And I signed that bill.
And the House got an energy bill out recently. And I talked to Senator Domenici the other day, and he's upbeat about getting the bill out pretty quickly and get it to conference and get the issues resolved.
I'm pretty aware of what the issues might be that'll hang up a conference, and I think we can get those issues resolved. We're more than willing to help out.
So I do believe I'll get an energy bill by August.
There's a budget agreement, and I'm grateful for that.
In other words, we are making progress.
No question the Social Security issue is a big issue, but it's — you know, as I said before, we haven't talked about this issue for 20 years. And they thought we had it fixed 22 years ago for 75 years, and here we are, 22 years later after the fix, talking about it again.
And it's serious business. If you're a grandmother or a grandfather listening, you're going to get your check. But your grandchildren are going to have a heck of a price to bear if we don't get something done now.
You see, it's possible, if nothing gets done, that the payroll taxes will go up to some 18 percent. Imagine that for your children and grandchildren living in a society where payroll taxes are up at 18 percent.
Or there'll be dramatic benefit cuts as time goes on.
Now's the time to get it done.
And my pledge to the American people is that I'm going to stay on this issue, because I know it's important for you.
Q: Mr. President, you had talked about North Korea, and you mentioned that the six-party talks allow you to bring extra leverage to the table.
But do you think they're working, given North Korea's continued threats and the continuing growth of their nuclear stockpile?
Q: And how long do you let it go before you get to...
BUSH: No, I appreciate that question.
I do think it's making a difference to have China and Japan and South Korea and Russia and the United States working together with North Korea.
In my judgment, that's the only way to get this issue solved diplomatically, is to bring more than one party to the table to convince Kim Jong Il to give up his nuclear ambitions.
And how far we let it go on is dependent upon our consensus amongst ourselves. Condi, the other day, laid out a potential option of going to the United Nations Security Council. Obviously that's going to require, you know, the parties agreeing. After all, some of the parties in the process have got the capacity to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution.
So this is an issue we need to continue to work with our friends and allies.
And, you know, the more Kim Jong Il threatens and brags, the more isolated he becomes.
And we'll continue to work with China on this issue. I spend a lot of time, when I'm dealing with Chinese leaders, on North Korea, as do people in my administration.
And I'll continue to work with our friends in Japan and South Korea. And Vladimir Putin understands the stakes as well.
Q: Mr. President, under the law, how would you justify the practice of renditioning, where U.S. agents who bust terror suspects abroad, taking them to a third country for interrogation? And would you stand for it if foreign agents did that to an American here?
BUSH: That's a hypothetical.
We operate within the law, and we send people to countries where they say they're not going to torture the people.
But let me say something. The United States government has an obligation to protect the American people. It's in our country's interests to find those who would do harm to us and get them out of harm's way.
And we will do so within the law. And we will do so in honoring our commitment not to torture people.
And we expect the countries where we send somebody to not to torture as well.
But, you bet, when we find somebody who might do harm to the American people, we will detain them and ask others from their country of origin to detain them. It makes sense. The American people expect us to do that. We're still at war.
You know, I've said this before to you, I'm going to say it again: One of my concerns after September the 11th is the farther away we got from September the 11th, the more relaxed we would all become and assume that there wasn't an enemy out there ready to hit us.
And I just can't let the American people — I'm not going to let them down by assuming that the enemy is not going to hit us again. We're going to do everything we can to protect us.
We've got the guidelines. We've got law.
But, you bet, we're going to fight people before they harm us.
Q: I'd just like to ask simply, what's your view of the economy right now? First quarter growth came in weaker than expected. There have been worries about inflation and lower spending by consumers.
Are these basically just bumps in the road, in your opinion, or are they reasons for some real concern? And could they affect your agenda on Social Security?
BUSH: You know, I appreciate that.
I am concerned about the economy because our small-business owners and families are paying higher prices at the gas pump. And that affects the lives of a lot of people.
If you're a small-business owner and you have to pay higher gas prices, likely you may not hire a new worker, because higher gas prices, as I have said, is like a tax on the small-business job creators. And it's a tax on families.
And I do think this has affected consumer sentiment. I do think it's affected the economy.
On the other hand, the experts tell me that the forecast of economic growth in the coming months looks good.
There's more to do to make sure that we don't slip back into slow growth or negative growth. One is to make sure taxes stay low. Secondly is to continue to pursue legal reform.
I hope we can get an asbestos reform bill out of both the House and the Senate. There are some positive noises on Capitol Hill as to whether or not we can get an asbestos reform bill. That will be an important reform in order to make sure that our economy continues to grow.
We need to continue to open up markets for U.S. products. As you know, there'll be a vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement here, hopefully soon.
I'm a strong believer that that's in the interest of American job creators and workers that we open up those markets.
I know it's important geopolitically to say to those Central American countries, You've got a friend in America.
We say we have an agreement with you, and it's important to ratify it. It'll help strengthen the neighborhood.
We've also got to make sure that we continue to reduce regulation. I think an important initiative — I know an important initiative that we're going to be coming forth with here, probably in the fall, is tax reform.
You know, I was amazed by the report the other day that there's some $330 billion a year that goes unpaid by American taxpayers. It's a phenomenal amount of money.
To me, it screams for making the tax system easier to understand, more fair, so that we can — and to make sure people pay their taxes. More fair means pay what you owe.
You see, there's a lot of things we can do to make sure economic growth continues. But I'm an optimistic fellow, based not upon my own economic forecasts — I'm not an economist — but based upon the experts that I listen to.
Q: Mr. President, you've made No Child Left Behind a big part of your education agenda. The nation's largest teachers union has filed suit against it, saying it's woefully inadequately funded.
What's your response to that? And do you think that No Child Left Behind is working?
BUSH: Yes, I think it's working. And the reason why I think it's working is because we're measuring. And the measurement is showing progress toward teaching people how to read and write and add and subtract.
Listen, the whole theory behind No Child Left Behind is this: If we're going to spend federal money, we expect the states to show us whether or not we're achieving, you know, simply objectives, like literacy, literacy in math, the ability to read and write.
And, yes, we're making progress. And I can say that with certainty, because we're measuring.
Look, I'm a former governor. I believe that the states ought to control their own destiny when it comes to schools. They're by far the biggest funder of education. And it should remain that way.
But we spend a lot of money here at the federal level, and have increased the money we spend here quite dramatically at the federal level.
And we just changed the policy. Instead of just spending money and hoping for the best, we're now spending money and saying,
And some people don't like to measure. But if you don't measure, how do you know whether or not you've got a problem in a classroom?
I believe it's best to measure early and correct problems early before it's too late.
That's why, as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act, we had money available for remedial education. In other words, we said,
We're going to measure. And when we detect someone who needs extra help, that person will get extra help.
And absolutely it's making — it's a good piece of legislation. And I will do everything I can to prevent people from unwinding it, by the way.
Q: What about the lawsuit? What's your response to ...
BUSH: I don't know about the lawsuit. I'm not a lawyer.
But I — you know, I'll ask my lawyers about the lawsuit.
But I know some people are trying to unwind No Child Left Behind.
You know, I've heard some states say, Well, we don't like it.
Well, you know, my attitude about no liking it is this: If you teach a child to read and write, it shouldn't bother you whether you measure. That's all we're asking.
The system for too long had just shuffled children through and just hoped for the best. And guess what happened? We had people graduate from high school who were illiterate. And that's just not right in America. It wasn't working.
And so I came to Washington and worked with both Republicans and Democrats — this is a case of where bipartisanship was really working well — and we said, Look, we're going to spend more money at the federal level.
But the federal government only spends about 7 percent of the total education budgets around the country.
But we said, Let's the change the attitude.
We ought to start with the presumption every child can learn. Not just some. And therefore, if you believe every child can learn then you ought to expect every classroom to teach.
I hear feedback from No Child Left Behind, by the way, and admittedly I get the cook's tour sometimes. But I hear teachers talk to me about how thrilled they are with No Child Left Behind. They appreciate the fact that the system now shows deficiencies early so they can correct those problems.
And it is working.
Q: I want to make sure I understand your answer to Mike about North Korea. He asked you how long you were prepared to let the multiparty talks proceed in the face of what might be a gathering threat of North Korea. And you said, How long — I'm paraphrasing — How long we let it go on is dependent on our consensus among ourselves.
Q: Did you mean to say that you will neither refer North Korea to the U.N. nor take military action unless you have the agreement of all the other partners in the process?
BUSH: No, I didn't speak about military — I was speaking about diplomatically.
And secondly, yes, I mean, we've got partners. This is a six-party talk: five of us on the side of convincing Kim Jong Il to get rid of his nuclear weapons and, obviously, Kim Jong Il believes he ought to have some.
And my point was that that it is best — if you have a group of people trying to achieve the same objective, it's best to work with those people. It's best to consult.
His question was: Are you going to — you know, when are you going to — when will there be consequences? And what we want to do is to work with our allies on this issue and develop a consensus, a common approach, to the consequences of Kim Jong Il.
I mean, it seems counterproductive to have five of us working together and then all of a sudden one of us say, Well, we're not going to work together.
Again, I repeat to you, our aim is to solve this problem diplomatically.
And, you know, like I've said before, all options, of course, are on the table. But the best way to solve this problem diplomatically is to work with four other nations, who have all agreed in achieving the same goal, and that is a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Final question. Hutch? I don't want cut into some of the TV shows that are getting ready to air ... for the sake of the economy.
Q: I wanted to ask you about your ideas on dealing with Social Security solvency problems.
As I understand it — and I know you'll tell me if I'm wrong — benefits would be equal to what — at least equal to what they are today, and then any increase in benefits would be indexed according to income, with lower-income people getting bigger increases.
Two things on that. Today's benefits probably won't mean much somewhere down the road. And how far are you going to go with this means-based program? Are you talking about...
BUSH: Yes, I appreciate that.
Q: ... a system where a rich person, say Dick Cheney, wouldn't get much out of it?
BUSH: Now wait a minute, don't get personal here, that's international TV. That's a cheap shot.
First of all, in terms of the definition of whose benefits would rise faster and whose wouldn't, that's going to be part of the negotiation process with the United States Congress.
As a Democrat economist had a very — he put forth this idea. And he had a level of — I think 30 percent of the people would be considered to be on the lower income scale.
But this is to be negotiated. This is a part of the negotiation process.
My job is to lay out an idea that I think will make this system more fair.
And the second question — or the first question...
Q: (OFF-MIKE) it's a means-based program, where the real wealthy people might not get very much out of it.
BUSH: That's right. I mean, obviously it is means-based when you're talking about lower income versus wealthier income. The lower- income people's benefits would rise faster.
And the whole goal would be to see to it that nobody retired in poverty. Somebody that's worked all their life and paid into the Social Security system would not retire into poverty.
One other point on Social Security that people have got to understand is that the system of today is not fair for a person whose spouse has died early.
In other words, if you're a two-working family, like a lot of families are here in America, and two people working in your family, and the spouse dies early — before 62, for example — all of the money that the spouse has put into the system is held there, and then when the other spouse retires, he or she gets to choose the benefits from his or her own work or the other spouse's benefits, whichever is higher, but not both.