President Bush, convening his first news conference far from prime time, said Friday he intends no "foot dragging" in U.S.-Soviet affairs and that his trip to China next month is not designed to unsettle relations with the Kremlin.
Bush also gave his endorsement to a proposed $45,000 pay raise for members of Congress and sidestepped questions about a proposal to place a fee on savings accounts to help rescue the troubled savings and loan industry.The free-wheeling question and answer session, lasting more than 40 minutes, marked the end of Bush's first week in the Oval Office. "There's still a wonder of it all," the new president said.
"We're ready to roll," he added.
Bush said he had assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorba-chev that his intention to move slowly isn't a negative signal. "I don't think the Soviets see that as foot dragging. I'm confident they don't," he said.
"I want to take the offense in moving this relationship forward," he said.
Asked about American citizens being held hostage in the Middle East, he said: "Unless the information I have is wrong, Iran itself, the government, is not actually holding these people. And if they were I would reiterate my view that the way to improve relations is to let 'em go. Give these people their freedom. They didn't do anything wrong."
Bush seemed relaxed, if a little hoarse from a cold, calling on one reporter with the words,"You're up." He paused at one point to ask his questioners whether they wanted follow-up questions, a tradition from President Reagan's news conferences. Bush's first formal meeting with reporters came at 11 a.m. - far from the night-time gatherings favored by Reagan.
Bush fielded questions after telling reporters gathered in the White House briefing room, "It's been a full week since the inauguration, and I just wantedto stop by and give you an update."
He cited his first-week emphasis on ethics in government, and said he hoped to "assemble a government that the people of this nation can be proud of."
He also said he believed he had begun a "fresh constructive dialogue with Congress on both sides of the aisle."
But he also said he expects a tougher time ahead when he begins grappling with more contentious issues such as the budget. He stepped away from the most controversial item of his first week in office, a suggestion to place a premium on savings accounts to help rescue the savings and loan industry. He said the proposal hadn't yet reached his desk.
"It doesn't bother me for a lot of ideas to be debated and considered," the president said.
"Anything I do on savings and loans . . . I don't expect it's all going to be sweetness and harmony and light," he added.
At the same time, Bush sought to reassure depositors, saying the S&Ls "are sound, they are good, dollar-good . . . nothing is going to change in that regard."
Asked about superpower relationships, the new president said he didn't know where his first major foreign policy initiative would be, whether in the Middle East or Central America or elsewhere. "I don't want to play defense, I don't want to look like we're foot dragging and letting others set the agenda," he said.
As for the pay raise, which would give a 50 percent salary increase to members of Congress, federal judges and top-level government officials, Bush said, "The raise is overdue, there's no question about that." Bush noted that Congress is considering abolishing speaking honoraria in exchange for the controversial raise, and he said he favors that, too.
When asked whether the pay raise was inappropriate since the minimum wage had been frozen at $3.35 per hour since 1981, Bush said he's never felt that raising the minimum wage is the "key to prosperity" for poor people.
But he said he wants to maintain a "certain flexibility on that question" and will discuss proposals for an increase with Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole. Bush said he would want any miminum wage increase to be tied to a training wage.
On one key campaign pledge, Bush said he would push for his proposed cut in capital gains taxes.
The president also said he would briefly visit South Korea at the tail end of an Asian trip that includes a stop to Japan to attend the funeral of Emperor Hirohito and a subsequent visit to China.