THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY BARRY TOIV, JOE LOCKHART, AND ANNE LUZZATTO
The Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
MR. TOIV: Good afternoon. As we start, I have here a pamphlet that the Vice President's Office put out today, entitled, Federal Welfare To Work Commitments. And this is the formalizing of the commitments made by the federal departments and agencies to participate in hiring welfare to work recipients -- welfare recipients. And a very interesting, very good document, and we'll have some back here for you if you're interested.
And we are all ready for your questions.
Q Does the President support Secretary Cohen's decision that General Ralston's adulterous affair is not a disqualifier for him to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
MR. TOIV: And with that, I defer to Anne Luzzatto.
MS. LUZZATTO: Mike is going to come up here and brief on his trip to the Montgomery County Recycling Center with his five-year-old afterwards.
Wolf, Cohen and the President spoke yesterday about this issue. Secretary Cohen has made no formal recommendation.
Q Does he have to make one?
MS. LUZZATTO: The President has a very high regard for Ralston -- he's been an exemplary vice chairman and exemplary soldier, and has enormous confidence in Secretary Cohen and in his thinking and in his judgment. And the President will wait to hear from him and hear his recommendation and then will make his decision.
Q Well, it sounds like the President told him to hold off on a recommendation. What's the problem, if they're all so wonderful?
MS. LUZZATTO: I believe Secretary Cohen has said, and I believe he said yesterday, that he'll be bringing the recommendation forward in a week or so.
Q Of Ralston?
MS. LUZZATTO: I believe he said this yesterday, I'm not sure.
Q Of Ralston in a week or so?
MS. LUZZATTO: Ralston is a candidate, a leading candidate, but no recommendation has been made.
Q Well, what about, Anne, on the question of whether or not this adulterous affair should be a disqualifier, irrespective of whether he should be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs? Does the President agree with Cohen that this affair is not necessarily a disqualifying act to his getting a promotion?
MS. LUZZATTO: Wolf, the President has confidence in Cohen's judgment and in his thinking, and will receive his recommendation and then make his decision. And I don't want to comment any further as to any other thinking that, at this point, isn't relevant.
Q Anne, who initiated this call yesterday?
MS. LUZZATTO: I don't know, but I will try to find out for you.
Q And presumably, Cohen told the President exactly what he was going to do in this?
MS. LUZZATTO: It is my understanding that they discussed the matter and I don't -- can't characterize it with any greater specificity than that.
Q Obviously, the President didn't tell him don't go forward and give this a whirl.
MS. LUZZATTO: They discussed the matter; I can't give you any more details.
Q Well, would it, then, be too much to ask for a clarification of Wolf's question, or dare I say, the answers to Wolf's question, which is, does the White House believe, as Secretary Cohen has said, that this past affair should be no bar to the General's service in this new job?
MS. LUZZATTO: I think I'm going to leave it at my answer a minute ago, that the President has confidence in Secretary Cohen's judgment, in his thinking, how he works this process through, will receive his recommendation. There are a number of factors to be taken into consideration here. I think when the recommendation comes, the President will consider them, consider the basis upon which the recommendation has been made and then make his decision.
Q The White House doesn't want to say whether it considers this a bar to service?
MS. LUZZATTO: I think I'm not going to go any further than I have already.
Q -- number of factors the President would consider elevating the General to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs, that Kelly Flinn ought to be reconsidered to be reinstated in the Air Force. How does the President feel about that?
MS. LUZZATTO: I don't want to comment further on these issues at the moment.
Q Well, Anne, is the White House looking, or is the President looking to see what the public reaction is to this before he would -- and would he take that into consideration in making his decision?
MS. LUZZATTO: Absolutely not. I think he's looking to Secretary Cohen's judgment. There are many factors that go into a decision like this. And I would say, no, that is not the case.
Q Is double standard one of the factors that you would consider in this case?
MS. LUZZATTO: I'm going to leave this to Secretary Cohen to make his recommendation and then the President to make his decision based on it.
Q Is a double standard, from the President's standpoint, one of the factors to be considered in this case?
MS. LUZZATTO: I can't speak to that.
Q If the President -- I mean, we already know what Cohen's judgment is on this because he's told us. And if the President is confident in Cohen's judgment, why would the affair not be an automatic disqualifier?
MS. LUZZATTO: I don't want to go further than I've gone.
Q Anne, on the FEC petition, to change the subject for a moment, at the end of the President's statement, it says, "I want to work in coming days with members of Congress to pass bipartisan and comprehensive campaign finance reform." Has there been any movement on this front, legislatively, or any meetings scheduled with lawmakers on this?
MR. LOCKHART: There's no movement that I know of to speak of at this point. I think the point that the President was trying to make was that we're moving through the FEC petition on soft money, but that isn't a substitute for comprehensive campaign finance reform, which, by definition, has to be done on a bipartisan basis.
Q Coming days -- that seems --
MR. LOCKHART: Coming days -- the President has talked earlier about trying to do something by July 4th, and I don't think we've given up hope that this will move. But I can't speak to any particular or specific legislative action that we see on the immediate horizon.
Q Joe, people like Senator Mitch McConnell are saying that what the President's asking the FEC to do it cannot do, and basically he's putting the burden on you to prove that the FEC has the authority to do, indeed, what you're asking it to do.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we believe by virtue of the petition that the FEC does have the power to do it. I believe it's a 1974 opinion that they issued that opened up this loophole, and we believe that they do. And they're going to take a hard look at it.
Q So is the Senator wrong?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we would disagree. We believe the FEC can. And the FEC will look at it and make a judgment.
Q And what about Senator McCain's threat that if they did this, that the Senate would immediately look into stripping the FEC's appropriations so that it could engage in such actions?
MR. LOCKHART: We think it's an appropriate action for the FEC to take, because Senator McCain himself has talked about the influence of soft money as well as some other campaign finance issues. So we believe that this should go forward because it's the appropriate action.
Q Joe, I noticed in the President's statement he renewed his call for the Congress to enact campaign finance reform by his July 4th deadline that he originally challenged. What makes him think there's any inclination by Congress to enact this? And wasn't this FEC action taken just because Congress was not going anywhere on campaign finance reform?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it was taken because there hasn't been tangible progress on campaign finance in this Congress. But it's certainly not a substitute and, in fact, as we've said, it may even serve as a prod -- as the public sees that we're moving on at least one of the issues, it may serve as a prod for taking a more comprehensive approach to campaign finance reform.
Q Anne, I just wanted to run by this one more time. By refusing to take any position on whether the President agrees with Mr. Cohen -- not on the appointment, but simply on this question of whether his behavior can be excused -- you're basically not backing Mr. Cohen. I mean, rather conspicuously not backing him.
MS. LUZZATTO: I think refusing to take a position is reasonable. It would be premature. No recommendation has been made.
Q But the Secretary of Defense very publicly to many newspapers took a stand, and now when the White House is asked whether it agrees, it says, no. I mean, you're not -- Why? We're not asking do you support this man for this job. We're simply asking do you agree with his position that the line should be drawn and this is okay.
MS. LUZZATTO: The recommendation of Secretary Cohen will be based on a number of factors --
Q Like what?
MS. LUZZATTO: -- and when it comes to the President for a decision, the President will decide. It is irrelevant to be responsive to your particular question because the candidate has not yet been recommended.
Q But the White House repeatedly responds to things like this.
Q It's not irrelevant to a lot of people in the military, though.
MS. LUZZATTO: Then that's a different, and I'm not competent to speak to it at the moment.
Q But you're refusing to back the Defense Secretary in a position he's already taken.
MS. LUZZATTO: The Defense Secretary has not made his recommendation.
Q But he has said that this is not a disqualifying act. Why can't you say the President supports his position that this shouldn't be a disqualifier?
MS. LUZZATTO: I'm not in a position to comment on how the President -- whether or not the President agrees or disagrees on that specific issue. I'm in a position to tell you that the recommendation will come forward and the President will make a decision on it. But I can't --
Q But we're asking you if you can get an answer to that question.
MS. LUZZATTO: I will put the question to somebody who may or may not be able to give me an answer -- absolutely.
Q Anne, was the President blindsided by this? Did he know that this possibility of recommendation was in the wind? And is he angry about this controversy?
MS. LUZZATTO: I don't know. I'll try to find out.
Q Anne, does the administration have any reaction to an altercation between South Korean and North Korean patrol boats today? Was the President informed? Does this endanger the four-party peace talks?
MS. LUZZATTO: Yes, we're aware of it. We are aware of it. We understand that there was a limited exchange of fire. I guess this has been on the wires. Reports indicate that there was no loss of life or serious injury. We're talking to the South Koreans through our embassy in Seoul and we hope that it won't affect our ongoing negotiations with the North Koreans in New York.
Q What do you know about a consortium that involves many of our friends who are building a nuclear plant in Cuba for Cuba?
MS. LUZZATTO: I don't have any information.
Q Russia, Britain, Brazil.
Q It's a longstanding thing -- Helen, are you talking about the one that's been just recently revived?
Q Yes, there was a report out today.
MS. LUZZATTO: Helen, I don't have any information on it, but we can get you information on it.
Q This is a question for Barry about the comp time bill, comp time-flex time. Do you see -- does the White House see any opportunity to come to an agreement on this? And it appeared that the President was talking to Senator Ashcroft about it yesterday at the event.
MR. TOIV: Well, we certainly hope so. Clearly, the path that they've been on is not one that's very productive. Yesterday's vote should signal that it's time to get together and work on a bill that provides the kind of flexibility for workers that we all want to achieve but that gives that flexibility to workers and not so much to their employers, but provides it to employees. And
that's something that we very much want to do. The President has said this many times in the past, and perhaps yesterday's vote will help send us down that road.
Q Did they have any productive discussion when the two men talked? Did they see any areas of --
MR. TOIV: I don't know about that conversation particularly.
Q Does the White House -- do you have any area that you can describe that you think might be a fertile area for discussion?
MR. TOIV: I can't describe for you an specific policy area. I mean, the President does have a proposal that he's made in this area, and we have at the staff level certainly discussions that have been going on and off during this time, and we certainly hope that there will be some progress in this area. But that hasn't happened yet.
Q Barry, is there any hope of avoiding the veto showdown on the disaster relief program?
MR. TOIV: Sure, if the Congress passes a clean disaster supplemental, the President is ready with his pen to sign it. Unfortunately, they seem headed towards a bill that has extraneous measures on it that would effectively cut back the investments in education and the environment that were agreed to in the budget agreement, and they really should not be holding hostage the people and communities, Midwest and around the country, who are depending on this assistance. Unfortunately, they seem bent on doing this, and so we hope that at the least, they will pass this bill as quickly as possible so that the President can veto it as quickly as possible and send it back to them so that they can get on with the business of passing a clean disaster supplemental that he can sign and get the aid moving.
Q Barry, word from the Hill is that they expect to have the bill done tonight. How soon do you think the President will -- you're talking as fast as possible on a veto -- I mean, what kind of turnaround are we talking? Do you expect it to come down here tonight or tomorrow, or how soon do you think he would be able to get to it?
MR. TOIV: We don't know exactly when it will come down here. I understand that both Houses are planning on acting on it today. When the bill itself will actually appear up here, we don't really know. But certainly, the President will sign it as soon as he practically can -- or, I mean, veto it and get it back.
Q What about the other provisions that the White House isn't too thrilled about, like the census sampling issue and rights of way? If Congress managed to strip out the automatic CR -- which my understanding is that the Appropriations didn't want in there, it was a leadership issue in the GOP -- would the White House be able to stomach this spending bill with those riders on it?
MR. TOIV: Well, we've had serious problems with those provisions. I am not up to speed on what has been done on the parks provisions, what changes may have been made in that, so I'm probably not in a position to comment on that.
Certainly, though, the census provision, which has been made -- has actually gone from bad to worse in the conference -- as you all may recall, the Senate originally had considered a provision restricting the Census Bureau from going ahead with its efforts to make the census more accurate, and they pulled back on that to a provision that was more acceptable to the administration. Now, in the conference, they've gone back in and added a provision that is actually stronger than the original Senate provision. That's something that's not acceptable to the White House.
Q Barry, if the aid in the disaster relief bill was as urgent as the White House says, why wouldn't the people who are needing -- who need and depend upon that aid be right in holding the President responsible for vetoing the bill if they don't care about the little political disputes that are at issue in the add-ons to the measures?
MR. TOIV: Well, they're not little political issues; they're serious issues, and the Congress should consider them in a separate venue.
Q What about the Weld nomination, is that going forward? Albright saw him in Boston today -- Harvard.
MS. LUZZATTO: All that for probably what will be a fairly short answer. It is the position, as you know, of the White House that Weld would be an excellent ambassador to Mexico. He has strong bipartisan support and we believe that we'll work through any concerns that may be out there successfully.
Q Anne, as a general matter, do you know, does the President believe that anyone appointed Joint Chiefs of Staff should be held to the highest moral and ethical standards and should have an unblemished record?
MS. LUZZATTO: I think as a general matter, consistent with what Secretary Cohen believes are the qualifications for the job, I believe the President would agree with that, yes.
Q Barry, is the President thinking of revising his affirmative action plan in connection with this case in New Jersey?
MR. TOIV: Which case?
Q The teacher --
MR. TOIV: Piscataway?
Q Yes. Affirmative action.
MR. LOCKHART: Wolf, I don't have a final answer on that. I might have a little bit more later today out of Justice on that.
Q Is there some --
MR. LOCKHART: There may be some movement, but I don't know for sure yet, no. I'll come back to you afterwards and check it out.
Q -- change the position?
MR. LOCKHART: No, no. Sorry, there's no change in position on the issue of affirmative action. The President's committed on that issue, but I need to check on that for you.
Q But as far as the Justice Department intervening, as had been earlier thought, there may be a change in that?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not sure. I'll come back to you.
Q The Justice Department is saying that in their brief they're going to send to the Supreme Court, it's going to ask -- some sources there are telling me they're going to ask that the Supreme Court not to hear the case, that they don't think this is a good case for affirmative action. But is this also a case of -- I'm also being told that the administration feels that you wouldn't be able to win this case. Would that be an embarrassment given the fact that the President is trying to come out in front on race relations?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think we should go ahead and let them make the announcement and then I can come back to you and maybe address that question.
Q Well, has the White House been consulted on the Justice Department brief?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q What's in it?
MR. TOIV: Anything else?
Q Any preview on tomorrow's commencement address?
MR. TOIV: The President has been working for much of the day on the commencement speech, and I think you'll find that it's obviously very personal for him. And I don't have any details on the speech. He's working on it by himself pretty much, and that's all I have for you on it.
Q Did Chelsea help him with it?
MR. TOIV: Not that I know of, but I don't know.
Q Anything the White House wish to add that Bob Bennett, the President's lawyer, hasn't already said on the Paula Jones case?
MR. TOIV: I don't think so. (Laughter.)
Q You almost got him, Wolf.
Q How far along is he on his San Diego speech? Is there a draft? I mean, I'm sorry, his UC-Davis speech, the speech for next Saturday, is there a draft?
MR. LOCKHART: He's been thinking about it. I don't know that there is actually a written draft yet, but he has been thinking about it. He's been working with the speechwriting team on some of the ideas that will go into it. I think he's been thinking more generally over the last couple months about the initiative itself rather than just what's in the speech, and now his attention is turning to the speech.
Q Any interesting visitors today that will emerge in the driveway later to our surprise?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not that I know of.
Q Joe, for us TV people, could you speak to some of the elements of those initiatives? What's he putting into it?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think some of the reporting that was done this morning, I'd say, reflects an accurate snapshot of where we are now. We're not -- certainly not final in these things. But some of the elements that were talked about -- a presidential report, meetings, in particular, town meetings -- I think those are all in the mix and will probably, when we are ready to announce this later next week, will be part of -- and the advisory board that was reported on will be part of it. And again, nothing final, but I think it's an accurate snapshot of what's in the mix now.
Q Going back to Mr. Bennett for a moment -- in light of recent events, does the President still have full confidence in Mr. Bennett?
MR. TOIV: Yes.
Any other questions? Thank you very much.
Q One other -- can you give a heads-up on the one-year report on the church fire arson task force that is due out tomorrow? Any sort of details on what it's found?
MR. TOIV: I don't have details at this time -- hopefully, we will tomorrow.
Q Where is that coming out?
Q What is it?
MR. TOIV: I'm not sure if that's coming tomorrow or next week -- is it Treasury -- it's coming out tomorrow? Then we'll probably have something to say about it tomorrow.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:52 P.M. EDT