THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY P.J. CROWLEY, JOE LOCKHART, AND THE PRESIDENT'S HEALTH POLICY ADVISOR CHRIS JENNINGS The Briefing Room
1:14 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: P.J. and I will be glad to take your questions on other subjects, but we want to have Chris Jennings, the President's Health Policy Advisor, come and speak to you first about the event we did today, and then P.J. and I will be glad to fill in behind him.
MR. JENNINGS: Good afternoon. This morning, as you saw, the President announced the launching of a new outreach campaign to target and enroll 3 million older Americans and people with disabilities who have no protections on premiums although they are eligible for it. As you saw today, the Families USA advocacy organization released a report that documented this problem and said that federal and state governments need to do a better job of targeting and enrolling these eligible populations.
Just as a reminder, these are populations that are between probably 50 percent of poverty and 175 percent of poverty. They're very low income Medicare beneficiaries who have the right to have these protections, but because we have not done as good a job as we can both at the state and federal government level at getting these folks signed up, they are paying much higher out-of-pocket costs, both through premiums, deductibles, and co-payments.
This action today actually is very much consistent with the action the President took just a few weeks ago talking about targeting the eligible children who are eligible if not enrolled for the CHIP* and Medicaid programs. And this just is an illustration of are ongoing commitment to make sure that the people who have eligibility for these programs get the protections that they need and they deserve, and they are, in many cases, entitled to.
Briefly, just to go over what some of the initiatives are, and then I would be happy to answer any questions -- first, this is a joint activity between two departments, both the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, hence the participation of Donna Shalala and Ken Apfel earlier this morning. I would say that they're divided into a number of different categories.
First, we have a major new initiative to educate beneficiaries about the program in the first place. We'll be sending information about the program both through our mailings through the Social Security, through the cost of living adjustment announcement that happens in the fall, through a whole series of pamphlets to 38 million Americans, Medicare beneficiaries, to every new Medicare beneficiary who enrolls. That's about 1.8 million a year will have access to this information as well.
We will also be making sure that Social Security offices, which frequently is the place where Medicare beneficiaries go to get information about programs that they're eligible for, have these pamphlets, as well as have posters plastered all over the place so they can see, oh, I might be eligible for this important program.
Remember that this is a population where these costs in terms of cost-sharing protections can mean the difference between hundreds of dollars a year, which, for many a Medicare beneficiary, means the difference between buying a prescription or not, or being able to go to another physician's office visit. For us, we think that's very, very critically important, that we get out the word that this program is available and people should take advantage of them if they are eligible.
Secondly, we are -- what we're also finding out is that the administrative -- the signing-up enrollment process is extremely complicated. People don't know what forms they're supposed to find, they think it's overly complicated. In response, this month, the Department of Health and Human Services, through the Health Care Finance Administration, will be sending a letter to each Medicaid director that will enclose a simplified application form, which will -- and will encourage all states to use this, because it is a joint state-federal program, and we'll ask them to use for the enrollment of eligible populations.
Thirdly, we're going to be creating a new task force, both federal, state and consumer task force, that is designed to get new ideas, new concepts on how best we can target and enroll these populations and new creative options to do that. We'll have the Administration on Aging, the SSA -- Social Security Administration -- HCFA, as well as the National Governors Association and consumer advocates, as well. We will also be working with the state insurance counseling assistance programs to make sure that they're well aware of these programs.
In essence, it's about a 10-point program that the President is unveiling today. We think it's critically important that Medicare beneficiaries know that they may well be aware of these benefits. In some cases, it makes a difference between whether elderly people actually go into poverty or not because of the out-of-pocket costs that they otherwise would not have to have if they took advantage of this benefit. That's something that we think is critically important and also something we want to avoid at all cost.
We've provided you a background piece, which I think is pretty self-explanatory, but I'd be happy to take any questions about this program or other issues.
Q What about this New York Times story? Does that tie in at all with what you're --
MR. JENNINGS: I think the extent to which it ties in is, obviously, we're talking about in this case low-income elderly populations. But the Times article today was what we would probably characterize as a piece of a story and not the whole story. As you know, the President is very committed to patient's rights and is pushing the Patient's Bill of Rights legislation. In this article it's suggesting that some managed care plans, some HMOs are leaving the Medicaid program because of reimbursement rates.
As it turns out, we're finding that actually there are more managed care plans that are participating than there have before in the Medicaid program. And many HMOs decide not to participate because they have -- there are so many plans competing that they can't get as much of a market share to compete.
Now, where reimbursement rates are so low as to question the ability of plans to provide quality, that's something that the President obviously is quite concerned about. We don't yet have the information to conclude that it is that problem. As the Secretary mentioned earlier today, she's going to be forwarding a memo to the President that gives the state of affairs with regard to this issue. I think if you contact the Governors Association today, they will tell you that they haven't had many problems with plans wanting to participate in the Medicaid program. But it is something that we're going to have to watch very carefully as we go forward.
Q On the thing you're announcing today, how many Americans do you think are eligible for this additional help, how many are currently getting it, and how many could you handle under the money currently appropriated?
MR. JENNINGS: A total of number of people who are eligible is approximately 8 million Medicare beneficiaries. Those who are currently getting it is roughly around 5 million Medicare beneficiaries. So we're about 3 million, 3.5 million short of the people who are eligible for this program who are getting it.
As to whether the cost -- it's already in the baseline. It's part of current law, so it would be incorporated in the baseline. It would not require an additional act by Congress.
Q You could cover 3 million additional people if they applied tomorrow?
MR. JENNINGS: We could cover that, because that's part of current law. It would obviously require more dollars out of the Medicare program, but that's part of current law. It is anticipated that these populations are eligible for this benefit, and that's why Congress passed this legislation both back in 1988, they kept it in 1989, and they expanded it just last year in the Balanced Budget Act.
Q What's the health event tomorrow?
MR. JENNINGS: The health care event tomorrow is something that we're still working on and cannot announce at this point in time.
Q But do you know how many people out there are eligible, but not getting it? Isn't there a way to just give it to all the people you know are eligible?
MR. JENNINGS: What we've found, actually, in the outreach programs is, it's a much more difficult job than that. It really involves a lot of hard work. First of all, many beneficiaries don't even know that they're eligible in the first place, so it has a lot to do with the information and education campaigns that just currently don't exist. You don't want to just say automatically anyone in the world gets it because you just don't know. You have to make sure that people meet the current incomes breaks; otherwise, you would be wasting taxpayer dollars inappropriately.
But the best way to do this is to work with the states. The states administer this program through the Medicaid program. Some states have been very creative in targeting these populations. Republican Governor George Voinovich from Ohio actually has been working on this as well and has had more successes than we've seen in recent days in other states.
So it's a matter of constant work going to the Social Security field offices, going to the other enrollment centers where people go. Just as we've done in the children's health care, we want to go to the providers, we want to go to the senior centers, the adult day centers, nursing homes and other places where we can target the populations who are eligible.
Q So, Chris, do you think that this is benign neglect, or is there intentional neglect going on where like it would increase state costs as well, right, to go after these people? I mean, do the state governments sort of not necessarily want to be aggressive in finding these lost populations?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, I think that in order to make this work, you have to make it a priority. It is -- I don't think people are saying, I'm not going to cover people, but what we've learned with the children's outreach is that you have to work at it. You cannot just stand by and say you have a program and we have it, and if you go to the program we'll enroll you. You have to go out and target the populations. In some states that have made it higher priority, they have had a greater participation rate.
We're going to do our job from the federal government's perspective. To do our job, we're going to have to work with the National Governors Association to make sure that they do their job. We're very pleased that they have announced today that they will participate in our task force that we're announcing today. And we think their recommendations, their input -- in fact, they have to be invested in this process for this to work, and our sense is that we're seeing a real signal of willingness to do that today.
Q Chris, what's the prospect of passage of the Patient's Bill of Rights this year, and what obstacles are the main ones on the Hill?
MR. JENNINGS: Political will. I mean, we think that this is -- we are seeing that Republicans and Democrats alike have agreed today, just as of last week, that all of them are agreeing that there should be federal standards in law to provide for basic protections for patients. The House -- just to show, the House Republican -- the Gingrich plan, just last week, I believe it was, did make some progress. We think it has fallen short in a number of areas and for that reason, we -- that is not an acceptable bill as it currently is constructed. It doesn't have the specialists, it doesn't have the continuity of care, it doesn't have a whole host of financial incentives protections, and it does not have a strong enforcement mechanism.
But we think that there are a lot of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who are very much committed to ensuring those protections are there. Our belief is, we saw in the Time magazine, they're dedicating a whole issue this week to this issue. We think this is an issue whose time has come. It would be almost beyond comprehension that the Congress couldn't pass a strong bipartisan piece of legislation this year. And if it doesn't, then it will be a failure of the federal government to respond to some real needs of the public in this regard.
Q We're hearing that maybe the Democrats on the Hill are saying let's leave this unresolved and use it as another stick to beat the Republicans in November. Are you running into this problem as you go up there --
MR. JENNINGS: I believe that most Democrats are taking the position that if it's a strong Patient's Bill of Rights, it should be passed and signed into law, and for the most part, we've run into only that. And we have to make sure it is, and if it is, they will validate that this bill should be passed this year. And it is our intention to make sure that both Democrats and Republicans assure that end.
Q Back on the managed care HMO Medicare issue, should it be of concern if there are whole geographic areas or even whole states where there are no managed care plans enrolled in the Medicare program, and if so, why, or why not?
MR. JENNINGS: I think that you want to provide as many choices to Medicare beneficiaries as you possibly can. In the last Congress, Republicans and Democrats from rural states in particular raised concerns that the reimbursement rates for managed care in those areas was insufficient. As a consequence, we included provisions in the BBA that increased the reimbursement rates, and we expect that we'll see a significant growth in those areas of managed care.
There may be areas of the country where you won't see as much growth as you've seen in the past, because we've seen a proliferation of managed care in certain parts of the country, but we think that if we can enhance options for Medicare beneficiaries in all areas of the country, that is a positive end.
Now, that doesn't mean that you just throw money at the problem. You want to make sure that you've got a health care infrastructure necessary to provide those services in the first place. And that's the balance that we're dealing with, with the Health Care Financing Administration.
Q You said that the Republican proposal doesn't -- it lacks a strong enough enforcement mechanism. What is a minimal acceptable enforcement mechanism to the White House? Does it require increasing the court remedies for consumers who sue health plans for denials of medically necessary care?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, as you know, we've consistently said that a right without remedy is not a right. But that does not mean that there aren't alternative remedies to ensure that right. There's federal court approaches, there's state court approaches, there's departmental enforcement activities that might make some sense. We're open to those things. We've found, at least to date, that at least the Gingrich plan that has been at least partially unveiled in the House the last couple of weeks did not go far enough in that regard. We don't have the details; we look forward to seeing that. But we've got to have some strong enforcements to make sure that these rights --
Q But these --
MR. JENNINGS: It may or may not be, but most likely it probably would be. But we would have to make sure that there would be a strong enforcement mechanism. If it was not going to be court, it would have to be something that actually made a difference to consumers who have had real problems in this area.
Q What's the White House view of the health mart proposal and the other types of new associations that the Republican plan outlines?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, as you know, we've raised serious concerns about the MEWA provisions in the past, and the health marts -- the only reason why I'm hesitating is only because in a document the Republican leadership released last week, there wasn't a lot of detail, shall we say. And, therefore, it would be very hard for me to comment on that proposal.
Certainly, the President is very supportive of voluntary purchasing coops that empower small businesses to group together to purchase more affordable health care, and if that's what the design of this alternative is, that would be very consistent with the presidential priority. But, again, the devil is in the details, as is the case with all health care initiatives.
Q One other quick one -- the President's Medicare expansion proposal is not something we've heard a lot about lately. Is that still viable for this year? Any chance that something like that will pass this year?
MR. JENNINGS: You mean the new choice option --
Q The age group expansion that was proposed.
MR. JENNINGS: The 55 to 65, to provide more choices for beneficiaries who have no choice at all right now. (Laughter.) Yes, that's something that we do care a lot about. It's something that, as you know, Senator Moynihan and the Democratic leadership proposed this year. It obviously doesn't appear the Republican leadership is moving that quickly in this Congress. It's something the President still feels strongly about. We'll have to see.
I think that it would be unrealistic for me to stand up here to say that I see a fast-moving train moving through the Congress on that piece of legislation. So we're focusing particularly on getting something that we know we can get done and we should get done for the public, and that's the Patient Bill of Rights.
Thank you very much.
MR. LOCKHART: Before you grill P.J. with the really tough ones, a couple of announcements. The President will travel to Florida on Thursday. He will land at Daytona Beach and then visit residents and rescue workers in Volusia County. The decision to travel there and the logistics of who we're going to see and where we're going to go were made in consultation with James Lee Witt and FEMA, and Governor Lawton Chiles and his office.
Q Are you going to take the press plane and everything with you?
MR. LOCKHART: They're working on that.
Q -- that plane?
MR. LOCKHART: No, in addition to. As you know from the released schedule, we were going from Atlanta down to Miami, so we'll make a stop on the way down.
As the paper indicated that we released a few moments ago, the President announced today that he has accepted an invitation from President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin to meet in Russia in early September. The President underscored the vitality of the U.S.-Russian relationship and looks forward to engaging President Yeltsin and the Russian leadership on a broad range of issues. The President asked Vice President Gore to use his July 23-24 meetings in Moscow with Russian Prime Minister Kiriyenko to help prepare the agenda for the summit.
Q I thought we were waiting for action by the Duma before the President would go.
MR. LOCKHART: I told you the tough ones would go to P.J.
Q What happened to the Duma?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Well, we have a range of important issues to discuss with the Russian President, from Kosovo, to the Russian economic situation, and we never directly linked the two issues. We always thought that the meeting would be most productive in a post-START II ratification timing, but obviously, the relationship is important enough to continue and the Presidents will have lots to discuss in early September.
Q Well, P.J., I mean, you may never have explicitly linked the two, but there was always an implicit link that was quite explicitly stated by you guys -- (laughter) --
COLONEL CROWLEY: David, we clearly favored a meeting following START II ratification by the Duma; no question about that. However, the range of important issues that we have with Russia are such that we believe there's plenty for the two Presidents to discuss, including where we go on arms control once the Duma does ratify START II.
Q Well, I mean, what's the point of having relationship with Russia where you say to them, look, when we get together next it's going to be after the Duma's ratified this arms control agreement and they say, sorry, no can do, and we go, okay, that's fine, we'll come anyway?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Well, I think the two Presidents share a perspective on working with their respective legislative bodies and sometimes the Executive Branch has to move forward in certain directions while waiting for the legislative branch to catch up.
Q How is Yeltsin's future? I mean, there has been talk of impeachment and so forth. I mean, is he in the strong position -- as much as you can judge?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think the President has a very good working relationship with President Yeltsin. They've done some productive work in the past and we look forward to a productive meeting in September.
Q Was there a lot of pressure from the Russians to have this meeting because of the fact that they are going through this economic crisis and it would look good if President Clinton came to Moscow at this time and look good for the people?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think it's more a case -- you know, this is a very important relationship to the United States, when you think about the issues the two countries are working on together, from Kosovo to the impacts of the Asian financial crisis to arms control and the future, to move ahead toward START III negotiations once the Duma has ratified START II -- a very important relationship. And it's certainly appropriate for the Presidents to meet. And from our standpoint, there are scheduling issues as well in terms of when the respective Presidents are available.
Q But isn't it true Russia wanted it more than the United States?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I would simply say, we have had annual meetings between the two Presidents, and as the year comes along, we think it's important for the two to get together.
Q Does the administration back the IMF -- a plan that's been suspended basically? I mean, this could help towards releasing that.
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think the reforms that the Russians have already put in place are moving them in a positive direction. I don't know what more specific questions you have.
Q Well, the austerity plan that Yeltsin wants to get through the Duma, is it hoped that maybe by announcing that Clinton will go visit there, that that will prompt that to go through and therefore the IMF funding, which is conditioned on that?
COLONEL CROWLEY: We support the additional conditional funding through the IMF and clearly that's something that two Presidents will discuss, how the Russian economic reforms are moving and what additional support the Russians feel they require.
Q How about Ireland, going to Ireland on that trip?
COLONEL CROWLEY: The President has said that he desires an opportunity to return to Ireland and Northern Ireland, but at this point we have nothing to announce.
Q Is it a possibility?
COLONEL CROWLEY: The President has said that he looks forward to returning to Ireland and Northern Ireland. We have no specific plans at this point.
Q So that's a yes.
COLONEL CROWLEY: What we have announced today is the President is going to Russia in early September.
Q How early is early, P.J.? Is this before Labor Day or after?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Early September. Stay tuned for more details.
Q Why don't you have a date?
Q What about India and Pakistan? Are you sending any delegation from here to discuss a trip?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I believe the next step is that both India and Pakistan are sending representatives here this week for meetings at the State Department as we continue to evaluate whether or not the President will go to India and Pakistan later in the year.
Q How high is their representative?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think they're at the ministerial level, or sub-ministerial level.
Q You keep referring to the Duma, saying once they pass it. Is there any contingency for what point you finally give up and say that they're not going to?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think the Duma has simply said that they will defer consideration of the START II treaty until the fall. The government of Russia continues to press the Duma to take that action, and we would expect them to bring it up in early September, somewhat proximate to the meeting of the two Presidents.
Q How long a trip do you envision?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think that that remains to be seen.
Q Are there any specific deals or agreements you're looking to cut with Yeltsin while you're over there? And when you talk about Kosovo, what do you hope both will say about it?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Paul, I think --
Q Is this just a meeting to meet or --
COLONEL CROWLEY: That's an area where Russia and the United States, as members of the Contact Group, will continue to -- first of all, a lot will presumably have happened between now and early September, so it's hard to predict, other than the fact that this has been an issue that the Russian government and the United States government have been engaged in as part of the Contact Group. Meanwhile, we continue to work the issue diplomatically and press the two parties to open negotiations as quickly as possible.
Q So you're not going to Russia to try to come to -- to cut some deal with Yeltsin on Kosovo or any other issue?
COLONEL CROWLEY: We are just presuming that among the issues that Russia and the United States are cooperating on, Kosovo is one of them, and that will be a subject of discussion.
Q The Greek Minister of Defense will be in town today for an official visit. I'm wondering if he's going to meet also with the White House officials officially or privately, including Mr. Sandy Berger.
COLONEL CROWLEY: The Greek Defense Minister is in town this week. He will be meeting with a range of administration officials, primarily Secretary of Defense Cohen. While members of the National Security Council staff will be meeting him as part of those meetings that he will have here in Washington, there are no scheduled meetings here at the White House.
Q How do you assess his visit at such a crucial time for the Greek-Turkish relations over the Aegean and Cyprus, in which President Clinton particularly is playing now a very important role for improvement?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Obviously, Greece is one of our important NATO allies. We welcome his visit here. There are a range of issues that are of interest to both the United States and Greece in terms of both issues in the Balkins, as well as issues in the Aegean. And I'm sure we'll have a wide range of issues being discussed, primarily through Secretary Cohen and other administration officials.
Q While we're on meetings, P.J., is the President going to be meeting with Prime Minister Hashimoto July 22nd -- do you know when that --
COLONEL CROWLEY: Prime Minister Hashimoto will be here from July 21st through 23rd. I believe the meeting will be on the 22nd.
Q This Friday he meets with Poland's Prime Minister. Any details on what will be discussed and what the day's agenda looks like?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think primarily it's the first meeting -- or first visit by a Polish leader to the United States since the Senate formally ratified NATO enlargement. The Vice President will host a lunch for the Prime Minister and I would expect the other meetings, including the meeting with the President, to address their anticipated entry into NATO, other regional issues involving cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe, and just steps to kind of deepen our bilateral relationship.
Q P.J., if you could just go through what they're going to be talking about -- Hashimoto and Clinton. Do you think the main focus will be the President's trip to China? As you might know, there's a lot of concern in Japan that there's a sort of Japan passing phenomenon going on; the U.S. is turning its attention increasingly to China. Will he try to assuage Japanese concerns in that regard?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think we have long held that the United States relationship with China and the United States relationship with Japan is not a zero sum game. You know, the President met with Prime Minister Hashimoto at the G-7, had a bilateral meeting in Birmingham. Secretary Albright was over in Tokyo over the weekend following our departure from China, and the President will welcome Prime Minister Hashimoto here. I'm sure that the Asian financial situation will be, perhaps, the leading topic of discussion, but I'm sure there will be a wide range of issues, including a debrief from the President on China and other Asian security issues, as well.
Q P.J., back to the START II. Are you saying there is some -- you believe there's some chance the treaty will be ratified before Clinton and Yeltsin meet?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I suspect it will not -- I mean, the Duma has just simply said they are going to take up the issue again in September. I would doubt that it would be -- actually be completed by the time the President gets there.
Q Will the President ask President Yeltsin to limit Russia's arms and military technology sales to the Persian Gulf states and to the Middle East?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I'm sure that our continuing efforts, together with Russia, to limit missiles sales, specifically to Iran, and our joint objectives in terms of nonproliferation will be discussed, yes.
Q Race Commission question. Is the Wednesday --is it a town hall or what is it? And is this the last event the President will do on the issue?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know going into the future. I mean, we view -- the President looked to set out to work over a year on the Race Commission, and that we have from now until the end of September. So I don't know particularly going forward into the future that this will be the last event. It will be one of the town halls. We've done them, as you know, in various different formats, from a very standard town hall setting, which we did in Akron, to the ESPN, to now this PBS, which will be a smaller setting with some of the PBS correspondents and some experts brought in. And I think it will be much more -- probably a more focused discussion than the free-wheeling discussion we saw on race and sports.
I don't know -- again, I don't know in particular between now and the end of September and beyond. I mean, I'm certain, whether it comes under the rubric of the commission and the work that they will be doing --
Q But you don't know of any other town hall meetings?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, right -- to finish up their work and to begin doing the reports, whether under that rubric or some other, he'll be continuing to participate in this kind of dialogue.
Q Joe, a couple of questions if you don't mind. In this morning's event, the President said that he plans to use "the authority of the presidency" from time to time. Is this the hint that he's going to step up his use of legislation through executive order?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, not legislation through executive order. I mean, the President has always said that he wants to work in cooperation with Congress to get the people's business done. And in some areas where we're stalled or blocked by those who don't share the President's agenda, he's always sought to use the powers that he has through executive orders, through, as he also said, the powers of persuasion from the bully pulpit.
Q May I follow up? Another issue, this weekend Lanny Davis said that he thinks the President should continue to not testify voluntarily before Starr's grand jury, that Starr has demonstrated that he has some vendetta. Does the President agree with Lanny Davis on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I have not talked to the President in particular on any comments that Lanny's made recently. As far as that issue, as far as I know, there's been no change. That issue has been addressed by the President's attorney. Unfortunately, for those of you who are trying to get in touch with him, he's on vacation this week, so I obviously don't expect any change this week, but I know he'll be back.
Q I don't think we'd notice. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm telling you.
Q Who's on vacation?
MR. LOCKHART: David Kendall.
Q How realistic is it to think that they're going to pass comprehensive tobacco legislation-patient bill of rights with all of those things?
MR. LOCKHART: I guess the best -- I mean, let me anecdotally answer that question, which is I was flipping around this morning, I was watching one of the -- a riveting panel debate on C-SPAN with political consultants. And one of the Democrats sort of fired over and said, we're going to run a great campaign this fall on the Congress not doing anything. And the Republican consultant shot back by saying, well, you guys said that in 1996 and look what we got done in August.
The congressional calendar can be peculiar and doesn't necessarily always follow a logical schedule. And we're going to continue to press for the things that we've talked about, whether it be tobacco, child care, worker bill of rights a retraining bill of rights, which is moving through Congress now. So there's a lot of issue that we're going to continue to push on.
Q But if they can pass a Patient Bill of Rights that just isn't up to your standard, and they can pass tobacco legislation that just isn't up to your standard, it's not that they're doing nothing, it's that they're not doing what you want. Isn't that going to be difficult to sell to the voters?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, then we'll have to put it to the voters. Whether they think a tobacco legislation that mirrors what the tobacco companies have said is acceptable to them, or tobacco legislation that we think will protect children. That is --I mean, that will be a choice the voters will ultimately have to make. But I don't think we -- we don't want to concede the point that we're at that point. There are only 38 legislative days yet, but a lot of work can get done quickly when both sides feel the incentive to cooperate.
Q Are you going to sign on to Hatch's legislation? Are you ready to --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know what we've seen of Hatch's legislation, but it's pretty -- the standard for whether we'll support tobacco legislation is fairly easy to judge -- whether it meets the criteria. And from the reports I've seen, I think it does fall somewhat short.
MR. TOIV: Yes, I'd leave it at that. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you. (Laughter.)
Q You were asked this morning what the President thought of Starr's decision -- apparent decision not to send an interim report to Congress. Did you ask him?
MR. LOCKHART: I did not ask directly, but my understanding is that the President believes that that is a decision that Mr. Starr and the Office of the Independent Counsel needs to make for themselves and he has no guidance to offer.
Q Can you just tell us what's the significance of the health care event for tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: The significance?
MR. LOCKHART: That the President continues to use, his good offices to try to increase quality and access to health care.
Q Pretty ambitious litany of things he listed this morning. How much of that do you realistically think is possible?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we think there are a number of areas from -- on the education front, from after-school programs that are now moving through -- that are in the appropriation process; the America Reads programs; the child care program that he laid out just after the State of the Union; the increase in NIH funding; the Health Care Bill of Rights; again, the G.I. worker retraining. I can't predict for you what will get through, but the President has an aggressive agenda, one that I think the American public supports. And it's now up to this White House and this Congress to find a way to cooperate to move it forward.
Q You mentioned that IMF legislation was the chief bill to pass before fast track. Today in the Rose Garden the President said Africa trade and Caribbean Basin Initiative. Has IMF sort of lost --
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think if you look at the -- I think he was particularly thinking on other trade issues -- but if you look at what needs to get done and how we prioritize those issues, I would say that IMF and also Africa trade, those are issues we feel are important to move forward on now, that have support, that Congress -- we can move forward on -- and those would be our priorities before we brought fast track up again.
Q But you would equate Africa trade and Caribbean Basin Initiative with IMF? Is it that --
MR. LOCKHART: We're not in the business of trying to score, that this gets this score and that gets that score. These are issues that I think we can move forward on. There's bipartisan support on these issues. And particularly with IMF, there is a pressing need to move forward on given the financial conditions in Asia.
Q Joe, given that it is an ambitious agenda and there's not a lot of time left, is there any thought given to try and keep Congress in town during August to get some of this stuff done? Any discussion on that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, actually -- I mean, I think we have -- again, the legislative days are dwindling, but I think if we move in a cooperative effort, I don't know that there will be a need to do anything that adds time. I mean, I haven't heard any concrete discussion of anything like that.
Q Does the President have any plans to sit down with the House or Senate leadership to discuss this agenda?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any specific meetings. I mean, I think on a staff level, we're talking constantly. The President is also in regular touch with both the leadership and members on a variety of issues. So I don't know if there's any specific meeting planned to bring people down here.
Q Do you know when he last spoke to the Majority Leader and the Speaker?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. I know that -- I believe he spoke to them just before he left, at least to the Majority Leader. But, I mean, I can go back and look. I don't know exactly. I don't think there were calls during the trip.
Q Senator Wellstone says the President isn't doing enough to try to settle the GM strike. What's your answer to him?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, as you all know, that the standard that has to be reached on Taft-Hartley is awfully high. Secretary Herman has been in touch with both parties. We continue to monitor the situation and I think Secretary Herman has done a good job of keeping the President informed on what the situation is.
Q How badly does it restrict the economy so far?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not qualified to make an assessment on that. I think there are certainly economists out there who have made projections, and if you are looking for something more specific, we may have something out of CEA, but I haven't seen anything specific.
Q Is the White House confident now that there was no U.S. use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War?
MR. CROWLEY: I believe the Defense Department has been investigating that, but I also believe that CNN has disavowed that story. So I don't think that we are aware of any use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War.
Q Are you guys satisfied --
Q CNN said there was no evidence, but the individual people who were fired are still saying it's true.
MR. CROWLEY: I think CNN has disavowed that story. You might check with the Defense Department to see if they have actually concluded their report, but their preliminary indications were that those reports were false.
Q Are you satisfied with the way Time and CNN have handled this and punished the people they think deserve --
MR. CROWLEY: I'm not sure that's a judgment for us to make. That's a judgment for the individual news organizations to make.
Q Oh, go ahead. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: It will be fun, P.J., come on. (Laughter.)
Q Is the President pleased with Japan's economic recovery plan, or does he think that taxes should be cut, some more steps taken?
MR. CROWLEY: I believe he addressed that point on Friday, that this moves Japan in a positive direction. They still have to follow through on the steps that they've announced and he expects that the Prime Minister will be taking more action following the election early next week.
Q On the legislative agenda, do you have any expectation that any more ambassadors will be confirmed before they get out of session?
MR. CROWLEY: I have expectations that we'll have ambassadorial nominations to announce when we have them to announce. I have nothing --
Q What about -- what is the Hill saying about confirmation?
MR. CROWLEY: I don't know.
Q You've spoken to this before, but what's the President's position on this religious freedom act that's being -- passed the House and going through the Senate?
MR. CROWLEY: The domestic one on school prayer?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm sorry. The question?
Q -- pertaining to religious freedoms in foreign countries and --
MR. LOCKHART: I was ready on the domestic one.
MR. CROWLEY: Are you specifically talking about Wolf, Specter and Nickels, or which -- I mean, which specific piece of legislation are you talking about?
Q There is a piece of legislation that has passed the House, it's working its way through the Senate, that pertains to the imposition of some form of redress on the part of the United States for nations that we believe are not exercising or allowing religious freedom to be exercised in their countries?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Why don't we talk afterwards if there is a specific piece -- I mean, there are several pieces of legislation out there, depending on which specific piece you're talking about.
Q How does the President assess how he did in China? Have you heard him on that subject?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think the President spoke eloquently about that in great detail to the White House press corps that were there on Friday. I would defer to the President, I think. This was -- he thought this was an excellent trip, an excellent opportunity to further relations between the two countries. And we'll see between now and in the coming weeks how China follows up. However, it's put the relationship between the United States and China on much more positive footing.
Q Can I follow up on that? On Taiwan we're getting two different signals, though. How is the administration reassuring Taiwan, after what the President said on China?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Nothing that the President said in China changes our relationship with Taiwan. There was no change in any element of the communiques. Our relationship with Taiwan is specifically spelled out in the communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.
Q So if China attacks Taiwan, the U.S. is still obligated to defend Taiwan?
COLONEL CROWLEY: Our responsibilities with respect to Taiwan are spelled out in the three communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act, and nothing that occurred in this trip has changed that.
Q Thank you.
COLONEL CROWLEY: Thank you.
END 1:56 P.M. EDT