THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART
The Briefing Room
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon. Welcome to the briefing. Let me make a couple quick announcements, statements. I'm just going to read a brief statement. The Senate is in the process right now passing the Internet Tax Freedom Act. We're pleased that the Senate is joining the House in passing the Internet Tax Freedom Act. This bill would create a short-term moratorium on new and discriminatory taxes that would slow down the growth on the Internet and search for long-term solutions to the tax issues raised by electronic commerce.
We cannot allow 30,000 state and local tax jurisdictions to stifle the Internet, but neither can we allow the erosion of revenue that state and local governments need to fight crime and invest in education.
Secondly, I mentioned this morning that the President will be meeting with his budget team. I believe that's going to happen sometime around 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. The coverage of that is we'll do a pool spray. He'll probably have a brief statement at the top on the budget and then he'll get back to work with his team.
Q The President will be meeting the pool at 4:30 p.m. or 5:00 p.m., is that it?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Is it still your position, or his position, that he's not watching any of the debate on the House floor?
MR. LOCKHART: I was with him when this started as we were getting ready for the health care event. I don't believe he's watched any of it. Unless he's watched it in passing, walking through a hallway.
Q Surely he's interested.
MR. LOCKHART: He's surely interested in the outcome, but he's got a job to do here and that's what he's focused on.
Q Joe, what can you tell us about the letter that Bob Bennett filed in regards to the Monica Lewinsky --
MR. LOCKHART: I can tell you to call Bob Bennett.
Q But you can't comment on that at all?
MR. LOCKHART: That's an issue that Bob Bennett can deal with you on, and he will.
Q Given the inevitability of an inquiry, will he -- is he -- will he testify voluntarily in front the --
MR. LOCKHART: I think it's premature. I think he's indicated that he will cooperate as we move forward. I think, as a general point, the President as recently as last night has acknowledged his own behavior, has apologized and sought forgiveness. But as you look -- if you look back over the last month, what we see is at the outset, we were promised a process that was serious, fair, nonpartisan. And I think we've fallen short on all three fronts from the putting out of the report and the documents to a party-line vote in Judiciary to -- listening to a debate today that's, frankly, infected with politics and partisanship on the floor, we've fallen short. But I think as we move forward, we will work with the committee, and we hope that the process becomes more fair because I think that's what the American public expects and deserves.
Q Don't you think it would be helpful given the fact that it's partisan for him to go personally and put forward his case again? I mean, it helped you doing the videotape.
MR. LOCKHART: I think it's premature at this point to answer questions like that. We have yet to have the vote the committee needs. They will get together and decide how they're going to move forward.
Q What's partisan about the floor debate?
MR. LOCKHART: I think you've heard a number of members get up and talk about how it's been unfair. You heard Democrats talk about the limit. You had people talking about taking less time to debate this serious issue than they take to rename a post office or rename an airport. So I don't think that the serious tone that should be there was necessarily there. I think this is a serious issue and serious people are debating it, but the debate in itself seems to be -- partisanship seems to have been injected into it.
Q Joe, how can you argue that the debate is partisan when Democrats are rising to speak in favor of the Republican motion?
MR. LOCKHART: I think if anyone watches the debate today, anyone who is out watching it live on television, they have to see that politics has been injected into this process. And I think to most people, they will come to the conclusion that that hasn't lived up to the promises that were laid out a month ago when this started.
Q But doesn't the fact that Democrats are rising to speak in favor of the Republican motion argue against your contention that it's strictly partisan?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm saying that this process, and the debate as part of it, has been injected with politics. That certainly -- it's not dispositive because some Democrats have taken the view that they want to support the Republican proposal.
Q You said this morning that the President would not be calling Democratic congressmen today, but might return calls if he has called. Has he received any calls?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think -- I can't be 100 percent sure, but I don't think that he's been in contact with anyone up there today.
Q Joe, is it distressing for the President to have this be happening for him? Is he distressed? Has he talked at all
about his emotions as this happens, this historic occasion?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as I told you, the President remains focused on his job. You saw him today out talking about health care. He's going to be working on the budget later today and some foreign policy matters. This, obviously, is an issue that concerns him, but we want to move forward as the process develops to see if we can't establish what was talked about in the beginning as far as fairness and nonpartisanship, and actually deliver that.
Q The White House doesn't dispute the need to actually proceed with the full inquiry, since you dispute many of the facts in the referral?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you look at the Democratic alternative, there's a different view, which is what you need to establish first before you move to an inquiry is what are the standards of impeachment. I think that is a view that we think makes more sense before you launch into an inquiry.
Q But you're not quarreling with the notion that there needs to be an inquiry in order to resolve what the President is disputing and what was in Starr's referral?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, no, I think if you look at what we've sent to Congress as far as the lawyers and legal arguments, we don't think there is anything here that rises to the level of impeachment. We do not object to them, to Congress debating what that standard is.
Q In this inquiry?
Q Which means it's okay to go forward with the full inquiry?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think if you read the Democratic alternative, they seek to first establish a level of impeachment or what rises to the level of impeachment, and then move forward. If they believe that somehow this --
Q But you're not saying to Congress, trust us, the President didn't do anything that was impeachable?
MR. LOCKHART: No, we're saying that we've made our case that we don't believe that anything has reached the level of impeachment and that the value of the Democratic alternative was there would be some real debate on that subject before moving forward.
Q The President said yesterday that people should vote their principle and conscience. After the vote, will it be your position that that's what they have done?
MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely -- absolutely. The President, I think, said yesterday, and I have made clear, that we are going to move forward and work with Democrats. Democrats will vote today based on what they think is right, what they think is in their conscience, what they think is right for their district.
Q Will that apply to Republicans also?
MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely.
Q So if they vote against the President, you will concede they're voting their conscience.
MR. LOCKHART: I will concede that they are voting their conscience.
Q But I thought you said it was so political. I thought you said this was a political process.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you look at how we've moved from the beginning to the end -- I don't want to question the motives of any single member, and that's really specifically what I meant to Sam's question. I don't want to look at one member of Congress and say, this person's doing something for political gain. But I think as a whole, the process seems to have been from the very beginning, now going back over the month, to be very political.
Q Well, since the process is going to move forward, to what degree is the White House planning to cooperate with the committee? For instance, is the President going to be willing to stipulate what about Monica Lewinsky's version of events is true? Or what does White House cooperation look like?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the committee isn't there yet, they will be moving forward, and we will pledge to cooperate, to work closely with them. But I can't really get into the details. I think it's premature.
Q Would the President on that point be willing to testify?
MR. LOCKHART: I think I've asked and not answered that one. (Laughter.)
Q You won't answer questions also about Bob Bennett's letter, but can you at least tell us whether the President agrees with what his attorney wrote in that letter?
MR. LOCKHART: The President is certainly aware of what his attorney wrote --
Q Is that his opinion as well?
MR. LOCKHART: The President is certainly aware of what his attorney wrote, and I'll send you to Bob Bennett for any further comment.
Q Joe, you said the President was concerned and you also said he's very busy trying to stay on the business of the American people. Could we get you to go maybe a little further in characterizing his mood on a day where this historic development is taking place? Is he gloomy? Is he depressed? Is he fighting the funk to get past this thing?
MR. LOCKHART: I spent a little bit of time with the President this morning. He is focused on the job ahead of him. We are in the middle, right now, of the traditional crunch time of business here in Washington. For whatever reason, we always, like schoolkids, put our work off until the end of the session. And we've done that, and we're right there now. We don't have the luxury of being distracted or being anyplace else. We have the people's business to do here, and, in fact, that's what's happening over the next few days. We're going to be doing the people's business, fighting for a budget, fighting for the President's priorities in the appropriations process.
Q Joe, but, normally, wouldn't the President be making calls to Congress in the budget end game, making deals and that sort of thing? Isn't he handcuffed with this --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. In fact, we've gotten into a whole thing about calls he's made. He made a series of calls yesterday to members on issues that are separate and apart from the issue that the House is debating today. So he's very much engaged in that process. As you know, where we are in the process now is we've got negotiators up on the Hill. They're meeting with -- I think our team is with Senator Daschle and Representative Gephardt within the next hour. And then they will be meeting with the various appropriations chairs, ranking members, staffs, and with the leadership later on tonight, led by Erskine Bowles.
Q Joe, what is the White House reaction to the letter from Independent Counsel Ken Starr that there may be more impeachable evidence to go forward up there?
MR. LOCKHART: That letter, as I saw it, referred to the referral. And to quote the eloquent Jim Kennedy, I don't have anything to add to a letter that added nothing.
Q But, Joe, I don't know if Senator Levin has already given his speech, but he was giving a speech today about Ken Starr being guilty of prosecutorial misconduct and not abiding by the letter or the spirit of the independent counsel law. Is this something that you agree with?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think Senator Levin, if my memory serves right, he was one of the authors of the independent counsel statute, so I think his views are particularly relevant. I have not seen the speech. I saw some news reporting this morning about the speech, and I think he raises some serious questions. And we will take into consideration what he has to say on the subject.
Q Joe, you said that the Republican leadership was trying to exploit this for electoral advantage. Do you see that playing out today? How do you see this whole thing developing?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know that I see it playing out today. I see perhaps a byproduct of it, which is some back and forth on the floor of the House which seems again, to repeat the phrase, injected with politics.
Q What kind of electoral advantage -- I mean, could you elaborate on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I can't speak for them or what their strategy is. It just appears that it works into -- this close to an election, with all the events we've seen over the last month, with all the dumping of documents, release of videotapes, there are other issues that have been around for awhile coming back to the forefront -- it just seems that this may have something to do with politics.
Q But Joe, Charles Schumer said on the floor today the President had lied to the grand jury --
MR. LOCKHART: Scott --
Q -- doesn't that undercut your argument that this is politics? I mean, this is Charles Schumer talking.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you, Scott.
Q Joe, you said the President made a series of calls yesterday just on the budget and issues not related to this. Did he call leadership or other members --
MR. LOCKHART: No, to tell you the truth, I don't know on what particular issues he was focused on, but I did go back yesterday in an effort to try to figure out exactly what we were doing on impeachment and in that effort, found that there were some other calls. But I don't know the particular issues.
Q Do you think he'll actually call members today on budget?
MR. LOCKHART: I can check on that for you.
Q Charles Schumer said on the floor today that it was "clear that the President lied to the grand jury." Doesn't that undercut your argument that this is just politics?
MR. LOCKHART: Scott, I didn't say this was "just" politics. I said this is a situation and a process that's become injected with politics. And what we need to do as we move forward is get back to the serious, nonpartisan process that was promised at the beginning.
Q It's clear the Democrats were siding against the President this morning -- would you agree with that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we have a vote coming up in an hour or so, and we'll be glad to comment for you after the vote.
Q How will you do that?
Q Yes, how will you do that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I've announced here there will be a pool spray at 4:30 p.m., so I'll let you put two and two together.
Q The President has said -- I mean when you talk about this being electoral advantage -- the President has said it's really up to the people to speak on whether or not he should be impeached, so do you view this election as a referendum on him, on his --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. I think one of the things the President has said, for those of you who travel around when we do political events, is that people very much know what the people's business is, and that's what they want the people here in Washington to focus on. So I think that what this election is going to be about is things like Social Security, health care bill of rights, the environment, funding education. That's what will be the election on, because that's what the people want it to be about.
Q Joe, what I don't understand is when you talk about the Republicans playing for electoral advantage, doesn't that assume there is some electoral advantage to be had from talking about the President's misdeeds.
MR. LOCKHART: I think that any chance you have to take the focus off the President's plan to reform HMOs, which the Republicans oppose, any chance you have to take the focus off the President's plans to save Social Security by reserving the surplus to fix the system before we spend it, any chance you have to take the focus off under-funding education and not moving forward with the ideas the President has laid down could serve in an election year as an advantage.
Q This morning you said it was -- I'll paraphrase --you used the words "a strange coincidence," all the things that came out yesterday -- the Starr letter, Burton -- and I think the GAO thing. You inferred it was politically motivated.
MR. LOCKHART: I called it a strange coincidence, and I've said that there is politics afoot.
Q Isn't there politics afoot from this side also? Isn't there politics also from the White House out?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I just detailed all the good political things we're doing and the President's for. (Laughter.)
Q You said you think the debate at this point should be about what the standard of impeachment should be. What's the White House's view as to what the proper mechanism would be for punishing personal -- illegal conduct of a personal nature that a President might commit?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think in the constitutional system in which we exist, that the proper function of that belongs in the other branch of government. So I don't know that we can express a view on any of the details of what it might be.
Q So the impeachment process is the proper process to pursue when a President commits a possibly illegal act, even if it's of a personal nature?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not following the question.
Q If these acts don't rise to the level of impeachment, then what is the proper punishment for the kinds of acts that he's committed?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, they do not -- we believe that they do not rise to the level of impeachment. Now, it is up to the other body if they decide that there's some process they need to take short of impeachment. I can't express a view from here.
Q Joe, the people you sent to the Hill to negotiate on the budget, what are they telling you about IMF funding? Is it getting any closer to getting the $18 billion?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we've heard some positive sounds over the last few days about getting IMF. It's obviously of utmost importance as far as dealing with the international economic situation around the world. The President has always supported reform within the IMF. It will bring more efficiency and transparency. But as he said, a debate about how to fund the fire department shouldn't mean the fire station closes down while you're having the debate. We can't allow a debate on reforms to hold up the important work that the IMF's doing.
Q Do you see more willingness from the Republican leaders who have been opposing the thing?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we still have some work to do.
Q How far apart are the Republicans --
MR. LOCKHART: That fire thing didn't work, did it? (Laughter.) It was two days ago. That really didn't work -- okay. It was in there. Hold on, let me try again -- no. (Laughter.)
Q How far apart are the Republicans and the White House on these spending bills. Are they going to be lumped together in an omnibus bill?
MR. LOCKHART: We still have a lot of issues. I think we have on language alone something like 150 issues on the table. We have a variety of spending issues to go. We are late in the game, but our team is up there, and they're going to stay up there until they get their work done.
Q A follow-on -- would you approve a continuing resolution to keep the government running?
MR. LOCKHART: We'll consider one if one is sent.
Q The markets are continuing their sell-off today. Is the President considering upward measures that he could take or want to take?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, as we've talked about, we're continuing our efforts working with international financial leaders on dealing with the global economic situation. Those efforts continue and we will let you know as we move along.
Q Joe, what level of attention is the President paying to the weakening of the dollar in markets, which has fallen sharply in recent days?
MR. LOCKHART: This morning you asked me a direct question and I didn't comment on currency. That's a tricky way to ask it; I'm still not going to. The President is very focused on the international economic situation and I'm not going to comment on currencies.
Q Joe, you say that politics has been injected in the impeachment process. Isn't the White House also guilty of injecting any politics in the impeachment process because you've been doing what you can to encourage a party-line vote?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you've listened to what I've been saying for the last couple of days, and what the President and the First Lady have said, we've told people to go out and vote the way they think. But we have made a case that we don't think, both in talking to members and also in a very thoughtful brief, that we don't think that there's anything here that rises to the level of impeachment. And that is our belief and that is the case we've made.
Q Joe, some of your education programs depended initially on money from the tobacco bill, which you didn't get. Where will the money for those programs now come from?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's a variety of programs and they're coming from many places. Some of it's in the appropriations process, some of it's in authorizing, some of it's in tax provision. So there is money in various places. But, again, as is our policy, we will move forward only if these things are paid for.
Q Are you asking for any money from the surplus for education programs?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Joe, I don't know if you've ever had an official position on this, but it seems like one of the casualties in the appropriations process was to have contraceptives for federal employee health plans funded. Is that something the White House does or doesn't care about? I mean, you're not going the make a veto fight over that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we actually -- we support the provision and our concern that it was taken out of Treasury Postal, Barry? Which one, contraceptives --
MR. TOIV: That's Treasury Postal.
MR. LOCKHART: Treasury Postal.
Q But it's not something you would fight over?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that while we have problems with it -- the Treasury Postal bill centered around a couple of fights, including the FEC, and I think common sense prevailed on that provision. On this one I think we'll probably find a way to support the bill. But as you know, because we have a process where we'll move to omnibus legislation, we think that we can continue to make the fight for this provision.
Q Are you saying you do have a hope of getting it into --
MR. LOCKHART: That's our hope of battling there.
Q By my count it's been at least a couple of months since the President has been out making a case to the general public -- non-Democratic contributor, in a non-fundraising context, where the public can just walk in and see him, where he's even been out there. Isn't that kind of unusual behavior for an election year? Are you going to be doing non-fundraising events between now and the election where the public can walk in and see the President make a Democratic case?
MR. LOCKHART: I wish I had the schedule to go back, but I don't think that's the case. We've been to schools. We've been to businesses.
Q It was controlled audiences, though, never where people can just come in and see the President of the United States and show their support for Democrats.
Q Just a rally.
MR. LOCKHART: We were down -- we did several big public events on the health care bill of rights. We were in Kentucky last month, I think. Let me look at the schedule and arm myself with what I think is the case, and then we can have the debate.
Q Alan Greenspan yesterday expressed additional concerns about the decline in the U.S. economy. At what point would you think it necessary to change your stance on fiscal policy, perhaps entertain the idea of a broad-based tax cut?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not as familiar with his comments as you, maybe, but what I heard from his comments was he talked about the relative strength of the U.S. economy. So I think our economic fundamentals remain strong, and we are working with the international community, with the IMF and World Bank to try and deal with some of these problems around the world.
Q Going back to the basic question, would you at some point consider changing your fiscal stance?
MR. LOCKHART: Our view is simple. We believe that the surplus should be reserved to save Social Security first while we construct a long-term solution to the problems of Social Security.
Q Joe, now that it's about to happen, what is your view of the prospect of having weeks, if not months, of investigation stretching about before --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, unfortunately, we appear to be looking forward to an open-ended, open-subject process. But we will -- as I said, we will work closely with the committee and we'll move forward and we will again concentrate, as you know we always do, on what the people elected this President to do.
Q Do you know if there's a notion of week after week having to once again try to fight to get a message through all this?
MR. LOCKHART: You're just trying to depress me, right? (Laughter.)
Q Joe, do you think there will ever will come a time when the President will be focused on surviving in office?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know how to answer that. (Laughter.)
Q When the Chief Justice orders the roll call.
Q Is the President willing --
MR. LOCKHART: What happened to Terry?
Q You must have said something. Three guys jumped up and left. (Laughter.) I missed it. What did you say?
MR. LOCKHART: When Terry leaves, can't I leave?
Q No. He passed it to me.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay.
Q Is the President willing to consider Abe Hirschfeld's million-dollar offer in the ongoing settlement talks with Paula Jones, especially given that Hirschfeld's legal --
MR. LOCKHART: What do you mean by consider?
Q Hirschfeld has offered a million dollars if both sides will agree to settle. And I'm wondering whether the President has said to Bennett, that's an option, or it's not an option, especially given that Hirschfeld has legal problems --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not even sure the President's aware of the offer so --
Q You don't think he's aware of the offer?
MR. LOCKHART: I said I'm not even sure he's aware of the offer.
Q He doesn't read the papers? (Laughter.) I mean, that's how he got the news from Mrs. Clinton of what -- this is going to happen -- "honey, you won't believe what was in the papers this morning."
MR. LOCKHART: Where is Terry? Come end this. (Laughter.) Paging Terry Hunt.
Q You're saying it's business as usual, but what's the President's demeanor around about this time? Have you seen him in the last few hours?
MR. LOCKHART: I saw him and spent some time with him this morning. And he is, again, focused on the job he's got to get done. We had a long discussion about the HMO proposals that he put forward this morning. He's spending a good bit of time with his budget team and budget negotiators, and that's what he's got to do. Again, we don't have the luxury now to not do the people's business.
END 1:36 P.M. EDT