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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 21, 1998
                             PRESS BRIEFING
                             BY JOE LOCKHART

                            The Briefing Room

1:26 P.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon. Let me make a couple of announcements first, before we get started and take questions. The President this afternoon will participate at 3:40 p.m. this afternoon in an event in the East Room on breast cancer awareness. This is an event the First Lady is hosting, and the President will participate along with the First Lady.

Secondly, we can announce that the President has just declared a major disaster exists in the state of Texas. He has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the area struck by severe storms, flooding, and tornadoes beginning October 17th. The President's action makes funding available to affected individuals in 20 counties, and I can report that the chief of staff here, Erskine Bowles, is on the phone as we speak letting Governor Bush know the President's intentions.

Q Joe, will the President go back to Wye? And if so, what can he accomplish there?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have a definitive answer for you. The President just a few moments ago received an update from his National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger. The National Security Advisor is now conferring with the Secretary of State out in Wye.

Q Where is he?

MR. LOCKHART: He is here.

As we've indicated, the President will look to a recommendation from his team and will travel there if he thinks it will be productive for him to travel.

Q Did he tell the President that the Israelis have said they are willing to leave this afternoon without an agreement? Does the President consider that a threat to walk out without accomplishing anything? Would that alone prompt the President to go out?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't know that we've been informed of that fact. I know that there has been some press reports. What I can say to that is that there is nobody that's there that's being held there or is there against their will. We are working on important issues, but as we've said, the parties themselves need to make some tough decisions to move the peace process forward.

Q Will you tell us what the President -- they talked about putting a text out this afternoon to both sides. Did that not exist before? Is this something the President discussed with Netanyahu last night?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you can assume that these ideas have been discussed in various meetings throughout the last day or so. The text, as Mr. Rubin announced out at Wye, is -- our intention is to circulate it to both parties this afternoon and then to see how we can move forward.

Q This is a U.S. text on a security agreement?

MR. LOCKHART: This is a U.S. text on the areas and the subjects that we need to address in order to move, to reach an agreement in the interim phase, to move forward to final status talks.

Q There have been extensive reports, Joe, that the CIA would play a very important role in implementing any kind of security agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What precisely, or not so precisely, will the CIA role be?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not in a position, as you know, to comment on the substance of the talks or any role that might be played.

Q But can you tell us that the CIA will play a role?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not in a position to comment on that.

Q Is the message from here, don't expect to see the President until you're ready to sit down and talk about every item on this text? Is that the message?

MR. LOCKHART: I think if you look at the last four, five, six days, the President has been very closely and personally engaged in trying to build an atmosphere where the parties can make the tough choices they need to make to move forward. I think with the circulation of a text, the parties need to work through the issues that remain, the obstacles that still remain, and we'll make a decision sometime later today whether we think it's productive for the President to travel.

Q Joe, last night it looked like the reports were that an agreement was imminent and today it looks like the whole thing is falling apart. Are you -- what is the accurate assessment right now about where the talks stand?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the best advice I can give you is don't trust all the reports.

Q Joe, should we -- the fact that the President is not there right now should not be interpreted as the talks are falling apart?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think it should be interpreted as there is different kinds of work that's going on there. Right now the focus, rightly, is on the text and working through the issues. The text will codify some agreements that have been reached and focus attention on the significant gaps that remain. I think if you -- and I think that's where the proper focus is now. We have used -- the President has been personally engaged, taking advantage of his unique position here. We will assess later in the day whether we think it's productive for him to travel.

Q If he doesn't go today, how should we interpret that -- that there are problems?

MR. LOCKHART: I think you should exercise as much caution as you can in reading too much into every hourly act or rumor that is generated from the talks.

Q Would you describe the President as discouraged that is has now gotten to this point seven days into the summit?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, if I answered that question exactly how you have asked it, it would presuppose something that I'm not willing to accept. There is reason to be discouraged; there is reason to be encouraged. The President is determined. He has invested a lot of time and effort into this because it's important for the people of Israel, it's important for the Palestinians, it's important for America that we do what we can to move forward, to make these tough choices, to put this process back on track.

Q Rubin spoke of the President making some sort of statement. Is that -- is he going to speak about the Middle East at this breast cancer event?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so, no.

Q Do you know what he was talking about? He said that the President was going to speak later today.

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think -- he was asked if there -- was the President going to travel to Wye and what was his schedule, and he said he knew he had -- because I had informed him we were doing an event at 3:40 p.m. But I don't expect at this point that he'll address it.

Q Since you have announced that the President is going to go to California this weekend, certainly time is running out. I mean, there are only a few days left now between now and the weekend when he has a schedule. So, I mean, we are at the point where it's either reach an agreement now or if it's not done by today or tomorrow or Friday at the outside, then it's over, right?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not willing to accept the speculating for today, tomorrow or Friday. As we've told you, we're looking at this day by day, meeting by meeting. And we are at Wednesday afternoon. And it is not useful in any way to speculate about what happens Saturday morning.

Q Is the U.S. commitment then open-ended, Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: The President has said and told you from the outset that his commitment is doing what he can to move this process forward. And he will continue to work in a way that is productive. And we'll continue to work on that as long as we believe that both sides are serious about reaching agreement, and we still believe that.

Q Is it then possible, Joe, the President could cancel the California trip or postpone it again?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I just made clear that it wouldn't be useful to speculate on three days from now, so I think I won't.

Q Joe, if we could change the subject to the meeting in a half an hour in the House Judiciary Committee between the White House legal team and the investigators, Democratic and Republican investigators. What does the White House hope to accomplish from this meeting?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as we've described the meeting for you, it's almost an orientation session. The White House counsel, Charles Ruff, reached out several weeks ago to the committee and said that it would be useful for the two sides to get together and have a discussion about how the committee plans to move forward. There's no preconceived ideas of what we need to bring or what they need to bring. There's no fixed agenda. It is a preliminary session that is, I think, quite natural for two groups of people that will be working together over the next few months.

As far as what we expect or hope, it is as we've said, we hope to make the point that the President deserves a process that's fair, that's constitutional, that's nonpartisan. And we will reiterate the point that we think that we need to have some serious discussion about the standards of impeachment as we move forward with the process that the House has embarked on.

Q Is that the only thing that you will go in there saying to the Republicans, is that you would like some sort of standard for impeachment up front? Or do you have two or three key items, specifically like that?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think certainly they will make that point, and we've made that point regularly and openly, so that will come as no surprise, and we will repeat the idea that we think that the process should be fair and it should be timely, should be constitutional. Other than that, I think we're going in a listening mode to try to get a sense of where the committee is going.

Q Joe, what's your sense on timing? Initially, we had a number of Democrats who were saying this has got to be over in 60 or 90 days. Now, the hearing is going to start in mid-November. If they are to meet Chairman Hyde's goal of being over around the first of the year, you're talking about a shorter process than even the Democrats have proposed.

MR. LOCKHART: I think there is probably nobody who has more of an interest than the White House and the President in moving this forward in a timely manner. I don't think we know as much as we think we know about what the committee is planning to do, when they're planning to have their hearings. That's the beauty of this meeting. Rather than reading about it in the newspaper or watching it on a chat show, the two parties are going to sit and talk to each other. And I think we'll come out of this with a better sense of where we're going.

Q You don't expect there to be decisions about how many witnesses, which witnesses, the extent to which the White House would stipulate parts of the Starr report, any of those kinds of details?

MR. LOCKHART: There is nothing in the discussions between the parties in advance of this meeting that suggests that anything like that will be on the table. They certainly did nothing to ask us to come prepared to discuss issues like that, much less make decisions on issues like that. I don't want to preclude what may come up in the meeting, but, again, this is a first session from two parties that will be working together, and I think it's in the interests of both parties that there is some understanding of how we plan to move forward.

Q On a practical basis, would the President's lawyers like the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses?

MR. LOCKHART: I think it's premature before we know what the committee plans and how they plan to move forward. And I think today is the starting point in those discussions.

Q Don't you already have that right? Isn't that part of the agreement? Isn't that part of the original agreement, that White House lawyers had the right to question witnesses?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that there is a set agreement on this. There is certainly precedent for that. But I think the committee is moving forward and is building the rules by which they will govern themselves and how they will function. And I am not aware that that's something that's built in.

Q What if anything can you tell us about this referral that Ken Starr has made to the Justice Department on Webster Hubbell and obstruction of justice?

MR. LOCKHART: The only thing I know is that the charges that were brought against Mr. Hubbell were thrown out. And I think there is some legal maneuvering going on in the wake of that, but I don't have any specific information or comment.

Q Joe, have you received any of the funding bills yet from Congress? And, if you have, when do you expect the President to sign them?

MR. LOCKHART: I think at 3:00 p.m. the President will sign the VA/HUD appropriations. That will be a White House photo. There will be a few members of Congress who come down -- we'll try to give you a list of who they are. Within the last few minutes the omnibus bill arrived here at the White House. I understand it's going to take a few people and a little bit of time to get it actually up to the Oval -- it is quite a large document. So I can't give you a sense yet of how long it will take to get up the steps. But when it does get up the steps --

Q Take some stocky people? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, some big guys who are probably out to lunch right now. But when they come back we'll get it upstairs and we'll let you know when he's going to sign it.

Q Today, though?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. He actually has to sign the bill today.

Q Joe, I asked you this morning at the gaggle, Italy has a new Prime Minister; he's an ex-communist and he has brought in Marxism for the first time into the Italian government since 1947. What is the position of the United States? Italy is a very important member of NATO and good ally of the United States.

MR. LOCKHART: We look forward to working with the new Italian government. There are obviously a number of issues of mutual concern between the two governments, as well as multilateral concern. We have currently issues concerning NATO and Kosovo. There are some G-7 issues on the international financial situation that are current, that we are working closely with the Italian government. So we look forward to working with them.

Q Joe, let me come back to the Mideast again. The official Israeli spokesman coming out, holding a news conference saying the Palestinians aren't responding to us on X and Y and Z; you had the Palestinians firing back, calling -- whatever happened to the blackout, the brownout or whatever?

MR. LOCKHART: If you measure success by being in day seven and this is the first day we've had a substantive conversation whether it's working or not, that's not too bad. Let me say to that issue, though, I can't comment specifically about what might have been put on the table or might not have been put on the table, but I can tell you that serious work has been done on that subject.

Q Why are public statements like that unhelpful?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, they may well be unhelpful, they may not be. Certainly, I don't think it's helpful for me to comment on whether they're helpful or unhelpful. (Laughter.) Did I follow that?

Q Joe, this morning you said in the gaggle that at this point there is no deal. Once this written text is -- now is there a deal?

MR. LOCKHART: No, this is a text -- this is a working document that does a couple things -- seeks to codify some things where there may be agreement and focus attention on the tough decisions that still need to be made, where significant gaps remain. So it is a working document that moves toward what would be a deal or an agreement.

Q You wouldn't call it an outline or a framework or anything that the parties might say is on the table?

MR. LOCKHART: I think we'll prefer to call it a text and we'll move forward as appropriate with it.

Q Joe, is the United States still insisting on a comprehensive interim agreement, or would a partial agreement be sufficient at this point?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, our objective from the beginning has been to reach an interim agreement so they can move forward to the final status state. And that objective hasn't changed.

Q Joe, you said there were some items in the omnibus that might have been subject to a line item veto. Can you be specific about that? Are there any in particular that --

MR. LOCKHART: No. As you remember, the line item veto process was actually quite a rigorous process that OMB conducted. And without the line item veto as a tool for the President, we're not going to go through that process. So I can't specify anything in particular. I think my comments were more broadly suggestive of there are some things that get into appropriations bills when they come at the end of a session that might qualify as spending that's less than necessary.

Q Well, just related to that, McCain was on the floor today and said he has 52 pages of items that he would consider pork. Does the President agree with that at all? Or if he does, how could he sign a bill that would have that much pork in it?

MR. LOCKHART: We haven't seen the 52 pages, and I can't speculate whether we would agree with some, most, all, none of what Senator McCain has put down. I think the way the process works is we have to make a judgment on balance of what's in the best interests of the American public. And that's what we're doing, and that's why the President will sign the bill.

Q Why such a low-key signing of this? As you pointed out this morning, one of the main reasons he's signing it is because it has this big education plan that he pushed so hard for.

MR. LOCKHART: Because we did seven events last week on it. (Laughter.) No, I think the signing in and of itself, we're not going to do a big ceremony, most of the members of Congress are headed quickly back to their districts. But we'll have more to say, if not today later in the week, on the budget, what it accomplished, what we've gotten done, and what we didn't get done.

Q Some conservative Republicans are suggesting that the Republican leadership completely folded and let the President have his way on the budget.

MR. LOCKHART: You're asking me to agree with conservative leaders. (Laughter.) Which ones? I'd like to do it by name. I want to get on record as --

Q Steve Forbes.

MR. LOCKHART: Smart guy. Very smart guy. (Laughter.)

Q Joe, who in the administration has assured the President of what's in this bill -- is somebody in the administration assuring the President that he should be signing it, that there is nothing hidden in there that doesn't deserve enactment?

MR. LOCKHART: No, there has been a very rigorous process over the last few days, conducted by Jack Lew at OMB, Sylvia Mathews, their staff, and some of the legislative staff. So if anyone thought that their work was done when we announced the agreement, they're very wrong. They've worked very hard over the last four, five, six days to make sure that the agreement in principle actually was codified and the bill that was down, and that there's nothing that should have been in there that wasn't or, to the extent possible, things that we don't think shouldn't be there that are. But I certainly don't want to leave you with the impression that there aren't things that perhaps have snuck in from time to time, aren't there.

Q Joe, in two weeks, the congressional elections will be held. What is President Clinton going to do between now and then on behalf of those candidates? With the exception of the fundraising this weekend, what is he going to do?

MR. LOCKHART: I think he'll so some, obviously, fundraising, this weekend. I think he'll do a few fundraising events near the end of next week in Florida and New York, where there are important races being held. So that one of the things he's done, as he's done for the last several months is try to help Democrats get the resources they need to compete. Democrats, I think, if you've been watching the airwaves or the spending, they're being outspent by a very significant margin.

I think, secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the President will continue to make the case on the issues for what distinguishes the Democratic approach, as what we saw in Congress in this session, from the Republican approach. And I think you'll hear more on the issue of Social Security and saving the surplus and reforming Social Security for the long haul. You'll hear some more about health care bill of rights, about our investment in education and the difference in our philosophy for how we approach education, and certainly some of the battles we fought on the environment.

Q -- start in strategy?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we'll be out for a series of days and we'll be here in Washington. I think we feel we have a strong agenda and it's in the best interest of many of our Democratic candidates to have the President making the case from here.

Q On the subject of the campaigns, we're in the home stretch now. Could you identify which Senate races the President sees as the most critical, from his standpoint -- the sort of A-list of Senate races that he's going to be focusing on?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, for you I'd say Schumer-D'Amato. Let me go around the room, though -- what other states do we have here? (Laughter.) I can't put a list on this. There's obviously a number of close races and the D'Amato-Schumer race is obviously one of those. We're going to be up there at the end of next week, I think that should give you some indication.

Q Is the President pretty optimistic Democrats will do very well this November 3?

MR. LOCKHART: The President is realistic. He's a student of political history. He understands the numbers and the precedent for what it looks like in a second term, midterm election. It's a pretty bleak picture, historically. You're looking at an average of, I think, around 30 seats lost. But I think we're pretty optimistic we can do better than that.

Q Congressman Miller has just sent a letter to President Clinton asking to cooperate with the Spanish government in the investigation of General Pinochet. Is the United States ready to cooperate to give more information to the Spanish officials against Pinochet?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not familiar with the letter. I'll have Mr. Leavy take a look at that for you. I know that we've expressed the idea that this is an issue for the United Kingdom government and the Spanish government, but let me look into what Congressman Miller in particular is looking for as far as cooperation.

Q But Americans were killed or disappeared during Pinochet's rule, so is the United States planning to take a look at that?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information on what our future plans may be, but we can look into that for you.

Q Speaking of Pinochet, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, and seven other congressmen have written a letter to President Clinton saying if that Spain -- basically if Spain can go after Pinochet, the United States should go after Fidel Castro for crimes such as shooting down those three planes from Brothers to the Rescue. Any comment on that one?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm sure the letter, once it arrives, will be read carefully and considered carefully.

Q At 3:40 p.m., Joe, is the President likely to have a statement on any matters other than breast cancer awareness?

MR. LOCKHART: Depending on how the afternoon unfolds with the budget, he may have something to say about that and some of the elements in the budget that are topical and of concern both to this group, because, as you know, there was a historic increase in the National Cancer Institute budget this year, including, I think, now we're up to about $600 million a year on breast cancer research alone. And he may extend that into other areas of the budget because it will be on his mind this afternoon.

Q I'm just guessing that you won't be highlighting the D'Amato money on breast cancer.

MR. LOCKHART: We'll take a careful and close look at that.

Q This is about Mexico. Recently the Mexican government sent the Clinton administration 15 diplomatic protests against the Sierra Blanca nuclear dump. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't have --

Q Because they've been sending letters every -- I mean, they didn't have any reaction from your side.

MR. LOCKHART: Okay, well, I am not aware of the letters, either this one or if there are previous ones, but I will keep Mr. Leavy busy this afternoon, adding another item to his agenda.

Q A follow-up, please. Is there any particular position from the White House about this dump that is going to be built 13 miles away from Mexico?

MR. LOCKHART: I'll put that on the list.

Q What do you or David plan to do about the Hormel nomination?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the Senate, as far as I know, is still in session, so they still have a few hours to do the right thing. My expectations aren't high. I think that it's troubling that members of the Republican Party, the party opposite, have made clear that someone's sexual orientation is a disqualifier to serve as an ambassador. To put it more simply, you can't be an ambassador if you're gay. I think that's unacceptable. I think we will explore the options that are available to us and move forward when we think it's appropriate.

Q A recess appointment, Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: I wouldn't eliminate that as one of the options available to us.

Q What are some of the other options?

MR. LOCKHART: We can reappoint him in January when we come back.

Q Joe, to look perspectively at Wye for just a moment, what conditions would have to exist there for the President to return?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what's going on now, or what will be going on in the afternoon, is a discussion of the text. We'll need that process to proceed, and we will look later on in the afternoon to make an assessment if the President's presence there can help move this process that's now been going on some days toward more progress and making the decisions that we've outlined.

Q But what sort of conditions might those be, Joe? What sort of position would the parties have to be in in order to make another presidential visit worthwhile?

MR. LOCKHART: It's impossible to quantify conditions. We have to make our best judgment of what's in the best interest of the process, what's in the best interest of pursuing peace in the region. We have invested the President, personally, a lot of time in this because he cares very deeply about it -- both personally and because it is so important to the people involved and to our people here in the United States. And we just will have to make our best assessment of how we can best move that process forward, whether that's letting the parties sit and work through the text or whether that means having the President travel out there and become personally engaged again this afternoon.

Q Does it have to do with whether the parties, themselves, will want him to come? Are you looking for them to ask him back?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think it has to do with a variety of things that both Mr. Berger and Secretary of State Albright will be assessing in consultation with the President, and we'll make a decision later on this afternoon.

Q The President was there until about 2:00 a.m. Was he surprised today when things appeared to suddenly go wrong?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't think that we spend that much time worrying about the hour-to-hour developments or how they're reported. Having sat in the room yesterday and having watched report after report about what was being done on the South Lawn to prepare for the signing ceremony was about as relevant as, I think, some of the things that we'll talk about for the next hours.

I can't discount everything that gets reported, but I certainly can't endorse everything that's reported. This is tough going. The President has said that these are not easy decisions. We are doing what we think is in the best interest of the process. We will continue to work at this as long as we think both parties are working seriously toward an agreement.

Q Are you going to make the document public?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I can check on the ground there, but I think at this point our goal is to circulate with both parties the text.

Q Can I go back to Sierra Blanca for a moment. President Clinton signed the bill to conserve the Sierra Blanca nuclear dump in Texas and the construction is in the hands of the state of Texas. Is the White House ready to mediate the negotiations between Mexico and the state of Texas?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I have ably demonstrated my lack of knowledge on this subject, and I will leave it right there. (Laughter.)

Q Was there a dollar figure on Texas aid?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't have one.

Q Thank you.

MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.

END 1:55 P.M. EDT