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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 23, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                             JOE LOCKHART 
                           The Briefing Room            

1:32 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Am I plugged? Hey, was that Sonny and Cher movie on ABC last night? Was that your network?

Q Which one?

MR. LOCKHART: It was very good. (Laughter.) Sonny and Cher.

Q I was watching the news. I'm sorry.

MR. LOCKHART: Okay. I wasn't.

Q You have to be "blanking" me -- that show?

MR. LOCKHART: That show. Just kidding, I didn't watch it.

Q We appreciate Mr. Jennings pointing out a moment ago that NBC and ABC and Turner had all decided to participate in the CHIPs program. I didn't hear anything --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, in that case, in that case, Bill, you've got the first question. (Laughter.) Do you have an announcement to make, about joining the PSA campaign?

Q Not at this time.

Q I have a question.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, then I will do one quick announcement, and then we'll take questions. On Friday of this week, the President will give a speech on foreign policy. I haven't seen a draft of it yet, but once I do, I'll -- hopefully on Thursday -- be able to give you a better sense of it.

Q What time?

MR. LOCKHART: Do you know what time?

MR. LEAVY: It's 10:15 a.m. local time.

MR. LOCKHART: That's probably 1:15 Eastern Time, 10:15 a.m. -- I believe it's at the Commonwealth Club?

Q Any specific subject? Kosovo or --

MR. LOCKHART: I think a broad address on areas, issues involving American foreign policy. But we'll get you some more on that as the week goes on. But I wanted to --

Q Can you give us a sense of what happened at Rambouillet? I mean, we saw the news conference that Mr. Cook and others conducted.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think some very important steps forward were taken in the peace process that's going on there. On the Kosovar Albanian side, I think if you take a step back, and look at where the Kosovar Albanians as a group started some weeks ago, they arrived in France with most of the international people not even knowing who was coming on their team. And they came together as a group and made a decision as a group. And they made the decision that they believe they can sign on to this peace agreement, subject to a two-week period where they go home and consult with their people. But we believe that, as they consult with their people, the Kosovar Albanians will believe that this agreement is in their interest, and we will take a step forward.

On the Serbian side, there was in very specific detail a recognition of the need to restore autonomy to Kosovo. There were some final steps that were not taken, but we have locked in some very important gains, and we expect when they get back together, they will continue to do the important work they still need to do.

Q But nothing the President of the United States or the Secretary of State could say could convince the Kosovar Albanians to move ahead with this without a promise of a referendum, thus thoroughly --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think that's the case. If you look at what they've done, they have agreed to move

Q That wasn't what we started out wanting them to do.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, let's talk about what we have. They've agreed to move forward with this process, subject to going back and spending two weeks, consulting back at home.

Q Who are they consulting? Why don't they make --

MR. LOCKHART: They're going back to consult with the various groups that they represent, the various constituencies that they represent, the other groups within the Kosovar Albanian community.

Q What does "move forward" mean? Are you telling us that the Kosovar delegation has agreed to a proposition that does not contain referendum directly --

Q Autonomy?

Q -- subject to a discussion back home -- is that what you're telling us? What does the document say?

MR. LOCKHART: My understanding is -- well, I will leave you to the experts over there who have talked at length, but my understanding is there are certainly agreements in there on the logistics and modalities of autonomy, what that means, very specific. As far --

Q The word referendum they were insisting on.

MR. LOCKHART: Right, and my understanding of the document -- correct me -- there is not a binding referendum piece to this agreement.

Q But that's what they said they wanted.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there are a lot of people that say they want things, and as part of a negotiation you move forward with what's in your best interest.

Q Joe, it's very hard to understand how this can be presented as progress when the United States had laid down an ultimatum for bombing if this was not agreed to. And yet you're talking about a two-week that is progress. How so? We didn't get what we were after.

MR. LOCKHART: What we're after is peace and stability in that region. And we think that what they have agreed to today takes a step in the right direction. They still have important and difficult work ahead of them, but we think if you look at the progress within the Kosovar Albanians as a negotiating group, it's significant. It is our hope that they will come back in two weeks, having consulted, ready to sign on to this document which will put significant pressure on the Serbian side, and it's our hope that in the ensuing weeks the Serbian side will understand the pressure they face.

Q So the hope is that they will come back and agree to a document that does not specifically contain this referendum? That they would come back and say, all right, we will sign on to that.

MR. LOCKHART: It is our hope that they will sign on to the agreement as presented to them.

Q Joe, what happens to the peacekeeping force in the interim? Do they stand by for the next two weeks?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any change in their status.

Q How worried are you that this is just going to fall apart? I mean, behind the scenes officials are saying they don't think this is going to hold together for two weeks. They don't know if the international coalition will hold together for two weeks, so it's hard to -- isn't hard to be as optimistic --

MR. LOCKHART: The very fact that they're there negotiating should give you some indication of how important this is. But we believe that what they've done is to take a significant step forward. And we, in the two weeks, have urged both sides during this period, the consultation period, to exercise restraint. I think the ACTORD that the NATO Secretary General has is still at his disposal if the Serbs make the mistake of trying to take advantage of this time. And it's important that we give this process the time it needs, and that when they return they can do the serious work that still needs to be done.

Q So if the Kosovars come back and agree, you're aware that the President thought he was when he talked with President Chirac last Friday, and that is, then the question was, would the Serbian side agree to the peacekeeping force. So if the Kosovars come back and agree, you're still -- am I correct -- the Serbians then still haven't agreed --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if they come back, that will train significant pressure on the Serbian side to reach an agreement that involves a post-implementation force led by NATO. And we will be in that situation some weeks down the road.

Q If they don't, they'll get bombed? If they don't, the Serbians then will get bombed?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, certainly that threat remains real, if they are unwilling to take the steps they need to restore autonomy to Kosovo.

Q Doesn't the U.S. look a little silly since it wasn't able to work its will here, despite enormous effort?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that you -- to score this as some sort of game is done at your own risk. I think the U.S. has shown a commitment to the people of -- the Kosovar Albanians, to the regional stability that we've worked so hard to maintain. And this is not easy work -- it's hard work. And you have a lot of dedicated diplomats and negotiators who have worked very hard at this, and they have locked in very important progress, and they have set up a process whereby they can move forward to take the important last steps towards getting a political settlement.

Q Joe, what happens when, let's say, the Kosovar Albanians come back, sign the agreement? What happens at that point? Do you just turn to the Serbs and say, sign it immediately or the threat for bombing goes into effect?

MR. LOCKHART: I think from a sequencing point of view, the Kosovar Albanians have asked for two weeks to consult. As far as when this group will get back together again, they've assigned March 15th as a date when they get back together. So I expect we will know something more about the consultation process in two weeks and then the groups will resume these talks about three weeks from now.

Q So your intent would be to give the Serbs a brief period to decide whether or not they accept the peace agreement as it stands at that point and then go back to the deadline?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into setting deadlines in advance of things that haven't happened yet, but I think it will be important for them to use this time to recognize the importance of locking in the autonomy issues that have been discussed over the last few weeks and coming to grips with the idea that there needs to be some post-implementation force led by NATO in order to provide the confidence on the ground among the Kosovar Albanians, and the very fact that this autonomy is real.

Q Joe, after the conference today between the President and the congressional leadership, Congressman Gephardt termed the President's plan to save 77 percent of the surpluses a threshold issue. Does that mean there is no room for compromise as far as the President is concerned? Is he willing to move at all off the 77 percent figure, particularly the inclusion of all 15 percent for Medicare?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President feels very strongly that 15 percent of the surplus should be reserved for Medicare. I think the Minority Leader, what he was expressing -- and the President agrees -- is it's a threshold issue in the sense that for real reform of Medicare and extending the solvency and extending the solvency of Social Security, you need to commit 77 percent of the surplus. And I think the President believes very strongly and I think there is a good bit of support on Capitol Hill on the concept. We're going to have to work through some of the details, but I think at the end of the session, it's our hope that we do have this three-quarters of the surplus reserved for both of these things.

Q Joe, to follow up on the details, what sense have you of any real progress toward figuring out how this could be done? How much work is there to be done on that front?

MR. LOCKHART: I think there's some sense on both sides of the aisle about reserving some of the surplus, particularly for Social Security, not necessarily for Medicare, but I still think there are differences in how we do that. The President has laid out a framework for how we do it by paying down the public debt and it's our hope as these issues continue to move forward in Congress and on Capitol Hill, that support will grow for the approach the President has laid out.

Q Did the President reject a $450-million satellite deal with China, and why?

MR. LOCKHART: The President did not. There was an application from the Hughes Company for exporting a satellite that went through the normal process, which involves the Commerce Department, the State Department, and the Defense Department, and I think it was announced today that that license application was rejected in part because of the makeup of the consortium of entities that were involved in who the satellite was being sold to, including the PLA in China.

Q Was there a national security element to --

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. That's why it goes through the State and the Defense Department. I'd refer you to their announcements about this, but there is a process that takes those issues into account and tries to balance our needs as we've talked about in the past to keep American satellite makers competitive in the world market.

Q Are relations worsening with China?

MR. LOCKHART: I think we have a wide range of issues with China that span economic, security, human rights. I don't expect that this decision, based on the best thinking at the State Department and the Defense Department, will have a significant impact on the relationship.

Q Is there an April --

Q There's a newspaper report that there is evidence -- and the report was also sourced to the White House -- there was evidence that China is helping North Korea with its missile program. Can you comment on that? Is that report accurate?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I really can't comment on the intelligence matters there. Do we have anything? Sorry. If I can take a quick look.

The U.S. and China share concerns about North Korea's missile development. China supports our efforts to restrain North Korea from conducting further missile and satellite launches. China also recognizes, as we do, further launches will destabilize the region. China has given us assurances that they are not providing assistance to the North Korean missile program.

Q Joe, on the licensing, what is different about this licensing application that was turned down? What is different about this than from the other licensing applications that the administration has approved, and strongly defended last year when --

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I think, with this one, this was one that, as I understand it, was initially approved, but because there are safeguards built into the system, when either the technology changes or the entities that go into the consortium of who you're selling it to change, you're forced to come back and re-enter the process. And in this process, as I understand it from State and Defense, the consortium -- there were significant changes in the consortium which caused concerns for State and Defense, and led them to recommend that we not grant this license.

Q So the switch in the participants in the consortium made --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. And in this case, different technology. I would refer you over to State and Defense -- I'm getting into the nitty-gritty, but there were -- I mean, this is an example of the system having safeguards built into it. When there are changes, you need to come back, go through the process, and allow State, Defense and Commerce to weigh in on whether they think it's in the best interests of the United States for the sale to go forward.

Q Can we go back to Medicare?


Q Does the administration support the Breaux proposals?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we haven't seen what's come out of the commission, and we think that it's important to allow the commission to do its work, report out what their ideas are, and then we'll take a look at it. There's been a variety of ideas from the commission that are interesting. There's some details that we think we're going to have to work out. But what we don't want to do here is, with every idea that they take up, express an opinion, thereby negating the value of having this independent commission.

Q Well, yes, but you're coming up to the end here. Breaux's got a bipartisan consensus on this, but not as many votes as he wants or needs. Does the administration oppose anything that would simply give people a set amount to buy their health insurance, through an HMO or fee for service?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I think there are some interesting ideas that are worth looking at in the proposals that have been put forth in the context of this commission, but we're going to withhold judgment on those ideas until the commission reports out their ideas.

Q So the President does not believe that he needs to do anything in order to forge a greater consensus until after the Medicare Commission is already --

MR. LOCKHART: I think that the idea of the Medicare Commission was to allow them to go forward and come out with some bipartisan ideas, and then the President, leaders of the Republican Party on the Hill would get together and figure out what we were going to do with them.

Q Does the White House have a sense that they need to do something to forge a greater consensus before the ideas come out of that commission? Otherwise, you might be faced with three or four ideas and you won't have made any progress at all.

MR. LOCKHART: We might. But at this point, I think we're going to let the Medicare Commission do their work and when they've reached the end of their time, which is quite soon, we'll look at what the Commission has produced.

Q And the President will then embrace one of those proposals?

MR. LOCKHART: We'll certainly look at the proposals.

Q Joe, according to India Globe, last week the Indian Prime Minister called President Clinton, congratulating him for the work he's doing, and also the President wrote a letter to him of his intentions to visit India sometime later this year. Any comments?

MR. LOCKHART: I know that the President wrote to both the Indian and the Pakistani Prime Ministers to applaud them on the courage of getting together for the summit meeting that they had, and this was before the summit meeting. And we think they've made significant progress in the agreements they've made there. We think that's important for both countries and for the security situation in the subcontinent region. But as far as giving any indications of impending travel, I don't have anything on that.

Q The Indian Prime Minister, first Prime Minister to create a bus from India to Pakistan for the talks between India and Pakistan, and the President also issued a statement saying that he is very pleased about the coming of the talks. What kind of role is the President or the U.S. playing in these talks?

MR. LOCKHART: I think primarily the talks are going on between the parties. But as I'm sure you know, Mr. Talbott has been to the region numerous times and has worked very hard in trying to bring the parties together on a wide variety of issues, including nonproliferation, which is an issue that we take quite an important interest in.

Q Joe, in the leadership meeting this morning, Republican leaders could not be induced to say here that they trust the President. Turn the question around -- does the President trust them?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I think the President knows full well that what the American people expect from their political leaders in Washington is to work together and get their business done. And that's exactly what today's meeting was about. The President thought it was a very constructive meeting, there was a good atmosphere. He remarked to me that this was really the first time he's had a chance to sit across from the new Speaker, sit across the table from the new Speaker, and he enjoyed that. He described him as a no-nonsense guy who is interested in getting things done, and that's very important as we move forward. So I think both sides agree that what's most important is getting the people's business done, and that's what we're doing.

Q Did you get a sense on tax cuts? Did you get a sense that there was any coming together on the issue of tax cuts?

MR. LOCKHART: I think -- the President made his case very strongly on the issue of reserving the surplus, 77 percent to pay down the national debt and reserve those savings for Social Security and Medicare, and talked a little bit about how we can help the middle class save for retirement with USA accounts. I think there was some discussion between the congressional members about how they'll go forward with tax cuts, and whether it's across-the-board, or more targeted tax cuts, because there have been some differences expressed by various members of the Republican Party on how they want to approach this.

But I think the President, the Majority Leader -- excuse me, the Minority Leader in the House and in the Senate were straightforward and clear on the idea that we think the approach the President has laid out is the best way to go.

Q Joe, Hastert spoke of a menu of possible options on tax cuts. Now, if indeed the Republicans are shying away from across-the-board and toward more targeted tax cuts, is it time for horse trading?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it's time to give real consideration to what the President's put forward. And we think that it's a strong proposal, provides the kind of tax relief that middle-income Americans need, as well as saving Social Security and Medicare. And we're going to continue to make that case. So we're going to continue to make our case, and we think we've done it in a fairly effective way.

Q But are you open to some of their proposals for targeted tax cuts?

MR. LOCKHART: Say again?

Q Is he open to their proposals -- GOP proposals for targeted tax cuts?

MR. LOCKHART: You know, I have to be honest, I'm not sure what they are. There's been a variety of ideas. We think -- we've spoken in the past. There was some talk of a marriage penalty fix last year, which we could have supported, that Senator Daschle put out. We think, given the money that's there, and is available, the program the President has put out is the most effective way to do that, and that's the case we're going to continue to make.

Q But did he turn to Republicans and say there might be something to that, but, gee, I'd have to -- well, there are a couple of other things we need? There was some talk out here, for instance, about minimum wage, and maybe working that out with some tax ideas. Was there any discussion of give and take, not just the President saying, here's my idea, embrace that, and then we'll talk?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm certain that down the road, as we get into more specific issues, we'll be looking at ways we can find common ground. Right now -- and I think this meeting was more about both sides talking about what they believed their agenda was.

And I think, on the positive side, when you look at what the Republican leaders laid down, and when you look at -- particularly if you look at the full-page advertisement that was taken out today -- they have very much accepted as their top priorities what the President laid out in the State of the Union, probably with the exception of using the surplus for Medicare. But they've talked about education, which has been a high priority for the President since he came into office; talked about saving the surplus and trying to extend the life of the Social Security trust fund. They've talked about health care. So these are all issues the President's talked about. Clearly, we have different approaches and we're going to spend the next few months and beyond trying to figure out where we can agree and finding out where we don't agree.

Q Are you saying the President is not willing to engage in a discussion on sort of how you might approach the Republican ideas until they have embraced the 77 percent?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm not saying that there's any preconditions. We're at a point where this is the first time this year they've gotten together. Both sides had a chance to lay out what they think. I think you're slightly ahead of yourself by expecting this to be a horse-trading meeting.

Q Joe, on the issue of trust, how will the President go about trying to gain or regain the trust of the Republican leaders?

MR. LOCKHART: I'll give you the same answer I've given you the last six times this has been asked of me, which is the President believes that the best way to go forward is to continue to focus on the people's business, get the work the people expect, work on Social Security, work on education, work on minimum wage, work on health care and everything else will take care of itself.

Q Did they discuss the deployment of U.S. ground troops to Kosovo, Joe, and did the President win them over?

MR. LOCKHART: I think their discussion of Kosovo -- Sandy Berger, the President's National Security Advisor, was in for the top and gave them a briefing on the latest, which obviously events have moved past in the last few hours. But there was a extensive discussion on Kosovo and what would be needed and a post-implementation force, and I think there was -- it was described for me as a positive discussion about in what the circumstances would need to be for U.S. forces to be employed, what the mission strategy would be, and what the exit strategy would be.

Q Did you answer his question -- did they go along?

MR. LOCKHART: I'll have to leave it to the others to answer that question definitively, but it was described to me as a positive conversations.

Q Joe, this is the first meeting the President held with the Republicans and the Democrats together in over a year. Did they agree today to hold these meetings more often?

MR. LOCKHART: I think there was a general sense that this was a good meeting, that it had been too long since they've gotten together, and I can't give you a schedule of -- they didn't set forward a series of meetings, but I think everyone walked away thinking that this was constructive and they need to continue to work together.

Q Joe, why is it that they didn't meet for so long?

MR. LOCKHART: That's one I'm going to leave to you to figure out.

Q Joe, on Kosovo? Is there -- during this two weeks of consultation, what role, if anything, will we have? And what strategy, if any, is there if it disintegrates?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, that's a hypothetical on the second part. On the first part, we have worked -- Ambassador Chris Hill has worked nonstop and tirelessly on this problem for many months now, and he will continue to. We made a strong case to the Kosovar Albanians about why we believed that this agreement was in their best interests. And I think if you look at where they ended up, the group as a whole -- which came as quite a group that didn't necessarily agree on a lot of things -- agreed that they believed that this is in their interest.

Now, they are going to go home and consult, and make sure that all the groups of Kosovar Albanians agree. But we will continue to play whatever role is appropriate to make sure that people understand why we believe it's in all the parties' interests to move forward with this idea.

Q Just back on today's meeting. Understanding that both sides want to get back to business, and that's the way to establish trust, was the meeting held with absolutely no reference at all, by either the President or the members, to the impeachment trial?

MR. LOCKHART: There was no reference to it.

Q Not at all?


Q Was there any reference to the issue of trust?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know for sure.

Q Joe, does the President expect to call Tony Blair or Jacques Chirac now about the developments?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. I'll let you know if that happens.

Q Joe, what is the President's current view on the reauthorization of the independent counsel statute?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that -- I haven't talked to the President specifically about that, but I think people have spoken out. The Chief of Staff was asked, by an accomplished interviewer on a Sunday show, that may be airing an interview in a couple weeks that Sam doesn't think people are going to pay enough attention to -- I disagree. Anyway, I think -- I mean, I'll echo John's thought, which is, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that the independent counsel statute as written needs a very serious look and some reforms if it's to be reauthorized.

Q Will the President be --

Q Joe, on Ghana's President's visit tomorrow, do you have anything you can tell us? What's going to be discussed?

MR. LOCKHART: Let's see. Okay. The visit -- as you know, the visit comes 11 months after the President's historic trip to Africa, and will highlight the strong and increasing ties between the United States and Africa. In particular, it will reaffirm the strong and warm relationship we enjoy with the government and the people of Ghana. You will all remember the absolutely incredible event we did there, with half a million people -- and will highlight the many initiatives and accomplishments that have been undertaken since the President's trip. We hope that the President's trip here will further the efforts of the administration to build a partnership to promote peace, stability, democracy and economic opportunity to the people of Africa.

Q How much money will be given out?

MR. LOCKHART: We'll talk about that tomorrow.

Q Joe, on the independent counsel statute, what sort of reforms are needed?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that -- we haven't come to any firm conclusions here, so once we do, I'll be glad to talk some more about it, but I think that what the Chief of Staff alluded to. A number of leaders on the Hill, from both sides of the aisle, have said that we need to take a serious look at how we move forward and we agree with that consensus.

Q Does the President think -- the CBO, apparently critical of the President's Social Security plan, and a hearing today on the Hill. One of the things they said was that if you implement the plan as outlined, it will transform Social Security from a pay-as-you-go system to a system that depends largely on general tax revenues. Is that the thrust that you think the President's plan has, and is that an intention on the part of the White House?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think what we're talking about here is taking advantage of a historic opportunity, which is the result of the fiscal discipline of the last six years. And I think the President and his economic advisors believe that we should take advantage of this opportunity to provide a way to shore up and extend the life of Social Security.

Q So you're not really disputing the fact that general tax revenues would then be funneled into the system, and it's not really a pay-as-you-go system anymore?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not disputing it because what we're doing here is -- and as we've talked about here before, it's a somewhat complicated accounting procedure -- but paying down the national debt and reserving the savings by moving bonds into the Social Security trust fund, or IOUs. We think that, if we do that over this 15-year period, we will go a long way toward extending the Social Security trust fund. So you can make that criticism of it, but we think this is a historic opportunity that should be taken.

Q -- getting back to Kosovo, I just want to make clear, during this interim period before March 15th, will the OSCE monitors remain monitoring --


Q -- and NATO reserves the right to bomb if the violence escalates?

MR. LOCKHART: NATO has the authority to move forward if they believe that the Serbs are acting in a way that is repressing the Kosovar Albanians.

Q On March 3rd, will the President be watching Barbara Walters' interview on ABC, 20/20 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I know what we decided. I looked into this, Sam, and I found out -- a little known fact -- that C-SPAN routinely replays my briefings at 9:00 p.m. every night and the President never misses them.

Q He'd rather watch you than Monica? What have you done for him? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.

END 2:05 P.M. EST