THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
12:25 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: One quick announcement; then we can get to your questions. The President will attend the Radio and TV Dinner on March 18. He will also attend the Gridiron Dinner on March 20. And he will attend the White House Correspondents Dinner in May. I think it's May 1. So you will be seeing a lot of him.
That's all I've got. What do you got?
Q Joe, will the United States compensate the families of the victims in the Italian cable car accident, given the fact that there has been a not guilty verdict? How does the United States government move forward on this now?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not aware that there is any compensation request or plan in place. As far as the verdict that was announced earlier today, there is still an ongoing judicial process through the military justice system for others, so it would be inappropriate for me to make a comment in reaction to today's verdict.
Q You don't have any comment on how it will affect U.S.-Italian relations?
Q And tomorrow's visit?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think tomorrow's visit, as you can expect, will cover a wide range of subjects ranging from trade issues which have been on the forefront of U.S.-European relations over the last few weeks, the upcoming NATO summit, situation in Kosovo and some international financial architecture issues. I think it's a testament -- and I would expect if the Italian Prime Minister wants to bring this up, this subject will also be on the agenda.
I think it is a testament to the strength of our relations, of U.S.-Italian relations, that this hasn't soured the relationship. As we've said from the beginning, the United States deeply regrets the tragic deaths of the 20 victims. But I think it is a testament to the strength of our relation that we've been able to keep strong bonds between the countries and deal with this in an honest and straightforward way.
Q -- given any compensation -- think there's some compensation, right?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I'll check on it, but I'm not aware of any.
Q Will this cast a pall over tomorrow's meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we have very strong relations with the Italian government, the Italian people. We have a broad and wide-ranging relationship, and the President looks forward to spending this time. And I think again, as I said, it is a testament to the strength that we are able to work through a tragedy like this and remain strong allies and friends.
Q But it's not a subject that the President himself will raise?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President has spoken directly to the Italian Prime Minister; he's spoken directly to the Italian people about our sincere regret over this tragic incident. And to the extent that the subject comes up again tomorrow, he will again repeat that.
Q Who within the United States government would be responsible for considering whether there might be some U.S. aid to the 20 families?
MR. LOCKHART: My guess is that would be a State Department issue, or something that the Pentagon might be able to handle. I'm just not aware that there is a proceeding ongoing on that subject.
Q Joe, with this current trade dispute having gone to the level we find it at now, to what extent can the President and the Italian leader do anything beyond just touching on this tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it will give us a chance to reiterate our view that the trade dispute over the EU and bananas is important as far as the credibility of the WTO and the arbitration process. As I said this morning, the U.S. has brought some 40 different claims through this process, and we haven't won them all. There's been several on environmental, and on apparel and textile issues that the U.S. has not won, and they've complied with the decision of the WTO. This is the first decision that's gone against the EU, and we think it's very important for the integrity of the international trading system for the EU to comply.
Q -- take this message to the Italian Prime Minister?
MR. LOCKHART: Again, we have a wide range of issues, but to the extent that they talk about the specifics of this dispute, that has been our message all along.
Q Would you say that the United States and Europe are now in a trade war? Is that how you characterize it?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we have a serious dispute ongoing with the issues of bananas, and we continue to try to work through the WTO. And it's important for the overall credibility of the WTO and the international trading system that this is resolved.
Q Joe, the President leaves on Monday for Central America. There seems to be a delay or a problem in Congress with the supplemental aid request.
MR. LOCKHART: I think you're right. There has been -- we seem to have run into a roadblock here. We sent up a supplemental request for aid to farmers, aid to hurricane victims in Central America and some financial aid for the government of Jordan. And we believe that each of these are important on the merits and should be moved forward as quickly as possible under the rules that guide emergency supplemental bills, appropriation bills.
Unfortunately, as we've seen in the past, it seems that the Republican majority is looking more to play politics with some of these issues than in providing the very needed aid. If you look at Central America, I think when we travel down there next week, you'll see the desperate situation that tens of thousands of people are in and how the aid is needed and is needed now.
We've been down this road before. In 1998, we talked about the need for IMF funding, but that was pulled out of the supplemental in a political dispute despite an international financial crisis. In 1997 we went down this road with flood relief for the upper Midwest, which, as you all remember, ended in a partisan squabble before it was resolved. In 1995, we had a disaster request with Oklahoma City that had some political riders attached to it.
We would hope that the right lessons have been learned over the last three or four years so we can take politics out of this and provide the kind of aid that we think is truly needed both at home and around the world, the kind of aid that the U.S. government should be providing.
Q This would move pretty quickly, wouldn't it, if the White House would just agree to some offsets?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think -- my understanding is they're looking to put this through a different process and the offsets are clearly things that we're not going to be willing to do. You're looking at cuts in domestic disaster relief, cuts in food stamps, which we think are very important, and some environmental including climate change. So I think if you look at the menu of things put down, it has the real scent of politics to it.
Q In looking for offsets, though, just the process, aren't they being more fiscally responsible than the White House in addressing the President's concern on saving Social Security first?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think if you look at the record over the last six years you'll find that the White House has been fiscally responsible. I think we've managed to work within the system. The system is set up so when you have a real financial emergency you can provide quick relief, whether it's at home or whether it's abroad. And that system has worked quite well and through the fiscal responsibility that this White House has demonstrated, we're now sitting in a world of surpluses rather than a deficit. So I don't think that charge really rings true.
Q Do you think part of the problem could be that so many matters were classified as emergencies last year, that many people questioned their emergency status -- maybe this isn't that much an emergency?
MR. LOCKHART: My sense is if you look at the offsets, you'll see there is a different issue at play here. It's not that there were too many emergencies or too little emergencies, it has the feeling of someone looking for a political fight. And we just don't think that these are the kind of things you should have political fights over. And, again, we've been down this road before and it doesn't seem like there have been many lessons learned.
Q Maybe the lesson was not to attack domestic flood relief, but rather to attach it to a program that at least for the American populous maybe they think most people don't care as much about.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if that's the case, it's a hard sell to the farmers who are looking for some relief this year, because there is domestic relief involved in the supplemental. But secondly, I think Americans agree that we do have an important responsibility within the hemisphere, around the world. If you look at per capita aid, this is not an extravagant aid package. Per capita, the government of Mexico is offering more than the United States. This was a devastating, once-in-a-lifetime storm that has rocked the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who are our neighbors. They deserve our help and they should get it without having to play the partisan politics of Washington.
Q But Joe, the question that Josh asked was, hasn't the White House sort of colluded in degrading the whole idea of emergency spending by agreeing to so much at the end of last year, now made it difficult to get that type of spending enacted?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I don't think so. I think this is legitimate emergency spending, and it's just the type of activity and appropriation that the rules envisioned when they were developed.
Q Joe, could you give us a sense of who in the administration is going on this trip to Central America? How wide-ranging? Are several Cabinet secretaries going?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll let you know. We'll get a delegation list. It's actually, as far as delegation lists go, it's awfully early.
Q Joe, is the President going to veto the bill in its current form, or are you going to wait -- after the Senate marks it up?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we don't know what's going to come to us, so I'm not going to try to look that far down in the future.
Q But if those offsets and spending cuts that you envision aren't in there, and that bill comes intact, like that, to the President, will he --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, we don't know what's going to come to us. I'll withhold judgment until it comes to us. But clearly, we think they're taking the wrong -- they're headed down the road in the wrong direction on this.
Q Joe, why is it fair to accuse them of playing politics? Why isn't there just a legitimate policy dispute at issue here?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think given the areas that they've chosen to go after, it feels like we're re-running a bad play here, that we've seen over the last three or four years. We do have legitimate policy disputes. One of the things we have been able to agree on in the past is emergency aid for those who really need it. And given the areas that they've singled out for cutting, it just feels like it's politics.
Q But Joe, the White House has suddenly decided to try to attach the teacher proposal to what was previously a fast-moving Ed-flex bill. Couldn't the White House be accused of playing politics with that bill?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think on Ed-flex, we don't want to miss an opportunity here. There are a series of education challenges, Ed-flex being one of them -- not necessarily a central one -- to the President's education agenda. And I think the White House and the Democrats felt that there may not be a second chance to come back at this, so they thought it was appropriate and we'll see where Congress goes.
Q -- Republicans just say they don't want to miss an opportunity to cut some of the environmental programs that you support with the emergency bill?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure, they probably will.
Q Will the President sign such a bill if it doesn't contain 100,000 teachers?
MR. LOCKHART: We'll cross that bridge when we get there.
Q Did the President watch any of the interview with Monica --
MR. LOCKHART: Can I do one other thing? Because P.J. handed me something. I'm not ducking that, I'll come back to it. But we will continue to work closely with the Italian government to assure that all claims resulting from the tragedy are handled expeditiously under our Status of Forces Agreement procedures. We are committed to doing our part as provided for under the SOFA Treaty, so there is a process for handling those claims.
Q Did the President watch any of the interview with Monica Lewinsky last night? If not, why does he choose not to?
MR. LOCKHART: He did not watch any of the interview, and nor does he plan to. Let me say this: I think given all the things that have been said about Ms. Lewinsky, about what she said, what she's done, she certainly deserves a chance to speak for herself on this issue, and she's done that. As most of America knows, she was on television last night, she has a book coming out, and she has every right to tell her story from her side. And I think we have every right, now that the process that we've been in over the last three or four months is over, to move on. That's what the President's doing. He's going to focus on the job he was elected to do, and we're going to look forward and not look to the past.
Q Well, you've said for some weeks that Americans are tired of this, they want to move on. Why, then, do you think 70 million of them tuned in to watch last night?
MR. LOCKHART: Because it was on a great network. Everybody just -- Channel 7. (Laughter.)
Q I realize --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I'm not a Nielsen specialist here. I don't know why people turn on or don't. I think, given the controversy and the proceedings that went on here in Washington, people didn't want to see any more out of Washington on this. Do they want to see one player's personal view of what went on over the last 13 or 14 months? The ratings will tell you yes.
Q Joe, what do you think about the specific allegations she makes about the way she was treated by Ken Starr's prosecutors that first day at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the specific allegations as I understand them are allegations that the Justice Department is currently looking into, and that's the appropriate place for that to be discussed.
Q Does the White House believe the account Ms. Lewinsky gave to Andrew Morton gives greater force to the accusations that have been made?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that the Justice Department is looking at these issues. Clearly, to look at them they'll need to take into account the parties that were involved. And I think it's appropriate for them to comment, and not appropriate for me to comment while there's this proceeding ongoing.
Q Joe, she said during the interview last night that she had never intended to come forward and never intended to talk about this publicly. What does the White House make of the fact that she's now doing a book, and she's doing this two-hour interview on television?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, as I said opening this part of the briefing, a lot has been said, a lot has been written. And I think anyone who's had this much said and written has the right to express the story from their own personal viewpoint.
Q But clearly, you'd feel better if she didn't give interviews and write a book, or participate in the writing of a book. I mean, this revives the subject, does it not?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I think, temporarily. I think people have moved on. I think people expect people in Washington to be interested in things that affect their lives. So, to the extent that this revives this issue, my guess is it's temporary.
Okay, we can make the announcement? To the question earlier of who would be coming with us to Central America -- (laughter) -- the former governor of Florida, Buddy McKay, will join us on the Central America trip as our new Special Envoy for the Americas. That's news, an announcement.
Q Well, it's news. (Laughter.)
Q Will he be -- (inaudible.)
MR. LOCKHART: I'll have to find out. I expect that he'll probably be between, because Florida's a good base, and I know Mack spent a good bit of time down there, as well as shuttling around the region.
Q But this is an appointment to the White House staff?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I'll have to find out the details of under what jurisdiction, but it's basically filling the job that Mr. McLarty so ably filled.
Q Joe, why is the White House, the President, having such a hard time finding an ambassador for China?
MR. LOCKHART: We've been working through this process. I don't have an announcement today, but I expect sometime in the near future we will have an announcement of an excellent ambassador for an important diplomatic post.
Q Is the President settled on someone in his mind?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll have an announcement when I have an announcement.
Q Joe, the statement you read on compensation for the victims, or possible compensation -- you said that the claims would be processed under the Status of Forces Agreement.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. The status -- it's basically an agreement -- is it a treaty, P.J.? SOFA, is it a treaty?
COMMANDER CROWLEY: It's part of the NATO --
MR. LOCKHART: It's basically the rules and regulations that govern different troops that are based -- NATO troops that are based in host countries around Europe.
Q Would it entitle the families of the victims of a tragedy like this to ask for compensation?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me leave the actual details of it to others who know more about it. I think probably at the Pentagon -- is it Pentagon or State?
COMMANDER CROWLEY: Either one.
MR. LOCKHART: Either one I think can probably give you better information than I have.
Q Joe, when the President first talked about the surplus in Social Security and Medicare in the State of the Union address, he said he wanted to put 15 percent of the surplus to the side for Medicare, but only after long-term Social Security reform was completed. Now, he goes around talking about 77 percent of the surplus going to Social Security and Medicare. Is that time difference still in there? In other words, is it still conditional on Social Security reform to transfer the money to Medicare? Or, is he willing, if a bill came up today, to start transferring more money into the Medicare fund?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think basically what he was reflecting is that we need to save Social Security first before we do anything with the surplus. But I think that we've moved somewhere down the road on the idea of saving 62 percent of the surplus. I think we have not moved very far down the road at all on Medicare.
As far as the timing, I think we'll probably deal with Social Security before we deal with Medicare. As far as, if somehow Social Security gets stalled, I'm not sure that that precludes anything we do on Medicare. But I think there is a commitment among the parties to take up and deal with Social Security first.
Q What's the White House view of the Senate Republican plan on Social Security that seems to be increasingly a reality, to wall off the Social Security taxes for use only for Social Security?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, first off I think it does indicate that there is general agreement on the President's agenda to save Social Security first, reserve the majority of the surplus for strengthening Social Security. I think we have a concern on the particulars that it doesn't have the lockbox provision that the President's proposal has, which is actually transferring bonds into the Social Security trust fund, and will leave open, over the years, the possibility that that commitment may change. So I think it's important that you have this lockbox provision.
I think, secondly, there hasn't been any statement or commitment to Medicare, and using 15 percent of the surplus for Medicare. So I think we believe that there is a consensus building on using the surplus for Social Security, but we need to look at how that money is safeguarded, and secondly, we need to look at how we're going to provide money for Medicare.
Q Joe, when the congressional leadership was here, the President talked about the importance of working together, moving on, being conciliatory. What in his own agenda, his own blueprint, is he willing to give up, to compromise on, to try to get deals with the Republicans?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we're in the part of the process now where the President had laid out his agenda, his budget. That's gone up to the Hill; they're working through some issues. We're going to have some issues that I think we'll find agreement on. There are others that will be more difficult. As Barry told me the last time this question came up, horse trading is a fall sport, not a spring sport. So I think we believe we have a very forward-looking agenda, and we look forward to getting down to working out the details with Congress.
Q It's a year-round sport, isn't it?
Q Joe, what can you tell us about the New York Times article today about bin Laden and the Taliban having had a falling-out?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I can tell you that the Taliban have said in the past that they would clamp down on bin Laden, but we've never seen results of that. We have sent very strong messages to the Taliban -- the question came up this morning about our contacts. Assistant Secretary of State Indefurth has talked directly to them and has given a very stern message, which is as long as they harbor known terrorists they are not welcome in the international community. But as far as what we know about his whereabouts and the situation, those are intelligence matters which I can't comment on.
Q With the Republican plan on Social Security, you like the substance of it, but you're more concerned with its enforceability, with the fact that it could be --
MR. LOCKHART: We like the idea that Republicans have decided that saving 62 percent of the surplus is a good idea and it's the way to strengthen Social Security, and saving Social Security first is something that all parties can agree on. There is a very serious issue, though, about how you lock up that money and whether that money will remain locked up for 15 years for Social Security. And we look forward to working with them on this issue.
Q Joe, can you give us any kind of update on Senator
Dole's plan to visit Kosovo?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have anything further than I think what was talked about yesterday.
Q Is the trip still on for --
MR. LOCKHART: As far as I know.
Q Will there be other -- Chris Hill or other officials that have been negotiating be involved in that visit? Chris Hill is in the region.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. And the Ambassador has been in the region. We've got the full team that have been there since they left Rambouillet. This is a special effort, given Senator Dole's commitment to this issue, and the importance of what we thought -- the important message he could bring to the Kosovar Albanians about accepting the political settlement.
Q Joe, is there still a plan for this Kosovar Albanian delegation to come here March 15th, or is that just being discussed?
MR. LOCKHART: Still talking about it. You can see I've been on vacation for a couple of days.
Q Does Dole represent the President?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has asked him to go, yes.
Q Any White House reaction on the death of Justice Blackmun?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President will speak to that directly at the top of the 2:00 p.m. event. I think he and the First Lady knew him very well and the President will highlight the tremendous influence he had on issues of justice and equal justice before the law, and will express the sorrow and the thoughts and prayers for the family.
Q Joe, what's the overall message that the President wants to convey in his trip to Central America? Is it merely to dramatize the need for aid, or does it go beyond that point?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the group that was in here this morning talked about it. It goes beyond aid; it goes to issues of trade; it goes to issues of what an important partner the Central American countries are to the United States, particularly at a time when because of a natural disaster, those countries need the help of their partners from both in the region, in the hemisphere and around the world.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:49 P.M. EST