THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:22 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Two quick announcements. On Friday, April 16, the President will travel to Detroit and Boston. In Detroit he will attend a DCCC and DSCC lunch. It is likely we will probably do something else while there. We'll get you more information as the details because available. In Boston, the President will attend a DCCC-DSCC dinner and will return to the White House later that night.
Turning to today, later today, at 3:45 p.m., before the President leaves for Florida, he will make a statement concerning the results of the Medicare Commission. He will restate some of his principles on how to reform Medicare and will indicate that he will be putting forward sometime down the road an alternative proposal for reforming the Medicare system.
Q Why didn't he back Senator Breaux's plan? Senator Breaux is quite upset that the President didn't.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President has laid out some principles for how we reform the Medicare system. In the State of the Union you know that he proposed using 15 percent of the surplus to provide adequate financing, to extend the life of the trust fund until 2020. He also wanted to make sure that there remained a defined benefit without adding excessive costs, that we decrease rather than increase the number of people who are uninsured in this country, particularly at this age, and that we provided something that he believes is essential -- a new prescription drug benefit.
I think there's a lot of important work that's been done, a lot of constructive discussion that's come out of this commission. But based on the statements from the commissioners, it doesn't look like they'll be able to reach a consensus plan. But I think what they put forward, what the chairman and the cochairman have put forward comes up short in a couple of areas, and they are things that the President will seek to address in an alternative.
Those are, one, an overall question of adequate financing. The President believes that by devoting 15 percent of the surplus, that will extend the life of the trust fund. We don't believe looking at what we know that we'll get a real prescription drug benefit from the proposal. There are some questions about the premium support plan and whether that will continue to guarantee a defined benefit. So there are several areas.
I think the President -- and he will tell you later when he talks -- that we'll take a lot of important work out of the commission, but as far as the proposal that was laid down, it's something we believe we can improve and provide an alternative.
Q Did the President tell the commission at the outset or Senator Breaux at the outset what his bottom line was, for instance on the prescription drug benefit?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has been very clear what his principles are and we've laid them out, and I think if you go back and look at the speeches he's made on Medicare, they have been clear.
Q I ask because Senator Breaux, I think -- this is not his expression, but he thinks that he was hung out to dry on this thing. He was sort of put up.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think Senator Breaux and all the commissioners should be congratulated for the important work they've done. I think the President believes that we can provide a different alternative which will meet the principles that he's laid down, reform and modernize Medicare, extend the life of the trust fund, and improve the service, particularly in the area of a prescription drug benefit.
Q But you don't deny that the Senator feels let down? I mean, all you've got to do is read his comments to know.
MR. LOCKHART: Sure, I think -- again, I think we have some areas where we believe an alternative proposal will more directly and -- will provide a better alternative to the one they put down. And from time to time --
Q Did you try to sell the Senator on that?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. And the President -- they've had discussions as recently as yesterday about how to improve and modernize the Medicare proposal. But I think it's important to recognize the important work that Senator Breaux and his colleagues have done, and it's important to build on the year's worth of work that they've done. And the President looks forward to putting forward an alternative proposal, and we'll have a debate on Capitol Hill.
Q Joe, you're committing now that the President will come forward with his own Medicare reform proposal within, what, a couple weeks, a month or something?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I can't tell you what the time frames are. We've been working hard on this. Again, the sequence of this is, the commission was appointed, and we have deferred to them coming forward, with the hope that they'd come forward with a consensus plan that met the President's principles. That doesn't appear like it's going to happen.
But we have been working all along through our own proposals. I think what the President will tell you today is, he will finalize -- over the coming weeks, will finalize the proposal, and then we'll send something up to Capitol Hill that can be debated, as well as -- I'm sure there will be other alternatives.
I think Senator Breaux has indicated that he plans to send, to introduce some kind of legislation, and we'll debate and I think at the end of the day, and hopefully by the end of this year, we will have moved forward with a program that will modernize Medicare and extend the trust fund and meet the principles the President has laid down.
Q Senator Lott made two specific critiques yesterday -- number one, he said that it appeared to Republicans that the White House wants this as an issue for next year's elections, rather than as a solution this year. And number two, he argued that if this Medicare Commission fails, as it apparently is, that will make it harder to do work across the board with Republicans because, like Breaux, Republicans feel like they are shut up on this.
MR. LOCKHART: I would reject both of those criticisms as a way to position and to debate. I think Medicare has been an issue that in the past has been the subject of partisan debate. The President is committed to getting the system reformed because we have to. He is committed to getting it done the right way. That's why he has laid out the plan to devote some of the surplus to it, to make sure the trust fund is extended and there's adequate financing. And I think he's also laid out a plan that recognizes the obvious -- that if we're going to have a 21st century Medicare program we need to have a prescription drug benefit.
So I think those are the principles the President has laid down. This isn't about issues next year, it's about Medicare this year.
Q How did Detroit and Boston suddenly pop up? It wasn't on the week ahead, was it?
MR. LOCKHART: No, that's next month.
Q Joe, you talked about the President and his aides finalizing a Medicare proposal. That means you've been working on one all along.
MR. LOCKHART: We've been working through some of the -- we've been working through the ideas for Medicare. But, obviously, we've been deferring until the commission finishes its work. Finalize may be the wrong way to describe it, but what I want to indicate here is we're not starting from scratch here, it won't be next year before we can tell you what our ideas are. So I think in the coming weeks they'll finish and work through, and one of the things that they really want to do is get a chance to look at everything that the commission's worked through and benefit from the work that's been done over the last year.
Q Why not, if the White House is working on its own proposal, why not go and work with the commission? Clearly, it is easier to have a solution come out of a bipartisan commission than it is for the President to have one proposal and for other people to have other proposals.
MR. LOCKHART: I think the commission has worked very hard over the last year and has, for whatever reason, not been able to come up with a consensus. And I think we need to draw the benefits we can from that process and take it to the next step. And the next step is, proposals will go to the House and the Senate and they'll move forward. I don't think there's a Democrat or Republican that doesn't believe that Medicare needs to be reformed in some way. Everyone agrees on that and we'll have a debate on what's the best way to move forward.
Q What is your estimate of the cost of a prescription drug benefit?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have a specific overall estimate, and I think that's one of the things that they will be working on.
Q But the President says you have to have one.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, and it's --
Q Regardless of the cost.
MR. LOCKHART: No. Obviously, we're going to have to figure out a way to have one that you can pay for. And that's one of the things we'll be working on?
Q Isn't that what the commission did?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you look at what they did, you'll find -- or we believe that what they've done hasn't been sufficient. And we will come forward with ideas that can make it a real prescription drug benefit for people that is affordable and is paid for.
Q Joe, just to follow up on something that Jimmy said -- this commission failed to find a consensus; the Commission on Social Security Reform failed to find a consensus -- they came up with three separate plans. If a bipartisan commission can't do this, why will the White House and a Republican Congress be able to come up with it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think because the public has every right to expect that we find a solution to this, and commissions serve their purpose, and the legislature serves its purpose. We will put forward proposals, and we fully expect that Congress will debate the proposals and will come out with something at the end of the year.
Q But what is it about the interaction between the Congress and the White House that's going to be able to do it more easily than this kind of --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, no one's suggesting that this will be easy. But it's something we have to get done, and we will get done.
Q Doesn't it make it all the more difficult to come up with a consensus if the President advocates expanding the entitlement by including a prescription drug benefit?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think what we're doing is looking at modernizing the program, and recognizing that when this program was put together, prescription drugs were not as pervasive as they are in medical treatment as now. If you look at how this program was set up, it reflects more of the 1960s idea of medicine than the 21st century. So I think you have to look at the whole program, and recognize that medicine, health care, has changed.
Q Joe, to follow on what Mark was just asking, there's been a lot of talk about the fact that the way to reform the entitlements has got to be costs paid; there have to be tough choices made. So far, the only choice the President seems to be making is to offer another goody. Is he going to ask -- which is not a tough choice. Is he going to ask people receiving Medicare to pay more in premiums?
MR. LOCKHART: We will look forward to explaining to you in some detail an alternative proposal, and we'll do that sometime in the near future. But I think it's wrong to describe prescription drugs as some sort of goodie. It's an essential element to comprehensive health care, and an essential element to moving forward with a meaningful Medicare program.
Q Joe, wait a minute. The question was, is there going to be some request of those receiving Medicare to contribute in some way, to pay for these additional --
MR. LOCKHART: Again, I'm not going to try to stand here and lay out a proposal that's down the road, beyond telling you that the President will lay out an alternative proposal and will discuss it at the appropriate time.
Q I'm confused. Why isn't there a cost estimate on the prescription drug benefit? He mentions this in every speech, it seems like.
MR. LOCKHART: Again, it depends on how you structure it and it depends on how you structure the overall reform. So I can't pull out of the air a number for you.
Q What do you think the venue for this 3:45 p.m. --
Q Are you saying the number exists, you just don't know what it is, or that literally, the White House does not have any estimate?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm telling you that it's part of a broader reform of the system and I can't without going into all the different areas of reform tell you the exact cost of it.
Q What's the venue for the 3:45 p.m. remarks?
MR. LOCKHART: Departure behind the Oval.
Q Just the pool, or open press?
MR. LOCKHART: Open, I believe. Open.
Q Did the administration ever expect to get any of this money from African countries paid back that it wants to be written off? Did you ever expect that money back to begin with?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there's some debts that have been, over the years, forgiven, but certainly there are others that we have expectation that we will be paid back on.
Q Joe, you proposed this morning that the IMF sell some of its gold reserves, something that can't be done without congressional approval. Have you been talking to the Hill, and how difficult will that be, given the holdups over IMF funding last year?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm certain that we have engaged the Hill on it, but I'm not really in a position right now to give you a sense of how those discussions go. But we think, as the President talked about this morning, as part of an overall effort to promote growth in some of these poor and indebted countries, it's the right way to go.
Q Joe, on Medicare again, is it the situation that the Medicare train is passing the Social Security train now? Because the President had said save Social Security first; now it sounds like we'll get a detailed Medicare reform plan before we have a detailed Social Security reform plan.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think these are two public policy issues that are moving forward, whether the politicians in Washington decide to deal with them or not. So we're going to continue to work with them, and work with Congress, as we go.
I think where they intertwine is the idea that the President has said, that we need to reserve the surplus to extend Social Security and to extend the Medicare trust fund. And we need to work with Congress to figure out a way to lock in those savings for those two programs. To date, there's been some agreement on the concept with Social Security, but we haven't heard anything from the Republican leadership on the issue of reserving some of the surplus for Medicare, and hopefully, as we move forward in this process, we can draw them out more on that.
Q But the President doesn't have a philosophical objection to actually moving some of the surplus funds into Medicare right away, if that's what needs to be done?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think these are going to run on dual tracks, and there's no reason in the world we can't get both of these done this year, and there's no reason in the world why we'd have to move forward and do something that would violate the save Social Security pledge.
Q Joe, on Los Alamos, more and more Republicans are coming out criticizing the way the administration has handled it. Even Senator Hollings, who's a Democrat, is also quoted some deep concern.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Well, I think what we've heard from Senator Hollings and Senator Helms was basically on the issue of WTO and trying to link that somehow to other issues, and somehow to the labs. I think that would be unfortunate. I think we -- three or four administrations, going back 13 years, we have been negotiating with the Chinese to find some way to bring them, in a commercially viable way, into the WTO, because it's in the interests of America, and it's in the interests of American business.
If you look at the situation now, China enjoys much of the WTO benefits, as far as access to our market, but American business doesn't enjoy access to the Chinese market that the WTO brings. So I think it would be wrong to try to link these issues. Our China policy is based on our national interest, what's in America's interest. And we have made some progress on moving the Chinese toward a viable negotiation, and I think we should continue working that way.
Q Wait a second. Did you just say that China gets benefits -- the WTO benefits without the responsibilities right now?
MR. LOCKHART: They certainly have access to the U.S. market.
Q Why would they want to come in?
MR. LOCKHART: Because they do. I think China has made efforts to join the international trading community, because as an economy develops, there are benefits to China. But this is an issue that fundamentally is in our interest, and I'd say that there are some -- for every one like Senator Helms, there's -- Representative Goss, today, who has been a critic of our China policy in some areas, who said, this is a trade issue and should be dealt with like a trade issue.
Q I'd like to follow up this question. Joe, you said it would be unfortunate to link these, in that one is a trade issue, and the other is what it is. But we link trade with other political issues all the time, with Libya and Iran and Cuba. It sort of raises the question: is there anything Beijing could do that the Clinton administration say, okay, we have to start linking it?
MR. LOCKHART: You're asking me a hypothetical and --
Q Hydrogen bomb secrets -- how's that? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: There are certainly, as you know, because this is a serious subject, there are allegations that those type of transfers happened in the 1980s. We're dealing now in the late 1990s. And we think that there are enormous benefits to the engagement policy we have with China to our national interest as far as security around the world, as far as security in the region whether it's North Korea or India-Pakistan as far as nonproliferation. So we will make judgments based on what we believe is our national interest, and what is in our national interest, and we think it is in our national interest to remain engaged on a wide variety, including trade.
Q How about a non-hypothetical question? What price does China pay for spying on the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: We have very strict export controls --
Q That's it?
MR. LOCKHART: We have very -- let me finish -- we have very strict export controls on what we can sell to them, what technology is available to them, and we will remain -- have been and will remain very vigilant to countries like China and other countries around the world who seek to, by whatever means, get access to secrets here or to technology. But I think it would be wrong to say that we would have no relationship with any country around the world who seeks to do this because -- and I think it would be naive.
Q I'm not saying no relationship, I'm just asking you, what does the Clinton administration do to punish China for spying on the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, there is an ongoing investigation now to what happened here in the 1980s. As far as how we deal with this on a daily basis, we do it through strong controls of what gets exported. And that includes many countries beyond China.
Q Is the Shanghai Communique still the cornerstone of our China policy -- is there one China?
MR. LOCKHART: There has been no change as far as I know.
Q Why are we defending Taiwan then?
Q -- with the steady drumbeat on the China issue, that Republicans see this national security question, targeting China in particular, as a way of making some short-term political gains. And if this is the case, wouldn't it be unconscionable to adventure to sacrifice a 20-year relationship, put it in danger just for the sake of some petty political points that they wish to make?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not sure I could have said that better, but let me try to answer. No, it's a serious one. You know, I think there are legitimate and serious issues. I mean, the Cox Committee made a series of recommendations which we are taking up as far as security at labs. We think that all well-intentioned information and recommendations for increasing the security, whether they be at the labs or anyplace else, should be looked at and taken. But I do think there is an element here of partisan point-scoring that's going on. And we shouldn't put an important relationship at risk to whatever the daily political battle here in Washington is.
Q The Chinese leader who is coming here very shortly says he doesn't think he's going to get a big hug when he comes here and wonders if he's going to get a hostile --
MR. LOCKHART: I'd say he's got good intelligence.
Q -- denies that his country engaged in the theft of nuclear secrets, does the U.S. regard that as a lie?
MR. LOCKHART: I tell you that there is an ongoing investigation of activity in the 1980s, as I told you yesterday. I think, as Mr. Berger has acknowledged, we believe there was some transfer in an unauthorized way of information. We're trying now, many years after the fact, to do an assessment of the damage to that. And that's our position.
Q Joe, if you already announced this, forgive me, but have you made a decision on what you're going to do in Geneva about the human rights --
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Last year, when it came up before, you agreed not to push for it because China had said it was going to sign this convention. Instead China went ahead and arrested dissidents and a whole lot of things that are clearly --
MR. LOCKHART: I know that there certainly are policies on promoting human rights in China -- there are a number
of ways to do that. We are currently looking at Geneva as one of the contexts of a way of doing that.
Q I guess what I'm asking in relation to this other matter, some of this, whether or not China joins the WTO or does other things, is just a matter of trust, right -- they say they're going to do certain things as part of an international convention and you have to believe that they actually will do them.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, if you look at the WTO, they have to do a number of things in order to enter as far as it being viable commercially. And then the WTO has a strict set of rules. And there are a number of countries -- I mean, we're in a dispute right now with probably our oldest ally, members of the European Union, and we will find a way to litigate this. It doesn't mean we don't trust them. But this is why you have international trading organizations, this is why you have rules.
Q What are you doing to keep the Chinese from firing missiles at Taiwan?
Q Missile defense again.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm sorry, in what sense.
Q Easing tensions in the Taiwan Straits.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, let me answer it in a broad way, which is you ask -- or those have asked, what have we gotten out of engagement with China? Well, one of the things we've gotten out of engagement with China is the lessening of tensions in the Taiwan Straits. And that is something that is very real and is very tangible.
Q Can we withdraw the 7th Fleet then?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to announce that today.
Q If the tensions are lessening, why are we proposing a missile defense?
Q Joe, going back to the Africa issue earlier, did the President's statement that we cannot afford a house divided refer to some administration officials' concerns that Reverend Jesse Jackson allegedly playing both sides of the fence with the President's Africa trade bill versus his son's Africa trade bill?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware that he was alluding to that.
Q Is he aware of some of the administration's concerns that Reverend Jackson is supporting his son now?
MR. LOCKHART: I know he's aware of the state of play of the bill, but as far as the particular question, I don't know.
Q Following up on that, one of the points the President also made in his speech was there is no time to waste in terms of helping Africa. In light of that, do you have any time frame for submitting legislation necessary to get the bill of sales for the IMF going?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me check on that for you.
Q The EU Commission resigned in toto this morning -- any reaction?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the resignations should be viewed as an internal matter for the EU. I think we're confident that they will have reorganized in a short period, and look forward to meeting with them later this year for our annual -- for our biannual summit.
Q Any spillover in the trade talks --
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Is the President aware of the almost daily arrests in New York City by activists who are protesting the shooting of the unarmed individual? Yesterday, Congressman Rangel, among others, was arrested.
MR. LOCKHART: I think he's aware of that. I think if you look at his radio address from Saturday, you will see that there are some steps that the President outlined that we can take to better train police officers around this country without specific reference to New York, make sure that police activity is in accordance and it is non-excessive.
Q But my question was about a specific reference to New York.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, he's aware.
Q And what is his view of this arrest?
MR. LOCKHART: There is an ongoing investigation and I don't think the President wants to prejudge the result of that investigation.
Q Joe, this has been going on for a long time, this police brutality against minorities. Does it stop here from this radio address? I mean, all this -- the policy initiatives and things that he wants to do -- is this it?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President will speak out from time to time on his plans as far as how we fight crime in this country. I think he said in the State of the Union that he would be talking about a new initiative on crime, but he did take some time on Saturday to talk about a particular part of this, which is making sure we're training police officers in the best way we can.
Q Back on Medicare, Senator Breaux tried many times to get the President to try to influence the commission's work in some way. Was the President reluctant to do that because he was working on his own Medicare plan?
MR. LOCKHART: The President was reluctant to do that because one of the reasons you have an independent commission is so that they can be independent. Everyone appointed people to it. You have the best people, in the view of those who appointed, and the President thought it was important to let them go off and do their work.
Q But Breaux and the President had many such conversations about this, and was Breaux just continually beating his head against the wall, or was there some indication that the President might have --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President's view has been and remains that this commission was independent and we should allow them to do their work in an independent way and wait for their results.
Q Just relatedly, I mean, does it undermine the commission's work at all for the President to be producing his own Medicare plan at the same time that they're working on one because it might make his appointees reluctant to support any kind of compromise?
MR. LOCKHART: There's no intention -- I think if the commission -- that would obviously, if sometime today they came to some conclusion that they could reach a consensus on something, that would be a very positive development if it met the President's principles. I'm making my statements and I think the President will based on Senator Breaux's comments that the committee will not reach a consensus -- commission, excuse me.
Q Did the President ever tell Senator Breaux, I will not support this and I will put forth my own proposal unless you come up with a universal drug benefit?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has made clear over the last year what his principles are. He looked forward to the commission coming up with something that they could support and that met the principles. And it appears that they will not reach consensus, but that doesn't mean we're at the end of the road here. We're just -- we will continue the work because the work needs to be done.
Q The commission should be independent as long as it agrees with him.
MR. LOCKHART: Let's let Jim finish.
Q We talked back and forth here on a number of occasions about the notion of a drug benefit, and it was always something that the President thought that we needed to do at some point down the road. He never said to the commission if you don't do this, I'm going to walk away from you and send up my own proposal.
MR. LOCKHART: I think if you look at the President's State of the Union Address, you'll know how important a drug benefit was to his plan, and even before.
Q But just one more thing, Sam, then I'll --
Q Does the President -- I mean, I know you're looking for good things to say about the commission's work. But basically you're saying the President rejects the entirety of their efforts.
MR. LOCKHART: No, I do not. I say that the President believes that there is a lot of important work that's been done here. There's a lot of good things here, but there are some areas where the proposal that's on the table does not meet the principles the President laid down.
Q Will he include something in his own proposal from the commission's work?
MR. LOCKHART: We're going to take a look, we're going to take a look at what they've done, and I'm certain that a lot of the work they've done will be incorporated in a proposal to put forward.
Q Is he able to say today that, I accept the higher eligibility age, or any of the things that are in that plan?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think we're going to work to put together a plan that we think builds on what the commission has done, but also meets the principles the President's laid down, and we'll do that.
Q You've said more than once today that the President wanted the commission to be independent. His commission to be independent. But you've made it clear that that means he wants them to agree with him, and if they don't, then that's something else.
MR. LOCKHART: No. That's a very simplistic way to look at it.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me try a different way, which is, the commission went off, in an independent way, to try to come up with a consensus on what they believed. The President had some principles. That doesn't mean that the President would embrace -- even if all 17 commissioners supported a particular plan -- if the President didn't believe it met the principles that he thinks is the best way to move and to modernize the Medicare program, there's no reason to believe he'd accept it.
Q Then why doesn't he just write his own bill to begin with?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President and Congress felt, when they made this decision, now, a year and a half or so ago, that it was important to have the commission to look at this in an independent way, and to work through a lot of these issues. And we will all benefit, when we get to a final plan, from the work they've done. But as far as we can tell, they have not been able to reach a consensus, and --
Q How are you going to --
MR. LOCKHART: -- because they've done a lot of important work, and we're going to use what they've done.
MR. LOCKHART: No. We think that the proposal that's on the table doesn't meet all of the principles, but there's important elements in it.
Q Joe, the President in the past has embraced legislation on campaign finance reform, patients' bill of rights, and said, it's a good start, but it needs work -- embracing it to try to give it some momentum. Is the commission's work so flawed that he wouldn't give them one vote to at least get this started and give it momentum?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that there are a number of fundamental principles that the President has laid down that are not met here, that it's preferable to develop an alternative proposal and to try to work that through Congress.
Q Could you come up with one example of what the commission did that the President could embrace?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'll talk a little about the work. They've done a lot of work on the whole idea of premium support, and now -- I doubt that, to the extent that we put out a proposal, that we will take what they've done and just sort of toss it in. But they've worked through a number of issues. We have some differences there on how those work. But it's important that that work has been done, and we can learn from that as we move forward.
Q So you think that the President embraces the philosophy of having --
MR. LOCKHART: No. He embraces the philosophy of adding competition into, as a way of modernizing the --
Q Okay, but he doesn't embrace the philosophy of premium supports --
MR. LOCKHART: We've certainly said that we'd be open to some kind of premium support, but it depends on the details. But I'm talking about the work that's been done since this commission started.
Q Joe, back to the China spy thing for a sec. Senator Warner sort of pointedly left out the White House's handling of this matter when he applauded the work that Secretary Richardson has done since he became Energy Secretary. In addition to conducting the criminal investigation, is there any internal investigation being done here, as to how this matter was handled once it first came to your attention?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's a review going on, a damage assessment, at the CIA. I don't know of any other. We certainly have the prospect of oversight going on from Capitol Hill.
Q But you're not conducting any sort of internal examination as to, did we handle this the right way?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think what we're going to do is to work with Congress as they look at their oversight responsibilities, and work with Congress as we look at if there's anything more we can do to increase the security at laboratories.
Q But you have no doubt that you did handle it the right way?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we are always open to those who can make recommendations on how we can more adequately or more efficiently secure -- whether it's the government laboratories or anything else. But we believe when the information was brought to our attention, we moved quickly to address the vulnerabilities at the labs. We've done a number of steps which we've laid out to you before, and have addressed those problems.
Q Joe, back on Medicare, two questions. Is the President going to -- has he talked to Breaux today, or does he plan to?
MR. LOCKHART: No. He talked to him yesterday.
Q Okay. And what effect, if any, does the White House expect his statement at 3:45 p.m., coming hours before -- less than a couple hours before the final meeting of the commission? Does the White House have any expectation?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we don't have an expectation that it'll move the commission. Senator Breaux was clear on that yesterday. He said that he cannot reach a consensus. And I think it's important that we don't lose the momentum here to find some solution. So it's important to lay down the prospect that there will be alternatives.
There will be one from here that meets the President's -- the principles that the President laid down. I'm certain that there will be others. Senator Breaux has indicated that he may do legislation; there are others who will do legislation. And then we will have a debate, in the House and the Senate, on how we best can reform Medicare.
Q What momentum?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think that we are further along in this debate on how to restructure Medicare than we were when the commission started. And we need to make sure -- this is something that, if we do nothing, the problem gets worse and harder to fix every year. It is not that far into the future that the Medicare trust fund becomes insolvent, and the time is now to fix it.
Q But it's clear from the tone of this briefing, from what Senator Breaux said, from what the Republicans are saying, that as this breaks up, the finger-pointing has started already, and you're getting into an acrimonious political debate. Is there anything the President could do --
MR. LOCKHART: You know what, John, it's not clear from this briefing. It's clear from this briefing that we think the commission has done important work. But, unfortunately, they couldn't reach a consensus on how to move forward. We will put some ideas forward in the near future; I'm certain that others will put ideas and then we'll have an honest debate. I don't see where the finger-pointing is coming from.
Q -- in trying to extend their mandate, bring them here, trying to figure that --
MR. LOCKHART: I think Senator Breaux addressed that yesterday. They've done their best and they've done good work. They did not reach consensus, but that doesn't mean the problem goes away. We have to continue to work on it.
Q Tomorrow -- could you talk about any substantive meetings the President might be having about Northern Ireland and what you expect to come out of them? Apparently, there is some sense in the Irish press that there's a breakthrough just around the corner.
MR. LOCKHART: That, I can't address, because I don't know. But as far as his meetings, he'll do the annual Speakers' Lunch at around noon. He'll come back here and have a bilateral meeting with the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. He'll then do the -- I've got it in my head in order, so I'm afraid I'll forget it. He will then do the annual shamrock event, and then he will meet before going to the reception here at the White House separately with the three leaders, Mr. Trimble, Mr. Mallon and Mr. Adams.
Q That's something he does as -- that's a traditional schedule. There's nothing special about this. He's not bringing any new initiative to try to --
MR. LOCKHART: There are important issues that remain to be resolved, and the President will -- looks forward to dealing directly with each of the leaders on them.
Q Joe, when is the President expected to get the completed draft of the race --
MR. LOCKHART: I think that's sometime -- I believe it's sometime in the next month or so, but let me check on it.
Q No, when will he get it?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. Obviously, it will be sometime soon, but let me check on the status of that.
Q Joe you said there were lapses of security at the Energy Department. In light of all this, isn't anyone there going to be held accountable for this or --
MR. LOCKHART: I think we went through a very serious and rigorous interagency process to look at the vulnerabilities at the lab when this was brought to our attention in 1997. We have taken a series of steps to address those. Whether it's bringing in and now, I guess, quadrupling the counterintelligence budget, there strengthening the controls, so I think our focus is on addressing the vulnerabilities and fixing the problems.
Q Joe, 21 oil executives are going to be coming to the White House this afternoon to ask for some forms of relief. Can you give us any idea of what that relief will be?
MR. LOCKHART: As the President has said in the past, we have a very strong and vibrant economy broadly. There are some pockets of communities, industries that have not shared in the economic expansion. I think oil and gas is one of those areas. For our part, there is an industry group that asked to come in and talk to the Chief of Staff here about that and we want to listen to their concerns, hear them out and see what we can do.
Q But you don't want to see the price of energy go up, do you?
MR. LOCKHART: See what we can do to address their problems. But I don't have -- we don't have a specific remedy to offer them today.
Q -- tax breaks for the oil industry?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me say this -- we're going to listen to their ideas and engage in a discussion with them, but I don't have any specifics today.
Q Isn't it a good thing for the U.S. economy and for people in this country to have the price of energy low, as it is today?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, but there is also some reason in our national interest to keep a vibrant domestic oil and gas industry, so these are things that you weigh against each other.
Q Is the debate on steel and the way that's played out over the last couple of months offer any kind of a road map to anywhere we might go with oil and gas?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that you can really compare those two industries. I think we're looking forward to hearing them out, seeing what they have to say and maybe we can continue this discussion at another time.
Q Joe, you did not discard the possibility of a press conference.
MR. LOCKHART: I did not. I did not announce one, either.
Q Either. Right.
Q Are you getting closer to one?
MR. LOCKHART: We're always getting closer to one.
Q Is there a possibility of a press conference this week?
MR. LOCKHART: There's always a possibility.
Q Well, is there always one this week -- really? (Laughter.) When do you think --
MR. LOCKHART: I'll announce it when I can announce it.
Q Just say yes. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Can I use yes and no for all your questions?
Q Terry's got a question.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, Terry's got a question.
Q Is this a breakthrough in North Korea?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think as Mr. Rubin over at the State Department made the announcement before I came out, but we've been pressing this issue now for sometime as far as the suspected nuclear site and we are pleased that the North Koreans will now allow for an inspection regime.
Q No quid pro quo?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q First access isn't scheduled until the middle of May. What's stopping North Korea from dismantling anything that's suspect?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me leave the detailed questions to the State Department, because I think they were answering those questions as I was coming out, so --
Q What prompted this --
MR. LOCKHART: There have been ongoing talks over the last, what, six months -- the North Korea talks over the past six months, intensive talks.
Q What happened to the demand for $300 million?
MR. LOCKHART: It obviously wasn't provided for.
Q -- big excavation we're talking about, right?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, just we spent a good bit of time when we were in Korea talking about this.
Q Do you have anything new to say on Kosovo?
MR. LOCKHART: What's the question?
Q If you have nothing new to say --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, thank you.
Q Will do Central America next.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:05 P.M. EST