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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release June 24, 1999
                          PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                            JOE LOCKHART 

The Briefing Room

1:25 P.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: Let me make one scheduling announcement, one addition to tomorrow's schedule. The President, at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, will hold a press conference.

Q Oooh.

MR. LOCKHART: I got someone's attention in the back. (Laughter.)

Q Why? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Because he thinks it's very important to answer the questions that are put to him by the free press. It's important to our democracy, and I got tired of being yelled at by all of you. Not quite in that order.

Q Is there something that he has in mind that he wants to discuss?

MR. LOCKHART: No, we're going to -- he'll probably spend a little bit of time at the top of the press conference reprising the speech he'll give tomorrow, which is a call for action this year to start moving some of the domestic agenda items that he called for in the State of the Union. I think he'll make the point that there's plenty of time left in this year, political calendars and schedules aside, the American public wants the President, the Congress, to get together and get their business done on Social Security and Medicare, the patients' bill of rights, minimum wage, gun control, a host of other issues and it's time to get things done.

Q Joe, he's likely to be criticized as laying down political markers for the coming election. What would be your response to that and what would his be?

MR. LOCKHART: My response would be he laid out these issues in the State of the Union and at the beginning of this year. These are issues that the American public is looking for action on -- again, whether it's Social Security or Medicare or other issues.

The President firmly believes that there is enough time this year to get the business done, and he would much rather have accomplishments for the American people than political slogans.

Q Does he feel that any of his domestic agenda has either derailed or slowed down because of the action in Kosovo?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that much of the attention in Washington over the last several months was focused on Kosovo, and rightly so. It was a very important operation done for very important reasons. So he looks forward to spending some time laying out these issues tomorrow at Georgetown University, and then also taking your questions on it.

I think what is somewhat disappointing is some feeling among some of the Republican leadership that it's time to call off our business, it's time to just score -- to get into the business of scoring political points, and we'll resume in the year 2000. I think that's something that -- the American people are looking for something different, and the President will talk about what he hopes to get done this year.

Q The Democrats are immune from such feelings?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you look at what's going on on the Hill in the last couple days, the Democrats very much want to get a patients' bill of rights, a real patients' bill of rights, onto the floor and debated. It seems like a very small order, something that some 100 million Americans -- impact 100 million Americans, almost every American family. And for whatever reason, we can't have a real debate on it. We can't debate all of the issues; we can only debate the issues that the Republican leadership do not find difficult for them.

So I think the President, for his part, will lay out the things he wants to get done this year, and challenge members of Congress to work with him to get what the American people want done.

Q Joe, which Republicans is it that say they want to call off all business until 2000?

MR. LOCKHART: I think if you look at Social Security, for one, the Majority Leader in the Senate has said he doesn't think we can get this done now because we're deeply into the political season. I think the President disagrees. I think we have an historic opportunity, given the economy, given the surplus that's been generated, to really put Social Security and Medicare on the right track for the next generations, and we ought to take that opportunity now.

Q Joe, on medical matters, does the President or do you have any thoughts on this unionization of doctors?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think the administration has any formal -- will take a formal position on the AMA. I mean, there's already unionized doctors within many of the trade unions currently. Obviously, the President supports the right to organize among professions. So, again, this is a position that the preeminent trade association for doctors is taking. But he, in theory, supports the right to organize. And, again, there is -- it's not unprecedented, there are different doctors who are already organized.

Q Would he be willing to discuss tomorrow his ideas for prescription drug benefits? And did he have any meetings on that today?

MR. LOCKHART: The President met today with his economic team. I think the primary subject was trying to get the Medicare proposal that has been promised for early next week in order. I think -- they worked through a number of issues. The President gave some clear instructions on which way he wants to go. There's probably a little bit more work that has to be done, so I suspect tomorrow, he can talk about the principles that will underpin the program, but the announcement of the actual program will have to wait until next week.

Q Will he have to have a further meeting on that subject with his advisors?

MR. LOCKHART: Not clear. I doubt it, but depending on the additional work that they're going to go back to do, they could need to get together.

Q Joe, does the President believe that flag burning is a constitutionally-protected form of expression and protest?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we've been -- we seem to go down this road every year, so let me just repeat the statement of the administration policy that goes up every year. The President is deeply committed to the protection of the United States flag and will continue to condemn those who show it any form of disrespect. The administration believes, however, that efforts to limit the First Amendment to make a narrow exception for flag desecration are misguided. The Congress should be deeply reluctant to tamper with the First Amendment, which has never been amended since it was adopted more than 200 years ago.

Q So does that mean that flag burning is a constitutionally-protected form of protest in the President's view?

MR. LOCKHART: The President believes that there are other remedies for dealing with this issue. He doesn't believe -- he believes that a constitutional amendment is misguided. And again, he has believed that every year they have brought this up, since they regained the majority in the House.

Q Does he agree with the Supreme Court decision which did say that it was a constitutionally protected --

MR. LOCKHART: He opposes any form of disrespect for the American flag, but doesn't believe that we ought to have a constitutional amendment going after -- trying to amend the First Amendment for this narrow exception.

Q What are the other remedies?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there could be -- if Congress wanted to move something on this, they could propose legislation. I mean, we work on a lot of issues, and don't have to go to a -- we don't have to amend the Constitution.

Q But that would be unconstitutional, would it not?

MR. LOCKHART: They feel strongly about this, they might be able to come up with something that worked within the Constitution and the First Amendment. He believes very strongly, though, in the First Amendment.

Q Does the President have any constitutional remedies in mind?

MR. LOCKHART: No, he doesn't.

Q Joe, is one of the issues that still needs to be worked on with Medicare related to the prescription drug benefit?

MR. LOCKHART: It's certainly one of the issues the President plans to talk about early next week. And I don't intend to give you a day-by-day rundown of how these decisions are going to get made, but it certainly will be part of the plan, as has been indicated.

Q Also on the patients' bill of rights, the Republicans say that what the Democrats are doing is holding up the agriculture spending bill this week, at a time when farmers really need some money, and they think that's wrong. What's your response to that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President has demonstrated his commitment to farm states and farmers , and the real problems they've encountered over the last several years through some of the market conditions and some of the weather conditions.

I think, though, that there is a real need, as the Democrats on the Hill have articulated, for dealing with the patients' bill of rights in a real way and looking at ways to extend benefits to more people to give them remedies, to give them access to specialists. That is not done in the Republican plan. The Republicans do not want to bring up the difficult amendments that will provide for remedies that people really need. And I think the Democrats are moving forward in a way that is demonstrating how serious they are about this issue.

Q Joe, to what extent is this new emphasis -- re-emphasis on domestic issues part of an effort to stave off the effects of, if you will, being a lame duck, especially as Vice President Gore has announced, Bush is out there, and there's such an early emphasis on the campaign?

MR. LOCKHART: I think you can -- there is an emphasis on domestic issues because the President has said from the beginning that he's going to be an activist President until the last day he's here. There's plenty of time let. You know, oddly enough, you've got the calls coming from the party opposite for what we can't do. This President is talking about what we can do and how we have an historic opportunity to take advantage of a strong economy, of a budget surplus. And he's going to keep pushing and keep cajoling and keep pressing until we get some work done.

Q Is it inappropriate for the President to have anything to do with his wife's political -- elective political future, and is that why she's planning to announce her exploratory committee when he's halfway across the country?

MR. LOCKHART: That's a hypothetical question, so let me give a hypothetical answer. I don't think it's inappropriate for the President to help any candidate who's running for elective office that he supports, whether that be in campaigning for, helping to raise funds and any other variety of appropriate ways to help a candidate.

Q Is his wife just any candidate?

MR. LOCKHART: No, but his wife is not a candidate now, so as long as we're doing hypotheticals, I'm going to do it as broadly as I possibly can. (Laughter.)

Q Is this a new policy on hypothetical questions, Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, it's a new one -- I'm going to take all of them from now on. (Laughter.)

Q Good. So, hypothetically, she's going to announce the formation of an exploratory committee on the 7th of July, when he will be somewhere else in the country. Why wouldn't he be there to help her out?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I've just ended my new policy on hypotheticals. (Laughter.) Next.

Q Are you able to talk to us, Joe, about the indications -- there are reports from senior officials a CIA official raised a pink, if not a red flag about the address of the Yugoslav directorate of procurement.

MR. LOCKHART: Let me say what I can. I cannot respond specifically to that report because it involves classified material. But let me repeat that, as the President has said, this clearly was a tragic and unfortunate accident. There's no doubt that serious mistakes were made here. The President has been fully briefed on this. The agency has conducted a serious review of this incident, and they are continuing to review issues of accountability here.

I can tell you that Under Secretary Pickering, when he went to China, briefed the Chinese government and the Chinese people through their media there on what we know and gave them a full accounting of what we know and indicated that we would afford further information as and when it became available.

Q Joe, do you know if Mr. Pickering told him about this pink flag that was raised?

MR. LOCKHART: I cannot discuss the particulars of anything here that's classified, but I can tell you that he briefed the Chinese fully on what we know.

Q Do you take issue with any of the two main reports on it?

MR. LOCKHART: If I took issue with it one way or the other, that would be talking about classified material.

Q Have the Chinese given any indication that despite their continuing unhappiness with this, that they might be willing to start the WTO talks again?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know that I have any particular indication as of today, only that we do think it's in China's interest, it's in the world trading community's interest. And it's our hope that with some time to review this report, absorb this report, recover from the obvious damage that this accident caused, that we'll be able to move forward on that and many other fronts.

Q Does anyone know whether his doubts were investigated? Did anybody walk over and check out --

MR. LOCKHART: I think, clearly, from my three previous comments, you would understand why I couldn't address that question.

Q Joe, on another subject -- the issue of the race book. The President has told his staffers to put it on his schedule, but has he had a concern about the fact that Chris Edley left because of frustration and is he concerned with the fact that there seems to be a tug of war, somewhat, over several issues, especially the accountability in education?

MR. LOCKHART: If he is concerned about that, he has not expressed it to me. He has expressed an interest in getting some time to work on this and getting it right, and I expect that he will be getting some of that time shortly.

Q But, Joe, why now is he concerned about work -- he was supposed to be working on it for a long time.

MR. LOCKHART: He has been, but I think you will understand that the last three months have been -- there have been a number of issues that have taken an extraordinary amount of the President's time. And although he is able to continue working on domestic issues, he will be able to now, with Kosovo providing less of a burden on his schedule, to turn his attention to several issues, including this one.

Q When is the last time he talked to Chris Edley?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no idea.

Q Joe, on that, do you know if the President expects a private publisher to publish that book? Has he sorted that out yet?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know the answer to that. I'll ask. I wasn't even sure that was an issue, but let me find out.

Q Does the President still believe he's going to fulfill his commitment to wire all of the schools to the Internet by the year 2000? The NEA doesn't believe that the President is going to have enough time.

MR. LOCKHART: Who doesn't believe that?

Q The NEA.

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, okay. I think we have made great progress on that front. The President and the Vice President believe that we will meet our commitment. We've gone, in the last year alone, from, I think, 27 percent to 51 percent in the last year. So we expect, particularly with the money that's now available under the E-rate program that was passed, the money will be available, the resources will be available, that we will be able to wire up the schools by 2000.

Q Thank you.

MR. LOCKHART: Need to go back and start thinking about your questions, right? (Laughter.)

END 1:40 P.M. EDT