THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:25 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Hello, everybody. Let me read a brief statement from the President. "I am pleased that our NATO Alliance has selected British Defense Secretary George Robinson to be NATO's next Secretary General. George Robinson is an extremely talented and dedicated public servant. He has made a tremendous contribution to the United Kingdom's effort to modernize its military forces. He displayed extraordinary leadership during the Kosovo conflict and has continued to lead in an effort to restore stability there. I look forward to working with him as he guides NATO into a new century.
"Secretary General Solana has done a superb job steering NATO through the conflict in the Balkans, ushering in three new members to the Alliance, reaching out to the security partners across Europe and meeting vital challenges. I look forward to continuing to work with him in his new role at the European Union."
Q How can the President be surprised that General Clark was hurt at being removed? I know he's gone over some of this ground, but isn't it --
MR. LOCKHART: I've gone over the ground and I think the President in Sarajevo spoke directly to that issue. I don't have anything to add.
Q Joe, was there discussion at the White House for the First Lady to come out today and clarify her statements publicly, as she did, on the Talk Magazine article?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not that I'm aware of. I know that she's in New York doing more of the listening sessions, and I expect that the New York media or the national media traveling with her would have questions. But I certainly didn't participate in any discussions on that.
Q Is there any comment on the new book that's out?
MR. LOCKHART: On the new book? I don't have any. Listen, I think most of the people in this room have made up their mind on the main source of that book and I'll leave it to others to talk about that.
Q She and the President read from virtually the same page today. Was there some discussion between the two of them that, we should clear this up, we should give a little bit more information to disabuse people of certain notions they might have?
MR. LOCKHART: If there are strategy sessions that are going on on this I'm not part of them. And I'm certain that the President and the First Lady are speaking and this subject has come up, but I'm not aware of any coordination.
Q Joe, the President has said for years that there were rough spots in his childhood, but did he have any objection to the characterization -- tell it as abuse?
MR. LOCKHART: I'd refer you to my transcript on Monday, which was complete on this subject.
That seemed to work. (Laughter.)
Q Only for now.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay. Re-loading. (Laughter.) Sorry, there was a question there some place.
Q Joe, on the Arkansas trip coming up, what is this Helena -- he's going to Helena on Saturday morning?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. He will go and meet with some community leaders in this -- I think this is a delta town -- and talk about some of the things that are on their minds. So I think he'll also use it as an opportunity to talk about some of the issues and themes that you heard on the new market tour, about trying to bring some capital to areas that haven't fully participated in the economic boom that we've experienced over the last seven years in this country.
Q For the Les Kinsolving moment of the day, you might not realize this, but the President is actually the commander --
MR. LOCKHART: Is there something in the water in Baltimore? (Laughter.)
Q Must be.
MR. LOCKHART: Sorry, April.
Q The President is actually the commander in chief of the Boy Scouts of America. So I was wondering if the President had any comment on the New Jersey ruling today that --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't -- I'm certainly not, and I don't think the President is familiar with the actual case there. I think the President has made clear in general that he opposes discrimination, whether it's based on race, gender, sexual orientation. But he has not indicated to me, nor have I heard any place in the administration any specific comments or reaction to that state case.
Q Unless it's in the Armed Services.
MR. LOCKHART: We're talking about the particular Boy Scouts. On the Pentagon, the policy there is well known.
Q Joe, the White House criticism of the Republicans for spending cuts, are you saying that essentially you're characterizing as spending cuts that would be necessary -- aren't those the same thing as the spending caps that are now in place? You roundly criticize Republicans for 20, 30, 40 percent spending cuts that would be necessary under their plan. Isn't that what the budget caps call for?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think as we -- if you look at our budget, we've looked at getting Social Security and Medicare taken care of and extending the solvency and strengthening the programs. And, as the President has said, doing that first, in the first things first mantra.
If you look out into the future we've looked to spend beyond the caps to make investments. But you're talking about, overall, continuing the trend of trying to efficiencies in government and trying to make sure that tax dollars are used properly and we spend and we invest in the priorities and stop spending money in areas that are not priorities.
Q Are you willing to concede that if the caps were kept in place, as they now are, you could never realize a surplus without cutting as much as perhaps Senator Byrd suggested, which is equal to the entire Republican tax cut, $790 billion?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you're looking at -- if you look at our entire program which we've laid out, you're looking at going out and using 1999 dollars. You are looking at some cuts here. You're looking at reducing by somewhere around 10 to 12 percent in real dollar terms.
But the difference here is we've put all the numbers out and we've filled in all the blanks and said, here's what you're going to have to do. The Republicans, on the other hand, have said, well, we can do all these things -- we're just not going to tell you how we're going to do it, we don't really have a Medicare plan, we don't extend the solvency for Social Security or Medicare; we can do the tax cut -- and if they even come to the level that the President has proposed on defense spending, you are looking at -- if you add the numbers up and you don't want to go into a deficit, you're looking at a 50 percent across the board cut in domestic spending.
There's nobody in town who actually believes that anyone would even consider that. You're not going to -- no one can conceive of members of Congress sitting there and looking at the defense budget and saying, well, we'll keep the Navy, but we'll get rid of the Air Force. It's just not going to happen. Which indicates it's -- you know, David Broder, who has been quite aggressive in holding our feet to the fire over the last seven years on all sorts of issues, wrote today, calling the Republican tax plan a charade. Let me read -- he said, It is a charade. Every dollar of `emergency' spending comes right out of the projected surpluses the Republicans claim will be used to pay for their tax cut.
He cites David Rogers, who has done reports for the Wall Street Journal, who knows the appropriations process as well as any reporter on Capitol Hill -- properly labeled it for what it is, keeping a double set of books. And he goes on to say, the rest of the press needs to be as blunt and put an end to this pretense.
And that's what it is. It's a statement -- they may believe it's a good political strategy -- maybe they're right. But the bottom line is the numbers don't add up, it doesn't follow arithmetic, it's not a straightforward attempt to deal with these issues.
Q I'm just trying to make sure that we understood what you were saying about Republican spending cuts. You're just saying that if they stick with the spending caps, then you would wind up with 50 percent cuts, not that they're going above and beyond that?
MR. LOCKHART: No. If they, adding their numbers up and what they've said -- that they'll put aside two-thirds for Social Security, they'll spend all the money that they're talking about spending and they'll give this $800 billion tax cut -- then if you want to add the numbers up at the end, you're looking at up to 50 percent cuts in discretionary.
Q Because you'll have no money to add back in to go over the current caps?
MR. LOCKHART: Or you'll run a deficit.
Q But, Joe, that's based on a budget agreement that you signed in 1997. Does the President now regret signing that budget deal that has that kind of strict spending limit?
MR. LOCKHART: No, the President has put forward a budget which adequately addresses this and which does not include an exploding $800 billion --
Q But the President's numbers don't necessarily add up, either, particularly since he's projecting them out over 15 years of surpluses.
MR. LOCKHART: You know, it's all the more reason then that we take the approach the President takes, which is pay down the debt, do Social Security and Medicare, put these aside and fix -- and try to find the appropriate level that you can afford of a tax cut, which the President has done.
Q Joe, doesn't the President's budget and his plan to eliminate the debt assume that the caps will stay in place in perpetuity or at least for the next 10 or 15 years?
MR. LOCKHART: No. No, after FY 2000 there are provisions for --
MR. SIEWERT: There's targeted changes in --
MR. LOCKHART: So, no. And that's all in the budget. I mean, that's been out since February.
Q Since you are basing this all on projected budget surpluses, wouldn't the appropriate level of tax cuts be no tax cuts and, then, just as he made the argument today, use debt reduction --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President and the President's National Economic Advisor, Mr. Sperling, have made the point directly, which is, if given a choice between an exploding tax cut we can't afford and just paying down the debt, paying down the debt is a better policy for all Americans. But we think that's a false choice. We think you can, by putting aside -- by paying down the debt, putting aside savings for Social Security and Medicare, you can do a targeted tax cut that deals with long-term care, child care, retirement savings. You can provide a tax cut that we can afford.
Q Joe, the offsets -- I mean, the President makes his budget work by having offsets, by raising tobacco taxes, by closing some loopholes. Is anybody still out there trying to push these things? Is anybody trying to come up with the offsets that will --
MR. LOCKHART: There are some offsets -- raising tobacco taxes is part of our health care policy. But there are other -- I think the difference is between $250 and $320 in our budget, which is a significant, but not an overly large, part of the package. We're continuing to push those as part of the budget, as part of the tax cut plan. Maybe once the Republicans have had their time to make their statement -- even though they know the numbers don't add up and if they can get these things out of their respective Houses, we'll have a more reasonable conversation.
Q Do you think there are any political risks for the President in vetoing a big tax cut?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the public is sophisticated enough to understand that we have a seven year record here. And people understand when they put the check in the mail every month to pay their mortgage that they're paying less now than they did seven years ago. When they put the check in the mail to pay their car loan, when they look at their student loans, they understand that there are real and identifiable benefits to following a policy of fiscal discipline, even if they're not one of the 19 million Americans who got a new job -- if they're people who always had a job.
So I think people understand that there is a real benefit to the government following what any family would do, as far as managing their own budget, paying off their debt first. And I think the public also wants the certainty that we don't squander this opportunity to take care of Social Security and Medicare, which I think the public is very concerned about.
Others will handicap the risks of what the President is going to do, but he's going to do it because it's the right thing for the American public.
Q Joe, if both you and the Republicans are saying no tax cut is better than their tax cut, how is there going to be a tax cut this year?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's certainly our hope that after whatever it is they get accomplished this week, Congress will go home and they'll have a chance to spend a month listening to their constituents. And as I just articulated, I think the public believes -- and is where the President is -- that we ought to get first things done first. As the President said today, we can figure out how to pay the mortgage and the college costs first, and then we can look at the vacation costs, and not the other way around.
Q Joe, the Vice President has put out his own tax plan. If and when the White House sits down with the Republicans to see if you can flesh out a compromised package, which is the White House's package? Is it the President's plan or is it the Vice President's plan?
MR. LOCKHART: The White House -- the package is the package the President sent up. As the Vice President will continue to do, he is laying out ideas where he will want to take the country when he assumes office in 2001. He put out some ideas that are consistent with the President's approach to budget and taxes, build on the change. But there should be no doubt that the President's budget is up there. We will work with any Democrat, any Republican who comes forward with other ideas for how you structure the tax cut; but the tax cut, as a matter of simple arithmetic, has to be something you can pay for.
Q Joe, are any of Gore's plans in the President's plan that he's submitting? And, if they are, could you --
MR. LOCKHART: From which?
Q From Gore's.
MR. LOCKHART: I think primarily he continues the President's approach to targeted tax cuts. There is a particular -- he has a new idea about college tuition, which I think the President sees an enormous benefit to, and that's something that is -- I think will be part of the agenda and part of what he runs on.
Q I'm talking about the President's plans --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not sure I know what you mean.
Q Did Gore help formulate any of the President's plan?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, sure. The Vice President has been an important partner on economic, budget and taxes issues. So there's certainly a lot of impute from the Vice President on that.
Q Does the administration know anything about a London report, newspaper report, that the Saudis are trying to get nuclear weapons?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me see what I've got. I don't have anything specific on the report, but I will say that Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and we believe that Saudi Arabia will continue to fully live up to its treaty commitments.
Q What's the construction going on outside?
MR. LOCKHART: Utility work.
Q What does that mean, more specifically? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it means repair and construction and noise on utilities.
Q Are these listening devices and other -- (laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: No, we had those a couple of years ago, and it was really boring. (Laughter.) We discontinued that.
Q Is it a new taping system?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, that must be it. Somebody is going to write -- there is going to be a story within two hours on the taping system and I'm going to spend two days on this. (Laughter.)
Q Does the President foresee compromising the budget, or does he think there's a possibility of a government shut down?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President addressed that directly today. I think he believes that when everybody puts all of their plan on the table and the numbers are clear, that the kind of tax cut, the range that is the only one where it adds up and that we can make some progress. Because I don't think anyone wants to leave town at the end of the year having taken a pass on Social Security and Medicare and having taken a pass on giving a tax cut.
Q But are there contingency plans for the possibility of another government shut down?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, no, there's two different issues here. I think we will get through the process here. If we can't come to an agreement on taxes, we'll continue paying down the debt -- which the President also addressed directly today -- and the value of that. But there's nobody on this side, in this branch of the government, who sees any benefit at all in going through the kind of process we did in 1995 and 1996.
Q No benefit? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: No benefit.
Q Oh, come on, Joe. (Laughter.)
Q Is he hard and fast on this $300 billion figure or does he have some room to move?
MR. LOCKHART: He's hard and fast on using real numbers and making sure they add up.
Q Is that $300 billion or is it $400 --
MR. LOCKHART: We can't see any way using real numbers and adding them up with a -- in a straightforward way that doesn't rely on gimmicks, that you can get past the $300 number. If somebody has some idea -- I mean, we're not interested in getting a new recipe on cooking the books from the Republican leadership. We're interested in seeing if there are other ideas. We don't think that you can do it. We don't think you can get beyond what the President has proposed and still add up the numbers and still do first things first.
So that's why we have signaled an openness to work with -- there are some Democrats and a handful of Republicans in Congress who have looked at doing something in the same range as the President, but have slightly different priorities. We've signaled that we're willing to work with them and try to find some compromise that deals with the President's priorities and with the priorities they bring forward.
But there isn't any basis for discussions when you're talking about something that's $800 billion or $900 billion.
Q Joe, if there's no agreement on a tax cut now -- even a $250 billion tax cut -- would that be such a bad thing, from the White House point of view?
MR. LOCKHART: I think it would be a missed opportunity. I think the public has a right to once we get first things done to get the kind of tax cut the President has talked about, to get the kind of tax cut -- even there are good ideas that have come from the Hill that are different than the President's.
Ultimately, we will continue to pay down the debt, though. And I think as the President showed today, every American family has benefitted from that and every American family should continue to benefit and we shouldn't return to the kind of economic policy that brought us high inflation, slow growth and high interest rates.
Q Well, doesn't paying down the debt offer voters a kind of a tax cut of a different sort, and so --
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q -- that can be just as --
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. And I think people are benefitting from that. I mean, I think the President talked today about it. And I think if you have, sort of, the average size mortgage, around $100,000, you're paying $2,000 a year less. That comes out of -- when you're looking at your budget as a family, I don't think you worry so much about which category it comes in -- it's money in your pocket, it's important.
And I think what's important -- you know, if you look at what -- and that is also the basis for some of the remarks that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve has made. Which is why he's argued that he doesn't think the time is right now for the tax cut that the Republicans have put forward.
But I think there is an opportunity here and we shouldn't miss it. And we shouldn't miss it because of politics on dealing with Social Security and Medicare, paying down the debt, but also providing, as the President has put forward, a tax cut that helps people -- people who need it the most, on particularly the issue of retirement savings.
Q Does the White House expect any Republican opposition to the Treasury buy back of bonds?
MR. LOCKHART: I can't imagine there would be any opposition to sensible economic policy. Nothing surprises me, ultimately, but I just can't imagine that anyone would oppose that.
Q Joe, you indicated that you don't particularly like the Republican proposal to provide emergency spending, some $7 billion emergency spending for farmers. But could the President actually veto that, even if you don't like the way it's structured? I mean, how could you reject --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to play the hypothetical game here. I think in our last couple sessions I've indicated where the President is on this. We've made our views clear to the Congress and we'll hope that they'll send us something we can sign.
Q You were saying that you wanted to change the overall farm law before you considered any sort of emergency related --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, concurrently, is what I said.
Q Okay. Are you, in fact, working on a new farm bill?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Secretary Glickman was on the Hill yesterday. Look at his testimony. He had a number of ideas about how to reform some of the worst provisions of Freedom of Farm -- make it more flexible, restore some of his power as the Secretary of Agriculture to deal with the problems that farmers face.
Q And you're going to submit a bill to that effect?
MR. LOCKHART: No. We have a bill that we put in earlier this year that goes to Freedom to Farm. There was a hearing on it last week. There was recently a hearing, it's moving forward. We just don't think fundamentally that you ought to have two separate debates on this. This ought to be all one debate, and we think -- we obviously believe that the Democratic approach, as they've laid out, does a better of job of addressing some of the deficiencies in Freedom to Farm, but we think we should take a shot of trying to fix some of these problems for the long-term.
Q So where were Glickman's ideas -- how will Glickman's ideas become part of the legislation?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, in the legislation there are a number of ideas that we put forward last year, and this year, which goes back to 1996. Secretary Glickman has some other ideas which he testified to that we want Congress to move on.
Q It sounds like you're saying that if they accept that reform package, you will sign the supplemental?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get specific because I don't know what the supplemental is yet. It hasn't come down here. It hasn't finished the process there. But what I'm saying is the President is committed to making sure that farmers who are in a real crisis get real help. And we don't believe that continuing to throw money after -- and in the context of the legislation of 1996 without fixes is the right way to go.
Q -- tough supplemental, Joe? Is that a problem?
MR. LOCKHART: Pardon?
Q The Vice President's in favor of the supplemental --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you look at the approach that the Senate Democrats have put together, they have moved away from some of the worst parts of Freedom to Farm, and they've looked at -- they've gone to some of the deficiency payment ideas, which basically gets away from what we think is the rigid structural problems imposed on the Freedom to Farm.
We want to make sure, though, that we get this debate done and we get it done in the most fiscally responsible way we can, and that we get and deal with some of these structural issues. I think the Vice President raised those yesterday. The President agrees with those and so did some of the Senate Democrats.
Q Do you have any comment on a bill that passed yesterday on Internet sales of liquor?
MR. LOCKHART: The administration has not taken a specific view on that legislation yet. I can say generally we are -- we have some reluctance on imposing new regulations on Internet commerce. I think if you remember the process that Mr. Magaziner led and the product of that states quite clearly that we believe this is an important engine of economic growth, and from the federal level, and from all levels, we should be careful about imposing regulatory burdens on it.
Q Joe, you said that when Congress goes home and they start speaking to their constituents, you hope the tax cut issue will move somewhat. When the President is in Martha's Vineyard and then in New York, is he going to find ways to continue making his case? Or will that be substantially downtime?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the vacation will be substantially downtime. I think you'll hear from him on Saturdays at around 10:06 a.m., and that's always an opportunity for us to make our case. But the vast majority of their time will be vacation, rest and relaxation.
Q Joe, why do you think that Republicans might turn around in their view of the tax cuts when --
MR. LOCKHART: Because I'm an optimist.
Q -- no, but when polls are showing that -- like the issue of tax cuts is like number nine on the list -- Social Security, Medicare, addressing those issues are of more importance, as well as education. So why wouldn't the American people actually support debt reduction over any tax cuts?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think because these things are all tied in together. I mean, I think the President has laid this out properly, which is you can't deal with these things separately. You can't do a tax cut first and then figure out your policy from there. I think this is all part of making decisions about how we're going to extend the solvency of Social Security, how we're going to strengthen, extend the solvency of Medicare. What kind of priorities we're going to have as far as financing the government over the next decade, and what kind of tax cut you can provide. And I think that there is a strong feeling in this country that believes that the President has the right approach here.
Q Joe, I didn't get your earlier answer on the Boy Scouts. Does the President believe that a private organization, like the Boy Scouts of America, is entitled to have a discriminatory policy?
MR. LOCKHART: All I know is, in checking this morning, we don't have -- we have not followed the case that was just decided in the New Jersey courts, in a way sufficient to have a position. I think, in general, the President believes -- opposes discrimination, whatever the basis of it is.
Q Does the President ever exercise his authority as Commander in Chief of the Boy Scouts?
MR. LOCKHART: Can I refer that to the Pentagon? (Laugher.) I'm sure Mr. Bacon would love to answer.
Q Do you know if he ever conveyed that point of view to the Boy Scouts?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know --
Q Will you ask?
MR. LOCKHART: -- but I think his views are well known on the subject, so I doubt that there's anybody who doesn't know what they are.
Q Joe, the President's comment on Monday about $100 million for air conditioners and fans for the elderly. Was that the old initiative from a month or two ago or something new?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. There was the first installment of LIHEAP. The second -- and that was Monday. We did an additional installment of LIHEAP money yesterday, about $55 million to deal with.
Q Got one today?
MR. LOCKHART: It's early. No, we don't have another one today.
Q -- the other heat-related initiatives, have you got anything coming up?
MR. LOCKHART: On Monday?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, one of them was that, you know, we had been working very aggressively to try to get additional LIHEAP money freed up, and there's a process that goes through. And we made it available as soon as it was ready.
Q Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Are you done with questions? Because I've got one more thing. One more thing.
Today is a very special day that all White House Press Secretaries have -- at least the ones who have been around in my memory.
Q Fifty years.
MR. LOCKHART: I didn't say 50 years, Helen. I was going to go with 30, but I decided not to get that specific.
Today, of course, is our senior reporter's, here at the White House, birthday. All of you know the great contribution that Helen makes to us here at the White House, as far as keeping us on our toes and keeping us straight and honest. And I know about the contribution she makes to you all, as far as her experience and general knowledge of this place.
So I hope you will all join us for a little birthday celebration, and singing "Happy Birthday" to Helen. (Applause.) Are we doing this in here, are they bringing it out?
MS. THOMAS: The first hundred years are the hardest.
MR. LOCKHART: We can get "The Dating Game" music, but they can't get the cakes out on time. (Laughter.)
MS. THOMAS: Thank you.
("Happy Birthday" was sung.) (Applause.)
MS. THOMAS: Thank you. I'm overwhelmed, and I'll continue to give Joe Lockhart the hardest time I can. (Laughter and applause.)
END 12:55 P.M. EDT