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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release September 16, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JOE LOCKHART

                           The Briefing Room

4:00 P.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: Questions.

Q When with the veto?

MR. LOCKHART: I expect that to be early next week.

Q Not tomorrow?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think as you heard from the President -- excuse me for a second. Could we take this someplace else?

Q Any fanfare?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we've come to a final decision how we'll do it, but I think as you noticed today, the President was on his last words with his voice, so I think we'll put off until at least Monday any signing ceremony.

Q He wants to do it forcefully, then?

MR. LOCKHART: We've got an important -- the tax bill that the Republicans have sent down represents important and critical differences between the Democrats and the Republicans and there are obviously issues that are important to the way we will spend our money, to the way we will invest our money going into the next century. So it is an important moment for the President to articulate the future as he sees it and the problems he has with the Republican plan.

Q Do you think then the possibility of a compromise is dead? And will it become a big -- the tax issue -- become a big campaign --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the President absolutely doesn't believe that there isn't room to provide protection for Social Security, Medicare, pay down the debt and provide a tax cut to the middle class. I think if you look at the Republican tax cut, you'll find in it in roughly the same size as the President's a middle class tax cut, and then a lot of added things that are extra for the wealthiest of Americans that the President doesn't believe is a wise investment of our tax dollars.

So I don't think that there isn't ground for a discussion here; I think there is. I think some of the leadership in the Republican Party have indicated that they want to throw in the towel and start the campaign season. I can't think of an idea that America rejects more. The campaign season is already too long; we shouldn't do anything to lengthen it. The President hasn't given up on this Congress and I don't think the Congress should give up on itself.

Q What are you going to do to bring them back to the table on taxes? They clearly have rejected your approach of doing everything first and then getting to taxes last. What are you going to do to get them to send you some kind of a bill?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we're going to be in a position early next week where the bill that they've sent down will be vetoed. The Senate Finance Committee is moving on Medicare; we're going to work with them on Medicare. And we will continue to make the case that Social Security and Medicare have to come first, but that we can provide tax relief. And if the Republicans take the position of their tax cut or no tax cut at all, I think that's something that is fairly unpalatable.

Q One of the areas where there could be compromise, although it's a very small area, are the extension of the expiring tax provisions -- Gore himself has called for a permanent extension of that in his campaign. Is the White House willing to look at extension of those provisions?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me look into the extension issue. I really haven't focused on that. But we'll look into that and we'll come back to you with a detailed answer.

Q Joe, the invocation of executive privilege which gives the appearance that maybe there was something more than just a reasoned judgment on the merits of the case here.

MR. LOCKHART: I would suggest that you not fall for those who are trying to suggest that appearance. The President has stated very clearly and specifically what went into making that decision. I have answered question after question on it, and as I have said and as the President has said, this is a controversial issue, people have passionate views on both sides, we respect people on both sides of the issue. But there's also a very clear constitutional issue here -- constitutional which is not in doubt, which is not argued by legal experts. It is the President's right to get confidential advice, just as the Congress has a right to internally communicate. And there's nobody here -- I don't stand here each day saying that I want all the internal communications for how they added up their tax bill. There is a clear separation of powers, and I think anyone who looks at the Constitution and understands what it means knows the Congress doesn't have an oversight role in this case.

Q Can you say here absolutely that the politics of New York did not in any way enter into --

MR. LOCKHART: I can say it absolutely and unequivocally that this case was based on the merits as presented by the former Counsel Chuck Ruff, and the politics of New York or anywhere did not come into play.

Q Well, but you've argued in the past -- executive privilege in the past, that the President has a right to get confidential advice. The courts haven't always upheld you. Why, in this case, do you feel that this is --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me read to you from a court decision in 1989: "Congress cannot interfere in any way with the President's power to pardon." This is a clear case.

Now, let's look at what's really going on here. Congress has a role in issues like this. They can express their view. They have done that. Each house has passed a resolution; they have expressed their view clearly. We respect that view.

We're now hearing, and getting subpoenas, from a committee chairman who -- I don't really know what legislative accomplishments he's had in his tenure as chairman. But I can tell you that we've gotten something like 700 subpoenas from him. He has publicly stated that his mission is to get the President. He's described the President in the most unflattering terms that I can imagine. This is about trying to pursue a political agenda, and it's about politics, here.

Q But what the separation of powers is about -- I mean, the Constitution gives you the sole right to grant pardons --

MR. LOCKHART: That's correct.

Q -- but it also gives Congress the right to oversee the Executive Branch.

MR. LOCKHART: But it does not -- but the courts have ruled they have no oversight role in the issue of clemency or pardons. That is as basic --

Q No, no, no -- you just said they can't interfere with the giving of the pardon. But certainly, they can oversee to make sure it wasn't -- he didn't accept money to give the pardon, or something like that.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know, as far as I can tell, there is not a legitimate oversight role here. This is the sole power of the President. Now, if they have evidence that -- you know, that there is something like you suggest, that's something they can pursue. But as far as the internal deliberations of how the President came to the decision, that is protected by the Constitution. And I'd suggest that they know that.

Q Joe, once Clinton, once the President asserts his executive privilege, is there a chance -- and establishes a constitutional principle -- is there a chance he would release some documents voluntarily, just to satisfy public interest?

MR. LOCKHART: Hold on. We have -- we will provide, when all is said and done, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of pages of documents to the committee, that are not directly related to the internal deliberations. But there are some documents that are related to the internal deliberations, and those won't be provided.

Q Joe, even understanding that the President could wake up tomorrow morning and pardon anyone he wants for whatever reason and doesn't have to have any process. But is there any kind of specific White House process that the President goes through, or his staff goes through, such as, you know, would you always talk to the sentencing judges? Would you always talk to the --

MR. LOCKHART: There's a process that the Department of Justice conducts, along with the White House Counsel's Office, for people who request a clemency or a pardon. And you can check with the Counsel's Office on what, how that actually works. But there is a process. These just don't come up ad hoc, or in a random way.

Q Joe, will the people who have been subpoenaed to testify on Tuesday be going to testify? Chairman Burton says he still wants to hear from them, and won't ask about their private consultations with --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there is a long-standing principle enjoyed by, when Republicans are in the White House, and when Democrats run the Congress, and when Republicans run the Congress, and the Democrats are in the White House, that members of the staff here are not compelled to testify. And that precedent will be continued.

Q I'm talking about the Justice Department officials, FBI, Bureau of Prisons --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I can only speak for the people here at the White House.

Q Joe, just on another subject? Do you --

Q One more?

Q -- oh, you want to keep on that way?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I'd love to.

Q U.S. policy is not to negotiate with the terrorists, as long as somebody's involved in bombings and killings. So, any policy change?

MR. LOCKHART: No, no policy change.

Q Should the victims -- should the victims in the FALN crime have been notified, or consulted, before the clemency, or maybe right after the clemency?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that all parties who have a stake in this case made their views known publicly, privately. I think you'll see in the documents that get sent up to the Hill, there are letters from people expressing their view. These were all taken into consideration. And I'll repeat again, this was not an easy decision. This is -- the President has the sole authority to act in a case like this. It is something that he weighed the passionate views of both sides, and reached what he thought was a balanced and just decision.

Q Joe, does the President support the new stripped-down version of McCain-Feingold?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, you know, given the overwhelming support in the country, and the bipartisan support for Shays-Meehan in the House, the President believes that McCain-Feingold should be put to a vote. And --

Q The new one or the old one?

MR. LOCKHART: -- the old version. The President, I think, is as dismayed as many in this country who look at what's wrong with our political system, that a majority, bipartisan majority in the House has voted it through, and a clear bipartisan majority in the Senate supports it, but a small number of Republican members in the leadership are holding it up. So I think it's the President's view that the Republican leadership should do the right thing and let the original bill come up. As far as what Senator McCain and Senator Feingold's legislative strategy is, they're best placed to do that. But the President believes in the full McCain-Feingold.

Q Right, but one of the things about the new McCain-Feingold bill is that it might lose some Democratic, some liberal Democratic, votes. I'm wondering if the original vote is still filibustered and blocked, would he support the streamlined version?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into a hypothetical, only to repeat that the President supports McCain-Feingold. The House supports it. The Senate supports it. The country supports it. And it's incumbent upon Senators Lott and Senators McConnell to explain why they won't bring it up to a vote.

Q Do you think that last night's shooting is going to turn up the pressure on Congress to pass gun control measures? And how optimistic are you that --

MR. LOCKHART: I'll tell you, we are five months from Littleton, and the conferees on the juvenile justice bill have yet to meet. I think the President expressed a view today that, notwithstanding, whatever the facts turn out to be on the case in Texas, it's time to act on protecting children, it's time to act on passing sensible gun control, and the time to wait and to posture is over.

Q What do you think the chances are that some of this is going to get worked out this year?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that, given enough time, the leadership will send the conferees, tell them to get to work, and this legislation will pass.

Q Back to FALN. Did the President consider asking any of the FALN members he freed to cooperate with investigators to try to help solve some of the crimes that were never solved?

MR. LOCKHART: I would put that question to those who are investigating.

Q Are you saying that Burton has made all these statements to get the President?

MR. LOCKHART: I would refer you to his session with The Indianapolis Star on what he believes his mission in Congress is and what his view of the President is.

Q But, Joe, it's not just Dan Burton, though. I mean -- and it's not just Orrin Hatch, for that matter. I mean, there are an awful lot of Democrats who aren't exactly backing the President up on this, and who are also calling for --

MR. LOCKHART: I think, and the President has clearly indicated why he made the decisions and what the reasons for it were. We will provide some documentation to whoever wants to see it; that's available. But as far as the underlying, confidential communications, that is a precedent that we're just not willing to break here.

Q But are those Democrats also engaged in a political game here, like the --

MR. LOCKHART: No, I would look at the committee -- this is coming out from the House and I'd just say we have a lot of history, and I have been up here a number of times on questions of subpoenas and wild goose chases and all sorts of things, and it's not surprising to me that this is where this started.

Q Does the fact that it is Burton who is issuing these subpoenas and your view of him, did that help prompt the decision to --

MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. A clear reading and understanding of the Constitution is what drives this decision. This is not an ambiguous subject. This is not one where the legal community is divided. I mean, you go back to look at the writings of William Rehnquist when he was at the Justice Department, when he talked about the importance of the President being able to get confidential advice and the importance of the principle of separation of powers.

Q What's he doing tomorrow on this weekend?

Q -- report today in which he says that the White House had banking regulators try to drum up support for the Community Reinvestment Act --

MR. LOCKHART: I'd say that there's a germ of truth in the story, but it's a little bit over-blown. Here's what I've been able to find out: there was a meeting here, I think in December of last year, which was a policy, an inter-agency policy meeting on the implementation of CRA. There was no intent or instruction at that meeting for anyone to do anything improper.

I think coming out of that meeting there were some internal instructions within the administration of how best to generate support for continuing the CRA, which we think is a very valuable program. I think there was one particular communication with Treasury that it's my best guess was misinterpreted at OCC and inappropriate contacts* were made.

I think it's incumbent upon us, this is something we take seriously, it's incumbent on us to be clear and we take responsibility for that. And I think it's also incumbent on those in the independent regulatory authorities to work within what are the accepted framework. But there was nothing here intended; there was no effort here from the policy makers at the White House to direct any regulators to do anything.

Q Well, what was the request and how was it misinterpreted?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I know that they had talked to Treasury about what Treasury was doing to talk with bankers. And I think somehow that got to the OCC as a request to them, and that was not a request to them. But, again, this was something that was vague enough that it's something that we need to take responsibility for.

Q Joe, as the President travels to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, now the Prime Minister of India is not coming and the Prime Minister of Pakistan also has canceled his visit -- he was supposed to meet the President in New York and they're supposed to sign CTBT as they promised last year. So what is the future of CTBT --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's a couple levels of your question. There's no meeting I know of, nor was there a promise to sign CTBT by --

MR. LEAVY: They had set a goal last year --

MR. LOCKHART: Anyway, there's no meeting that I know of. I think CTBT, we have our own domestic effort that's going on to get this passed through the Senate. We continue to also press both the governments of India and Pakistan to live up to the requirements, to sign CTBT, which we believe would reduce tensions in the region.

Q So you're saying on the last issue that there was no intention by the White House to use regulators to drum up support or do any kind of research on the CRA --

MR. LOCKHART: Correct. Nor no request. But in defense of the people at the OCC, who were all at the meeting and I think got the same recap of the meeting, it is possible to read that we were looking for them to do that, but that was not our intent and we've certainly made clear that we believe that would be inappropriate and them doing it is inappropriate.

Q When did you do that, when did you make clear that you did not intend that?

MR. LOCKHART: This has all come to my knowledge within the last 12 hours.

Q What's he doing tomorrow? What's he doing about his voice?

MR. LOCKHART: Not talking. When we gave him his schedule for today he reminded us that the only cure for getting his voice back was not speaking and we weren't helping today, so we're going to try to help tomorrow.

Q And you said he would have a public schedule on Monday? I mean, he would conceivably do the veto on Monday?

MR. LOCKHART: It's possible. We just haven't decided.

Q Do you know, what is the President's message this year to the General Assembly?

MR. LOCKHART: I'll get more on that for you tomorrow.

Q Is he in town this weekend?

MR. LOCKHART: I believe so.

Q Joe, Sandy Berger asked Hugh and Tony Rodham to get out of their business dealing in the Republic of Georgia. Has there been any response from the Rodhams that you know of, and does the White House plan to pursue this any further?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think Mr. Berger, when it came to our attention the they were pursuing a business deal that was in the region being misrepresented as somehow reflecting a change in U.S. policy, Mr. Berger had a conversation with the Rodhams and reflected that we were not changing the policy and their dealings were being misrepresented there and suggested that, all things considered, that they should withdraw from this.

As far as what they plan to do, you need to talk to them directly, or to their attorney.

Q Joe, the President today laid out a scenario under which 200 peacekeeping -- 200 American forces would be involved in the peacekeeping mission in East Timor. The Pentagon says it's leaving the door open in case more troops are needed. Is this a recap* that the President has discussed about how high he would be willing to go with U.S. involvement?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President has indicated from the beginning we're talking about hundreds, not thousands. Two hundred is what works as far as the particular and unique capabilities of the U.S. forces and what the Australians, as the leaders of this force, have in mind.

If the situation on the ground changes and there's some incremental change, then that's something we'll have to consider here on a case-by-case basis. But we're really talking in the context of hundreds here.

Q Has the President said no higher than 400, 700?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think it would be wise to put that sort of artificial position on something, other than to say -- and to be clear that this is a support role, this is a overwhelmingly Asian-led force, under the leadership of the Australians. And this is the appropriate force level for the kind of peacekeeping force they've put together.

Q And will the U.S. presence be there for the duration or is there a time limit on that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's no time limit. I can't predict at this point how long they will need to be there. But, clearly, we will have to, as time goes by, make assessments as we do with all of our forces around the world.

Q And, Joe, the Indonesian government continues to demand a presence on East Timor when a peacekeeping force arrives. Given what we have seen in their inability or unwillingness to stop the violence in East Timor in the last few days, is it possible or even prudent to allow them a continued presence on the island?

MR. LOCKHART: My understanding of their position is that their forces will serve as liaisons to the Indonesian government. I think the bulk of their forces will be withdrawn, which is something they announced today. And I think it's important that the peacekeeping force finds a way to work with the Indonesians. But what's important here is what happens on the ground. That's why the peacekeeping force is being sent in. They will restore security, they will do what's necessary to restore security.

Q Do you have a sense of when the U.S. troops then will be on the ground in East Timor?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, they're talking about the peacekeeping force moving in as early as this weekend or Monday. I know the Pentagon did a briefing this afternoon about it, so I think we're probably looking at probably Monday as a target day.

Q If the Americans go in --

MR. LOCKHART: Again, the Pentagon briefed on the logistics of this today, but I understand the American troops will be in the first group.

Q Also on the transportation bill, do you have a position on that? The Senate has decided not to back your position on fuel economy standards. Do you know where things --

MR. LOCKHART: No, let me take a look at that.

Q Joe, are there plans to do a presidential view of hurricane damage anytime soon?

MR. LOCKHART: No plans.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 4:20 P.M. EDT