THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:38 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon. Let me make one announcement. The President tomorrow will go and speak to the IMF/World Bank annual meeting. I expect he'll arrive at the Marriott-Wardman Park Hotel by 1:45 p.m., speak somewhere in the vicinity of 2:00 p.m. He will be introduced there by the Secretary of Treasury, Larry Summers. I expect the speech to focus on the importance of international debt relief, and translating this debt relief into poverty alleviation for the world's poorest countries.
That's it for announcements. Questions?
Q Joe, the President today talked about the American people granting him "unmerited forgiveness." Why does he feel that he doesn't deserve to be forgiven? And secondly, what indication does he have that the American people have forgiven him?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me preempt that and many other questions by saying I have no further insight into what he said. I'll leave you to interpret it.
Q Joe, on the Liberian front, what is the executive order exactly do?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me do a quick check. The decision to grant this extension means that people who were present -- Liberians who were present in the United States as of September 29th, 1999, will not be subject to deportation for one year. So it is just an extension of, I think, what was an 18-month TPS. I think it's 18 months; it's extending for a year.
Q So what happens after that year's time?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, obviously, this is in some way a reflection of what's going on there, so I think we'll have to make an assessment at the end of the year.
Q Joe, not asking for interpretation, but is there anything you can tell us about how often he continues to meet with the ministers? Because he mentioned --
MR. LOCKHART: No. I know from what he said today that he continues to meet with them, but I don't know how often.
Q Joe, on the taxes and the budget, there seems to be movement on the Hill now to attach tax provisions to other related legislation -- minimum wage has a tax provision. Also, the Republicans announced this morning some managed care proposals that would also have tax breaks in them. How do you feel about either of those proposals and that general approach?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think -- take minimum wage. Minimum wage has broad support in both Houses. It has bipartisan support and ought to be taken up on its merits. I think there will be no back door for large, unpaid-for tax cuts. The President wants to do this in a straightforward way that deals with Social Security, Medicare tax relief, education. And despite his efforts to move forward, we continually are met with more gimmicks, more techniques to get around making some tough choices.
So I think minimum wage should stand on its own; the patients' bill of rights certainly should stand on its own, given the amount of support it has among Republicans in both Houses. And we can do middle class tax relief in the context of how we spend the surplus, but we should do it in a straightforward way.
Q Well, some of the tax breaks that they're talking about attaching to the minimum wage aren't large. Are you saying you're against any tax breaks that are attached to the minimum wage bill?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm saying I'm not going to try to forecast what they're going to do. Minimum wage ought to pass because it's the right policy and there is strong support within both parties. As far as tax cuts, if they want to put forward tax cuts they've got to tell us how they're going to pay for them.
Q But other White House officials have said that they would be open to some kind of tax cuts --
MR. LOCKHART: Again, we'll have to see what they are. But if this is a way, as in what I saw this morning in some of the comments, to try to work back in some of the other elements of the tax cut that the President's vetoed, then they've got to come forward in a way that shows us how they'll pay for it.
Q Joe, today Senator Bradley proposed a $65-billion universal health insurance program that would require coverage of all children and offer subsidies to families who couldn't afford it. Does that sound like something the President would like? Would he endorse that?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has been working incrementally to improve health coverage for all Americans to try to get the millions of Americans who are uninsured, particularly children, on the insurance roll. I haven't seen the proposal that former Senator Bradley has put forward, so I can't analyze it or give you the President's analysis of it.
But given the process we're going forward through here, I mean, I think the concern would be how you pay for it in the context of the overall budget. So I haven't seen it, so I don't know.
Q Well, in general, given what the President proposed seven years ago, does it sound like a good idea?
MR. LOCKHART: As a policy goal, I think there's no one who believes that we should have uninsured Americans. The question is how you get there and what the best way to get there is.
Q The President's being criticized by some Republicans for spending too much money on his travels, government money. What's your response?
MR. LOCKHART: It's very similar to my response when I was asked about this last week. The trips that the GAO study focused on were somewhat unique, particularly Africa, in the costs that were incurred because of the lack of infrastructure there. The bulk of the cost is, as the report does indicate for the Pentagon, as far as security, physical security, logistics, communications, all of which are needs of the President when he travels, and they're needs of the President whether it's a Democrat or a Republican.
I cited a trip last week that you're probably familiar with, when President Reagan went to Grenada when the cost was something like $1 million an hour. But I think at the time that trip was appropriate, given the circumstances that had transpired.
Q Would you have said so at the time?
MR. LOCKHART: I wasn't standing here at the time. (Laughter.) Anyway -- but I think there's --
Q When you look at the lists of people you take on these trips, like 60 staffers and so forth, isn't that a bit much?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know --
Q I mean, China, I think you took 100.
MR. LOCKHART: Helen, let me answer the question. Let's look at who we take. We take seven or eight staffers whose job is to take care of you all, because we bring 150 or 200 press. That's important. We take three or four staffers to take care of the congressional delegation. We welcome members of Congress to take these trips. They're very important, as far as deepening our understanding and relationship with countries, as far as deepening economic opportunities, which translates into jobs -- which is generally what most members of Congress, when they go back home, talk about it being their top priority.
So these are very important trips. When you go -- there's a big difference between taking a trip to Germany, where there are U.S. bases and the military can travel 50 miles, as opposed to having to travel 5,000 miles to provide the support. It is no accident that the three members of the Senate, when they asked for this report, picked the trips that did not involve going to places where -- going to Japan, or going to Germany or someplace in Europe where we have a military presence. I think they were looking to score some political points here. You can be the judge of whether they did or not.
Q Joe, has the scrutiny caused you to re-evaluate the planning of --
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q -- any future trips?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q No changes whatsoever?
Q Joe, what's the U.S. reaction to the bombings in Chechnya that have been getting some protests from European capitals? And what has the contact been with Moscow on the issue?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you have seen, the President met in Auckland with the Prime Minister. There have been contacts at other levels, through diplomatic channels. I think we're concerned, certainly, with the escalation, and would view any resumption of general hostilities in Chechnya as something that would be a threat to the stability of the region.
We have, in our conversations, urged political dialogue. Prime Minister Putin has indicated both in our conversations and publicly that he wants a dialogue. And we've underscored the importance for everyone involved to act responsibly, and to respect human rights, and not to use disproportionate force or target civilians.
Q Joe, can I just be clear on the tax cuts? You said the minimum wage bill and the patients' bill of rights bill should stand on their own. But is the key issue whether or not the tax cuts are paid for? Are you ruling out having tax cuts linked --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm not ruling out -- and, in fact, we've passed minimum wage bills in the past with some tax provisions. I think this concern is that we don't try to use the back door of a popular measure among Democrats and Republicans to do something else. If there are reasonable provisions like in the past, we'll take a look at them.
Q So you're saying the provisions that are tied to kind of implementing the minimum wage, these tax breaks for small businesses or business lunches, or whatever, that you don't have a problem with?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't want to take any specific one and say we're going to endorse it or we're not going to endorse it. We have in the past, certainly. They've come packaged and we were happy to sign it. But I think there was some suggestion in one of the articles this morning that they were going to take a much broader approach to take minimum wage and put large provisions of their tax bill on to that. And I think that would create certainly more concern.
Q Joe, last week the President used the word "red-neck" to describe hunters who he characterized as "a bunch of big, muscle-bound guys in plaid shirts waiting for deer season." Does the President believe that gun owners are less sophisticated than he is, or does Mr. Clinton regret his choice of words as perhaps stereotyping?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, obviously not since the President is a hunter.
Q Joe, this morning you were asked about Dan Quayle leaving the Republican side. What does the President feel about that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President has indicated on a number of occasions that he thinks campaigns, when they're positive in nature they're exercises in ideas and policies on where you want the country to go forward. And I think anyone should be somewhat disappointed when someone takes themselves out of the running not because they think the public has rejected their ideas or the public hasn't connected with their ideas, but for the stated reason of they don't have enough resources.
It says something about the way the campaign system works. It says something about why we need to reform campaign finance, and it says something about the Senate leaders and the House leaders acceding to the will of the American people, and to the majority in both Houses in pushing campaign finance reform.
Q But would the President be open to one of the things that Dan Quayle suggested in terms of changing the campaign finance laws if it came as part of a package with the other reforms the President wants, like getting rid of soft money? I'm talking specifically about raising the $1,000 limit. I can't remember of you guys are on record for or against that.
MR. LOCKHART: Let me check on that. I honestly don't know whether it would be something we'd be hard and fast against if it was in the context of a soft money ban and some other things on issue advertises --
Q Can you check on that?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I will. Because I have something in the back of my mind that has -- I know there were some proposals floating around a while ago that would raise them from $1,000 to like $5,000, I think. But I just don't know if that ever fit into McCain-Feingold or if we took a position publicly.
Q Joe, Mr. Ecevit is reportedly going to be asking both for the U.S. to back $5 billion worth of housing construction bonds for Turkey to try and get over the earthquake damage, and also for an easing of the textile quota, an increase of the Turkish quota. Is there going to be any positive word on either of those?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm certain that both of those subjects will be discussed in detail and our excellent briefers who come down later this afternoon can address that.
Q A year after the President admitted he had sinned in last year's prayer breakfast, is it your assessment that relations between the White House and Congress are back to normal, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: It's hard to define normal. Defining it broadly, yes. I think that what we have now is, we've got a good, old-fashioned policy debate going on. The Republicans have made the centerpiece of their agenda a very large and we think misguided tax cut which will squeeze out Social Security and Medicare. The President, on the other hand, has made education and extending Social Security and Medicare the top priority and the centerpiece of his agenda. And we're having a debate -- the President has taken it to the country, Congress has gone through their long summer recess to the country. And we're in the process of resolving that.
Q I thought they said they weren't going to do a big tax cut. They said the centerpiece of what they're doing from now until the end of the year is protecting Social Security and not letting him raise taxes on tobacco and passing --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the question was looking back over the last year. Has it -- and I think it's returned to normal because we Democrats -- the President as leader of the Democratic Party, Democrats have staked out one position; Republicans have staked out another, and we're going to try to resolve it sometime, hopefully, in the next three weeks and -- what -- two days.
Q Joe, given the unlikelihood that you'll get the taxes on tobacco that you would like, in order to get the spending programs you want you would have to not set aside 100 percent of the Social Security trust fund that you'd like. I don't know if it would be 90 percent or 80 percent, but it would be more than the 62 percent that you talked about earlier. Would you be willing to settle for less than 100 percent --
MR. LOCKHART: I think our view is that we don't have to do that, that it's a false choice. And we're going to continue pushing for the tax cut and we're going to continue to push the Republicans to make the tough choices. There are ways to go after this -- if they don't want a tobacco tax, they can move forward and propose some other way that can close the gap there, whether it's some cut -- I mean, there's always places to go and look.
I think it's too easy to say, oh, let's just go into the Social Security surplus, get it done, get a bunch of bills signed and go home. The President believes we have a much larger and broader challenge and he wants Congress -- reluctantly, we'll move forward and extend this exercise three weeks, and in that three weeks he wants them to get their work done.
Q So is he flatly saying you will not --
Q I mean, certainly you knew that tobacco tax was going to be a none-starter. Are you saying it's all up to them?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we have put forward a budget that doesn't bust the caps and doesn't go into the Social Security surplus. We have loophole closings that will generate revenue. We've got a tobacco tax. If there are other ideas, they should come forward with them.
Q What I'm saying is, in the interest of compromise, if you know that the tobacco tax is a none-starter and you still want that spending, don't you have to come up with an alternative way to pay for it?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I suggest that they've got some work to do. They have yet to finish their work on the 13 bills. They've still got some things to do. And I think it's incumbent upon them, if they believe ours are none-starters, to put forward some ideas that might work.
Q They don't want your spending.
Q What you're saying is that they should take all the heat for whatever cuts need to be made.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, no. If they have an idea of how to do it -- I mean, we've put forward a budget that makes the investments and doesn't take the step of going and spending the Social Security surplus. And it's a challenge for them to meet. They don't appear to be able to meet it, but there's still some time.
Q Is going into the Social Security surplus --
Q Joe, this is to pay for spending they don't want.
MR. LOCKHART: Mara, there is spending that we want and there's spending that they want. And you can do a lot of work on that front and get to the position where you can find acceptable areas of compromise. But you need to engage and not do things like make the census an emergency and create a new month in the calendar.
Q Is going into the Social Security surplus non-negotiable from the White House point of view?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has made it very clear, he wants to work with them. We don't have to do this. We don't have to move forward and go into the Social Security surplus. He's made that point as clear as he knows how to make it. I've tried to make it clear here, and we're going to, hopefully, in the next three weeks find some way around the situations the Republicans have created for themselves.
Q Joe, you've spoken of agreeing to three weeks, to kick it down the road for a few weeks. Aside from doing that, is there any engaging going on, or just more positioning?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. There's lots of discussion going on on the individual appropriations bills. We're working with them, with the Senate Finance Committee on Medicare. The President -- as he said, his door is open, and is ready to work with Congress in the best way he can. And we look forward to doing it.
Q Has he actually invited -- will he call Senator Lott and Hastert and invite them up here to start talking about a compromise?
MR. LOCKHART: We've got to have some basis for sitting down and working in a straightforward way that sort of clears away the gimmicks, clears away the budget creations. We haven't seen that yet, but there's -- the President believes there's plenty of time.
Q Well, wait a second. You're saying they have to do something first before it will be the right time to invite them up. What exactly do they have to do?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there's got to be some clear indication that they want to work, and do a budget that's straightforward, and they want to talk about the issues, Social Security and Medicare, in addition to appropriations. And if that's the case, I think we'd be glad to talk to them.
Q Well, speaking about that, what was the result of the meetings with Roth on Friday? Didn't Podesta and --
MR. LOCKHART: I think Senator Roth and his staff made it clear to the Finance Committee that they wanted to move forward, and they're in the process of putting -- they're putting some hearings together, I think.
Q Right, but when your folks went up there, did you get the sense that that was the vehicle for some bigger compromise?
MR. LOCKHART: We got the sense that Senator Roth was serious about getting something done. And we're quite anxious to work with him.
Q Joe, can we get back to the IMF speech tomorrow? Can you give us an idea, is there some -- I mean, he's talked before about the need for debt relief. Is there some specific proposal he's going to come with?
MR. LOCKHART: No, he's going to talk about the budget amendment he set up last week on debt relief. That's a substantial proposal that came out of the Cologne G-7 meeting. I think he'll also, in that speech, talk about the importance of the international financial institution's work around the world and how far we've come in the last year as far as the global economy.
Some of these speeches that the President has given over the last two or three years about international financial architecture, reform, transparency, seems somewhat abstract to people, but if you look at where large portions of the economy were last year, all of the work that was done in the world, moving from last year to this year, it becomes more real for people, I think.
Q Yesterday was the deadline for a decision on the steel tariffs. Any idea when we're going to hear something?
MR. LOCKHART: There are complicated and difficult issues involved in that matter. They are still being worked. The President will get a recommendation at some point from his advisors and make a decision, but I can't predict when.
Q -- from what the ITC Commissioner suggested?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the ITC commissioners were split on that issue. But he will make what he thinks is the best decision, weighing all of the different elements, but I can't give you a timetable for when that will be.
Q Archer this morning said that he wouldn't consider bringing up the tobacco tax for a vote, but that they necessarily haven't ruled out this idea of changing the distribution payment for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Summers has spoken against that in the past. Is the White House still adamantly opposed to any EITC changes?
MR. LOCKHART: We certainly are. Let's look at what they tried to do here. There was a very large tax cut that disproportionately provided benefits to the best off in America. They have just pushed forward a $64-million windfall on royalties to the oil companies, and how do they pay for it? They want to delay payments to people who are on EITC . You know, that's not a hard one.
END 2:05 P.M. EDT