THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:03 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me call your attention to two interesting reports that deserve your attention from the government. One is over at HHS, released today, that statistics now show the rates of AIDS deaths, homicides and teen births all dropped in 1998, but the U.S. infant mortality rate leveled off after years of decline. These are according to new studies released today by Secretary Donna Shalala. There are some very interesting numbers in there; paper that go with that.
Secondly, from the Department of Education, which I was praising yesterday, they have new numbers saying that the national student loan default rate for Fiscal Year 1997 is at the lowest one since the federal government started calculating and following that rate.
Q What is it?
MR. LOCKHART: It is at 8.8 percent, down from its 1990 high of 22.4 percent. Good news that should be reported prominently. Questions. A little editorial comment there. A little assist.
Q Joe, is the administration committed now to a vote on this treaty, or are you prepared to pull it if it looks like it's going down?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, Senator Lott is the person who runs the Senate Floor. He's, for reasons that I articulated yesterday, thrown this on in a rather peculiar way, but the vote's next Tuesday and we're going to work as hard as we can between now and next Tuesday.
Q Senator Lott is saying that you've been calling for this for two years, and now that he's called it to the Floor, you say, well, wait a minute here.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think anyone who is an objective observer here will agree with us, that after two years of pushing for this, to be told you have now nine days to make your case on something that is as important as this, is rather peculiar. I'll leave it -- he can explain his reasons. They are not convincing.
Q He's explained his reasons as being a response to the White House making this a political issue, given Senator Biden to try to attach it as an amendment to a bill, planning on making it a campaign issue next year and said, fine, you want to play the game that way, we'll bring it to the Floor.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I'd love to see his evidence. I know the Democrats on the Hill rightfully have made the case to him that after two years of inaction, it was time to move on this. Now, I think Senator Lott, it's incumbent on him to explain to the American public why his management of this issue is different from previous Republican leaders and previous Democratic leaders of the Senate, who allowed for full hearings and a full and open debate on the floor. It's -- we would be very interested in hearing that explanation.
Q Joe, why have you failed to get anybody on board? Any -- you know, the Chairman of the Armed Services, the Foreign Relations Committee, the Majority Leader. What's wrong here that they're not buying your message?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think -- you know, you all just sat through a very detailed briefing that made a very strong argument. So I would suggest that the Majority Leader can articulate for himself what his reasons are. We're working with Senators. We'll have some of the people you talked about down here at the White House for dinner tonight. We will make the case to them. We will make the case in the coming week that the vast majority of scientists believe this; the vast majority of military experts in this country agree with this.
All we can do is make a very simple case that we don't test because we don't need to. We should try to constrain the rest of the world, the people who do need to if they want to produce a modern nuclear force. This is a basic question about the nuclear future and our safety. And we think we have a very strong case, and we're going to continue making it.
I think -- I think -- let me turn the question around a little bit, though. If the Majority Leader's case was so strong, then why does he have to do a hit-and-run process? Why does he have to say, well, we have to do this within the next nine days, and there really aren't time for hearings? I'd suggest it exposes the weakness in their case, and if there are politics here, I think the politics are on the other side.
Q But their point is that until you can verify -- until you can guarantee that you can monitor every low-yield nuclear explosion around the world, now is not the time. It --
MR. LOCKHART: John, let me take --
Q -- to give up our deterrence, or to give up the potential for future development.
MR. LOCKHART: -- let me take the point directly: their point makes no sense. If we don't have a CTBT, we don't have the ability to do on-site inspections. We don't have the sensors around the world. We don't have the deterrence of breaking a treaty.
So what we have now is, we've got some people arguing that --- let's go ahead and keep this moratorium, because -- agreeing that we don't need to test, because of our technological superiority, but let's let everybody else test. We shouldn't do anything that keeps nations like China, Russia, India, Pakistan, from testing.
It's hard to refute an argument that has no logical underpinning. I am at a loss for words, because it's hard to argue with this. It doesn't make any sense.
Q But are you confident that the 321 monitoring stations and the on-site inspections will allow for verification?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we -- the CTB has strong verifications. This is not about trust. This is about trusting and verifying. There -- it is difficult today -- it is not like, if we don't put this treaty through, we have a magic solution to all low-level testing. It is difficult today -- we should recognize that problem, and we should move to strengthen our ability to do it. I mean, there's part of this argument that is circular, that -- it's very difficult to refute, because it doesn't make any sense.
Q But, again, it comes back to the point that if you can't guarantee verification -- even with this treaty -- is this the prudent time to ratify the treaty?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen --
Q Or should the United States wait until the technology is more sophisticated?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen, I don't know of any technology that gives you 100 percent capability. What I do know is the argument that they're making now is that they are basically accepting the fact that we don't need to test because we have a stockpile stewardship program that allows us to keep our superiority, to keep our deterrent without testing, but we shouldn't do anything to restrain China. We shouldn't do anything to restrain Russia. We shouldn't do anything to restrain India. We shouldn't do anything to restrain Pakistan.
And from the same group of people, the very same group of people who stood up on the Hill and lectured people endlessly about the Chinese nuclear threat and what they got and what they didn't get, to make the argument now that we shouldn't take a very positive, forward step to constrain their testing makes no sense.
Q Are any of the President's guests tonight opponents of the treaty? Can you tell us who he's having in?
MR. LOCKHART: I think Senator Warner has said things that indicate that he would have trouble supporting the treaty. We hope to be able to convince him and change his mind. He will be at the dinner and there will be some others.
Q Joe, the President kidded yesterday that you were offered a choice of whether to take this vote now or not have a vote and that you chose to take it. Why did you do that? Why not wait maybe until earlier next year or when you might have some more time?
MR. LOCKHART: We had no indication that the Senate would ever bring this up. Again, this goes to the basic tenants of the Senate taking on their constitutional responsibility. It had been sitting in the Senate for two years. There had never been a single hearing. We had had the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying over my dead body will I have a hearing on CTBT. Here's an issue that the vast majority of the American public supports. There is nobody out there in Lafayette Park today holding a demonstration, saying, let's have more testing. There's nobody there. There's a reason.
The reason is that the vast majority of the American public, the vast majority of the experts, the vast majority of the scientists say that we don't need to test, that it will make it a safer world if CTBT is ratified. Now, Senator Lott has his own reasons which he can articulate for why this is being done in a way that no other Senate Majority Leader has ever handled a major arms control treaty. He can articulate them.
But we need to make the best effort we can to try to convince senators of the value of this treaty and the importance of this treaty.
Q There are polls that indicate that the American people want to stop testing?
MR. LOCKHART: There was something in the paper this morning from a group that said 82 percent of the American public support the ratification of the Conventional Test Ban Treaty.
Q Why isn't nine days -- if nine days isn't enough, then how many days would be enough?
MR. LOCKHART: I think if you look at arms control treaties in the past, they've been on the Floor anything between five, 15, 20 days. There have been dozens of hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and other committee hearings. And I think to try to do it within a week says something about the case that opponents have against the treaty.
Q What's your head count? How many votes do you think you have?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have a head count. The President will meet with some senators tonight. He'll continue talking to senators. He'll continue making the public case. And we'll see where we are by next week.
Q You were about 15 shy yesterday.
MR. LEAVY: We'll fill this out.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I'll have a list as soon as it's ready. There are some people who are -- you know, adding, and I don't want to put out an incomplete list.
Q Can you tick off what the President's going to do in the next two or three days, what this full-court press is going to consist of?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the dinner tonight is important. It's not just the President. We have all levels of the government, from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of Defense, will be appearing in public, meeting in private, testifying on the Hill. You saw a group of distinguished experts talk to you within the last half-hour. Sandy Berger, as I said to you this morning, will be meeting with arms control groups who are supportive and will want to generate public support.
I think you'll see the President will be here tomorrow, surrounded by perhaps the most distinguished group of experts on this subject ever assembled, and others, making the case for why it's in our interest. He will continue talking about this, and we will continue making the case.
Q Joe, can you put this in some sort of historical context? There are those -- and maybe it's a grand overstatement to say so, but given the import of nuclear weapons, there are those who compare this vote to the vote at the end of Woodrow Wilson's term on the League of Nations. If this treaty goes down, it is comparable -- just as important as, maybe even more important than, that defeat.
MR. LOCKHART: It's hard for me to find the perfect historical comparison. But I think -- let me do it this way. There is no more important vote, as far as our future, and our safety. Moving ahead will provide for a safer and more secure world. Voting this treaty down will create new and very real threats to the American public; will allow states without modern nuclear programs to test, move their programs forward, and be a greater threat to our security and our lives.
Q What's the event tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: He's got some people coming in. I'll give you some more on that later today.
Q Joe, has he been talking to any foreign leaders about his struggle over this domestically?
MR. LOCKHART: Not --
Q Is there anything that they --
MR. LOCKHART: -- not in particular. I mean, I imagine later in the week, when he meets with Prime Minister Chretien, that the subject will come up. But as far as I know, he's not engaged other leaders.
Q Do you know where former Presidents stand on this treaty?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I know that Mr. Bell gave you some sense of the origin of the test ban.
Q I'm talking about living Presidents.
MR. LOCKHART: I think President Carter has spoken in support of it. I don't know where President Ford is.
Q And President Bush?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, he supported the moratorium, so it would stand --
Q A nine-month moratorium.
Q It was a temporary --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, well, it would stand to reason if he thought we didn't need to test, that it would be a good idea for others to constrain their testing. But I'll leave it to the former President to articulate his own view.
Q Yes, one of the arguments is that -- and Senator Kyl made the argument this morning -- that you can't really rely on computer simulations until you've had several more years of tests in order to make sure that the computer simulations are accurate.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think Senator Kyl should avail himself to the experts of the Department of Energy, at the National Laboratories, at the Pentagon, at the Joint Chiefs, within the scientific community, and within the arms control community. I think upon reviewing all of the information available, his view might be somewhat different.
Q Joe, you mentioned Sandy Berger meeting with some of the outside groups? Is there going to be any effort to sort of get the public involved in any type of media campaign or some way to --
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I know of. I mean, I think that the groups, for better of worse, these are not groups that have the resources of, say, the insurance companies, and we all can see from activities today what their access is and what they're able to do. But I think they will make the case to the American public, as the President will, that this is manifestly in our interest, but I don't know of any $50-million campaign, like tobacco companies ran when they didn't like a piece of legislation.
Q Is the President considering an Oval Office address?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President is considering getting this message out in any way that's possible. We'll look at all different ways, but I haven't heard any discussion of that or any decision that he'll be doing that. But I'm not ruling anything out at this point.
Q Joe, how optimistic are you guys that he can win on this, or are you resigned to not getting it?
MR. LOCKHART: We're certainly not resigned to anything here. We believe we have a very strong case. We are now in the second day of this effort. I think -- when you look at the newspaper, there are strong editorial support, there's strong support in all areas except in some places in the Senate. We will continue to work with senators and groups and on a one-on-one basis. We think that this argument is so strong and so compelling that -- and we know that we can change minds and we can convince senators to support it.
Q Do you have any sense that there are votes out there which will be negative only because it's Bill Clinton that's the President and they're just so anti-Clinton and --
MR. LOCKHART: Let me just address that because I've seen that suggested. I think if there is a single senator out there who thinks their own partisan differences with the President's and their own feelings about the President is more important than the future of this country, it's time for them to go get another job.
Q Let me go on a different topic. The Justice Department is talking about deporting the suspect in the Khobar Towers bombing. What is the White House reaction to that, and if he's deported, where does that leave you in the investigation?
MR. LOCKHART: The investigation is ongoing and will continue. The Justice Department consulted and worked with the President's national security team extensively on this, and we support the decision, but for reasons that the Justice Department made quite clear yesterday. But I think the investigation will continue. As you all know from looking at some similar cases in the past, whether it be Pan Am or the World Trade Center, these things take time, but we will not relent until we believe the people who are responsible are brought to justice.
Q This man is more than likely going to be executed if he is sent back. Does the U.S. really think it's wise to send off to execution the one man who may actually have some information to help out the investigation?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen, I am not going to speculate on how the judicial process, or how this will be adjudicated in Saudi Arabia. But I will say that he was given every opportunity to fulfill the first agreement he made with the United States, and to cooperate in this case. And that's an opportunity that he lost.
Q Joe, could you tell us what happened in these Medicare meeting today, with Roth, in the morning?
MR. LOCKHART: The Medicare meeting. It was a good, constructive meeting. The President had a chance to talk about the ideas that he has put forward as far as overall Medicare reform. The Senators and the President agreed that they both want to move forward in a constructive way and get this process going. And I think we're now in a position where we're going to have to wait and see just exactly how that plays out. I think the Senators rightfully want a chance to talk to other committee members before there's any sort of concrete move or step.
Q Let me just finish on this topic. Did they identify areas where there may be room for agreement between what Roth is talking about and what the President --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I'm not going to get into the details of the meeting, but we clearly believe there are areas where we can work together, and we hope to work together in the near future.
Q One more. Did they talk about another hearing, or schedule a markup on a bill, or anything like that?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that -- I'd have to check on that. I don't know if there was any discussion of scheduling.
Q Joe, the Supreme Court has just turned down the Death Row appeal of Pennsylvania's Mumia Abu-Jamal. Since the President commuted so many members of the FALN Hispanic bombers' gang that killed and wounded so many, is he considering a commutation of Mumia, who is a black man who killed only one cop? And I have one follow-up.
MR. LOCKHART: No. What's the follow-up?
Q Since you and the President have now had time to read the Inspector General's report on Mr. Coelho's spectacular misconduct in Lisbon, what is the President's reaction? Or will you stonewall because the Vice President is stonewalling?
MR. LOCKHART: Pardon? Can you repeat the question?
Q Yeah, sure. Since you and the President -- (laughter) -- have now had time, ample time --
MR. LOCKHART: You don't have to do it --
Q -- to read that Inspector General's --
MR. LOCKHART: I mean, once is enough in the transcript.
Q -- report on Mr. Coelho's spectacular misconduct in Lisbon, what is the President's reaction? Or will you stonewall because the Vice President is stonewalling?
MR. LOCKHART: First of all, I don't accept any of the premise of the question, so --
Q You don't think it was spectacular misbehavior, what he did?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't accept any of the premise of the question. I think this was a preliminary report; we'll wait to see the final report.
Q Joe, on the budget, Dick Armey this morning said that Republicans now are looking at offsets to the tax code, including corporate loophole closures. And I just wondered if the White House has been talking to them, or --
MR. LOCKHART: I hadn't seen that before I came out today. Obviously, it is always something that is constructive when the Majority Leader in the House accepts the view that we've been articulating now for some seven months. We believe that we can fund our priorities, we can do it in a way where we don't have to dip into the Social Security surplus, and one of the ways we can do that is by looking at closing corporate loopholes. We'll have to see what he says; but if he's interested, for instance, in making polluters pay for cleaning up Superfund sites, that's something obviously we're going to support.
Q The Quebec Prime Minister, Lucien Bouchard, announced today that he'll be meeting with Clinton during that trip to Canada. That has historic precedent. The President has always met with provincial leaders. But I'm sure the White House is aware of the sensitivity of all of this, and I'm wondering if you can tell us how you plan to handle it.
MR. LOCKHART: I think the meeting, which will be essentially a courtesy call because of his position in the provincial government, will be done on the margins of the federalism conference. We traditionally do this, and the President looks forward to a brief courtesy call.
Q Just following up on that, if the President has that meeting and understanding the sensitivity, is it likely he'd make a statement, as he has before, that the White House continues to support Canada as it is as opposed to any other --
MR. LOCKHART: Let me say this. The President, after his meeting with the Prime Minister, will make himself available to the press and if somebody asks him that question, I'm sure he'll articulate our policy.
Q Joe, if I can just follow up on the Canadian trip. Any contentious issues out there to speak of? A lot of the issues have been talked about in recent years, such as the publishing disputes, tightening up borders, drugs from Asia coming in through British Colombia and so forth; they all seem to have been semi-resolved.
MR. LOCKHART: You know, in any -- even in the best relationship you have, which the U.S.-Canada relations have been positive for a long time, issues come up from time to time -- whether they be trade issues, environmental issues -- given our common border. So I'm certain there is always something we are negotiating on and trying to do the best we can for the American public, as well as the Canadians are.
But I don't think there's anything that's a headline-grabber that should do anything but make this a very positive trip on Thursday and Friday.
Q Joe, back to the budget a second. Your thoughts on the proposal of across-the-board spending cuts that are being floated.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, as I said this morning, the Republicans seem to have taken the worst elements from some bad ideas and rolled it all into one really horrible idea. They're now saying that to go forward and to fund what they want to fund, they have to make large, across-the-board cuts if they don't want to spend Social Security. They have talked about something in the realm of a 2, 2.5 percent cut that, that according to their own CBO, only gets you about a third of the way there.
So I think if you look at what they'll have to do -- take education as an example. Under Title I, it'll keep over a million kids in low-income areas from the benefits that are offered to them under Title I. I could go on to what it would do to the NIH budget, what it would do to the FBI budget, what it would do to our anti-terrorism efforts around the world.
This is a situation where they've -- because they were not able to face the tough decisions along the way, they've put themselves in a corner. But this isn't the way out.
Q Joe, was the President relieved or -- was the President relieved or disappointed that the Court of Appeals has reinstated the lawsuit against Congressman McDermott, or his distributing to the media third-party wiretaps by Democrats of Republican Congressmen?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't talked to the President about that. In the back.
Q How do you think he's --
MR. LOCKHART: In the back.
Q How do you think he stands? Do you stand? It's his communications. What's your view?
MR. LOCKHART: I stand most days fairly easily. It's a little more difficult when you're here, but -- in the back.
Q Back to Medicare for just a second. Was Secretary Summers in that Medicare meeting? And also, can you say anything about whether there was discussion of the balanced budget agreement givebacks, or the size, and how much might go back to providers?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, I think there was some discussion in more general -- some budget and tax issues in there. Let me check on that, and let me check on Summers.
Let me also indicate -- because Terry seems to be itchy, here, to get out of here -- I think the President, in his -- yes, strike that. Strike that. (Laughter.) Say I said it about Lester. (Laughter.)
No, on a serious note, the President will do a departure statement this afternoon on the push for the patients' bill of rights. He'll meet briefly with some leading members of doctors' groups and nurses' groups and professional organizations that are on this. And I think he will call on the Republicans to put, for once, put the special interests aside, and take this up, and look after the American interests.
You know, we have, for some time now, heard that the Republicans were interested in access. Well, with the fundraising breakfast this morning, we got it wrong. They were interested in access, but, you know, getting health care lobbyists and HMO lobbyists access to the Speaker. And we think the Republicans ought to start listening to the American public, not the special interests, on this. So I think that will be a statement worth watching.
Q When's he going to meet with these doctors and nurses?
MR. LOCKHART: He'll just briefly talk to them before he goes out to do the departure statement. We'll have more to say, I think, next week.
Q Aren't they a special interest also?
MR. LOCKHART: Hmm?
Q Aren't they a special interest also?
MR. LOCKHART: I think -- listen, if you ask me to say who represents the American public, doctors' organizations and nurses and other professionals, or HMOs and insurance companies, I think that's a pretty easy one.
Q The other access issue would be related to the health care access bill that's also in the works, possibly linking the two. Is the White House concerned that this might get Christmas treed and --
MR. LOCKHART: No, we have a lot of concern that they'll somehow use legislative tactics and legislative poison pills, particularly on things like MSAs that we've spoken about in the past. It's time to come -- for Congress to speak, up or down, on a patients' bill of rights. There are a lot of people who have been trying to hide on this. It's time for them to make their views known, vote yes or no, and we'll see if the public gets what they've been asking for, which is real reform and real protection.
Q Joe, you stood up here yesterday and you talked about the disturbing new trend of more and more employers dropping health insurance for their employees. There are people who are concerned that the litigation provisions of the patients' bill of rights will encourage more employers to drop insurance, saying, we don't want to get involved in something that's potentially going to come back at us like that. What do you say?
MR. LOCKHART: I think for those people I'd suggest they look at what CBO has done on it as far as cost. And I'd also look at the states that have patients' bill of rights, and the evidence of -- after some time, whether there has been employers who have taken that position. I don't think that there has, but -- I mean, I understand their position. They're trying to, as hard as they can, not be accountable to their own customers.
And as one Republican who's been involved in this says, that doesn't make good business sense, and why should we be against something that makes people accountable to their customers? I think it's a basic right that most consumers enjoy. And you would think, in an area like medicine and health care, that consumers would enjoy both the access that they need and the accountability that they deserve.
Q Thank you.
END 1:28 P.M. EDT