THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Questions?
Q Plans for a Middle East peace summit afoot?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President's National Security Advisor will be speaking to the Israeli Policy Forum at 2:00 p.m. today at the Madison Hotel. In that speech I expect him to make a travel announcement of a trip to Oslo, where there is an event that will be honoring the anniversary of the Oslo peace process. So we'll await that announcement.
Q In the Middle East it will be?
MR. LOCKHART: No, Oslo, in Norway.
Q Is the President going?
MR. LOCKHART: The National Security Advisor will address that directly at 2:00 p.m., but I'll give you a little preview -- the President is going.
Q When? When will it be?
MR. LOCKHART: November 2, I believe. As soon as we get the paperwork and everything done, we'll put something out.
MR. LOCKHART: We're working on the logistics of it. I don't think there is any other part of it, but I don't know exactly when we leave or how we do this.
Q You were saying yesterday in no uncertain terms that the Republican appropriations bills dipped into Social Security surplus, and in fact, were spending it. Today the President, during that Q&A, seemed to be saying that there's a controversy over whether it's already being spent, that it will take some sorting out to see whether it is really being spent.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I guess the controversy is that the CBO says one thing and some of the Republican leaders say another. We're looking forward now to sitting down with them, as early as this afternoon, and letting them put all the numbers on the table and see if we can't come up with a comprehensive approach that doesn't spend the Social Security surplus.
Q Joe, today, Senator Paul Coverdell and Michael DeWine criticized the White House for dragging its feet in its aid plan to Colombia. They are coming up with a proposal of $1.6 billion and they're saying the White House has not even come up with its own strategy or plan.
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I mean, that's just not true. And I think the Senators realize that. We met with President Pastrana when we were at the U.N. He gave us a real good sense of what the new strategy was. We are looking at now and working very diligently on how we can have a positive impact on that strategy. And when we have -- when we've reached a conclusion, we'll make an announcement.
Q Was this supposed to be an emergency funding?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not necessarily. It's one of the issues we have to work through, of how we'll -- how we can best impact their counternarcotics program. So we're working through these issues now. They take some time. Obviously, with anything like this you have to work through, if you're going to spend money, how you're going to pay for it, how it works in the overall budget strategy. And we've been working very hard on this.
Q But do you expect this to get resolved through the budget negotiations?
MR. LOCKHART: No, no, no. I think this is on a separate track. And when we've reached a conclusion about if there is an additional need for money, we will work with congressional leaders on pursuing that.
Q Joe, what do you do about the ABM treaty now that the Russians have said that there is no room for compromise and they don't want help building the radar system?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we have been working openly with the Russians. The President spoke to the Prime Minister when we were in Cologne about any potential modifications that may need to be made in the ABM in the context of the development of a limited national missile defense to deal with rogue state -- the nuclear threat, or ballistic missile threat, from rogue states. We're going to continue working with them. I think we've had some good conversations, but we're in the beginning of this process, and we're going to keep the lines of communication open.
Q If they don't want the radar as an incentive to reopen the treaty, what do they want?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, again, I wouldn't focus too much on any particular program or any particular project that they may be involved in. We have made clear, I think, since the beginning of talking about national missile defense -- in the Reagan administration there was a sense that this was an effort that should be cooperative to allow -- particularly when you're dealing with the threat from rogue states. And we will continue to work in a cooperative way with the Russians as we move forward.
Q Joe, if the Russians dig in their heels, would the administration consider going forward with the limited missile defense system?
MR. LOCKHART: That's a hypothetical. There are a lot of things that are going to happen between now and that decision, and we're going to work closely with the Russians to make sure that they understand our concerns and we understand theirs.
Q Well, have you heard their rejection? I mean, have they formally rejected it?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of a formal rejection, no.
Q Joe, last night at the Indian American Forum for Political Education dinner at the Commerce Department, Senator Brownback and Congressman Gilman, Ackerman and others called on the President to visit India. And it's time for the administration to lean towards Indian and not to ignore -- and Pakistan.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as I've said before, the President has a long-held interest in visiting India, visiting the subcontinent. And when we're ready to announce travel, we will.
Q The President said that the differences between the administration and appropriators on the budget are quite modest. What does he mean by that and how modest are they?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you look at some of the funding priorities, you're not looking at massive amounts of money. But that shouldn't underscore -- that shouldn't obscure some of the real differences. There's a lot of language issues. It's how you spend money. So I think this is certainly something that we can get done over the next week, but there is a lot of work that will go into doing it.
I don't think you can look at -- it's impossible for us to sort of try to add up and look at and put some sort of price tag on it because we haven't really seen all the numbers. That's what we're very hopeful will be one of the first results of sitting down with the appropriators and getting an overall and comprehensive sense of the money they believe needs to be appropriated, and then look at the areas where the President's priorities are not funded -- you know, how you work that in and how you pay for that.
Q But, Joe, you've said clearly on money issues that the bills as now written he would veto. I mean, you've mentioned that on several bills, including labor. I'm wondering is, don't you have a -- the Republicans say it's about $30 billion. Do you have any sense of a ballpark figure --
MR. LOCKHART: Thirty billion -- thirty billion and what?
Q That that's what you're talking about, in terms of differences and --
MR. LOCKHART: Again, we need to see -- that number sounds awfully high, but we need to see the bills, all of them, in the context of an overall approach, and then we'll work this out at the negotiating table.
Q But did you get any sense last night that if you were able to come up with the money, the offsets acceptable to them, that they would drop their philosophical objections to guaranteeing that the money spent on teachers actually goes to hire teachers, as opposed to just goes to the states and they decide what to do with it or the same on community policing?
MR. LOCKHART: We're going -- this is what negotiations are about, to try to reach a conclusion that meets the priorities of both parties, the interest of both parties moving in. We've had success in the past, when we sit down and talk to them, in getting some of the objectionable language that we've seen in some of the bills removed or funding priorities like teachers and COPS and some of the environmental programs.
That's what we're going to do. We're going to go in and we're going to work hard between now and next Tuesday and try to get this done.
Q He talked about there being a relatively small amount of money that you would have to offset for your extra programs. But isn't there a lot of money that the Republicans still have to offset, in your view?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, this is one of the reasons we're looking forward to sitting down with them and having them lay out their overall plan -- what they have appropriated, how they're paying for it. There has been a lot of different reports. We've seen a lot of lurching back and forth on different ideas. But when you get in a room and you put real numbers on a table, that's when the real work gets done.
Q And the ag bill -- he indicated that he was going to sign a defense bill next week. Is he going to hold the agriculture bill until next week as well?
MR. LOCKHART: He did not indicate that he was going to sign the defense bill next week.
Q Well, not to sign it, but that he would make a decision?
MR. LOCKHART: I expect that --
Q He indicated he would act, didn't he?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, yes, he would act by next week. Yes, I'm sorry. I expect that as I've indicated, the President will sign the agriculture bill, despite the concerns that he's expressed about some of the structural reforms that need to be made that, once again this year, the Republican majority has not addressed. As far as the timing of that, I think it will be sometime soon, but I don't have an exact date.
Q Joe, the Senate Finance Committee marked up a tax extenders bill that is fully offset. Is that something the administration can live with?
MR. LOCKHART: I think one of the reasons that we need a sort of global comprehensive approach to the budget -- and we'll also have to include things like extenders and balanced budget givebacks -- is that there is a finite pool of resources for how to pay for things. And when one person on the tax committee is using the same offset as a person on the Appropriations Committee can't use it twice.
So I think we need to look at all of these things together so -- I mean, it's impossible for me to say that these are acceptable without knowing much more about the budget process. I think it is important, though, that philosophically, the Republicans have come to accept the wisdom of our point of view that they do need to be paid for.
Q Joe, the President said today that he had asked the leaders last night to move forward with his plans for dedicating the surplus of Social Security and extending the solvency of it. Gephardt said last night we need to get Social Security behind is. Is the view that that lockbox issue has to be settled before you can move forward?
MR. LOCKHART: I think it's certainly the President's preference that as we're looking at all of these budget issues, the best thing we can do is lock up the savings from the surplus and put it into the Social Security trust fund so we can extend solvency. So I think he wanted to make that point clearly to the leader, the congressional leadership, that we have an opportunity here that we should take.
Q That means the interest savings -- could you just explain how that works?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, you dedicate the interest savings to the Social Security trust fund, thereby extending the solvency out to 2050.
Q So would the idea be to add the President's suggestions on interest savings for the Republicans lockbox scheme to try to come up with something that would fly?
MR. LOCKHART: The idea, ultimately, is to have some mechanism that actually does extend the solvency and locks in the interest savings. Unfortunately, with the Republican lockbox, it doesn't do that. So however we do it, whatever you call it down the road, it would be some sort of real lockbox that dedicates the interest savings to the trust fund and extends solvency.
Q What do the Republicans do with the interest savings now if they're not devoting them to Social Security?
MR. LOCKHART: It's out and it's available either to be saved to pay down debt or to be spent.
Q Doesn't the White House not dedicate them immediately either, in the President's plan?
MR. LOCKHART: No, that -- if you look at what we did from the midyear on --
Q Starting now?
MR. LOCKHART: -- well, from the midyear budget numbers, you are looking at reserving all of the Social Security surplus and then locking in some of the interest over the first five years, I believe.
Q But not all of the interest, right?
MR. LOCKHART: No, locking in the interest savings so that it goes to the trust fund.
Q Well, that comes out of general revenues and not out of Social Security payroll taxes. So isn't that just effectively a general tax increase to take that money and put it into Social Security? Isn't it a tax increase to support Social Security?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't see the logic in that.
Q Those revenues are coming in from somewhere. So isn't it basically -- I mean, they could be used for a tax cut or for spending?
MR. LOCKHART: No, these are savings from the fact that we have abandoned our years of deficit spending and are now in a surplus, both on Social Security and on budget. So this is using savings to make sure that you take advantage of this historic opportunity and extend Social Security, the solvency, beyond what we know will be the crush as the baby boom starts to retire.
Q But could I just follow up on that a little bit? I mean, in theory Social Security's supposed to be self-funding. You pay payroll taxes, and they go to Social Security, and then you get that when you retire. This is something outside of the Social Security system. Isn't it relatively novel that you're taking money from general revenues and putting them into the Social Security system?
MR. LOCKHART: All we're doing is taking savings -- interest savings from what we would normally have to pay if we were borrowing at a higher rate. So I don't -- again, I just don't see the logic of that.
Q No, that's a decision you're making. I mean, that's an expense you're not incurring. You're saying, let's just say that we're still going to spend the money, let's just send it to the Social Security trust fund.
MR. LOCKHART: We're saying that the savings that we accrue from the fiscal discipline of the last seven years should go to extending the solvency of Social Security.
Q Right, but why don't the Republicans say, well, use it to fund your 100,000 teachers, or your cops?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we're going to sit and we're going to talk about this. But this is the President's view, that this is what we should do. And if they have an alternative view, they'll express it at the table.
Q Joe, looks like Pakistan is celebrating, enjoying the military rule. But my question is that General Musharraf is the same person who has connections with Osama bin Laden, with Taliban, and with the fundamentalists and also he's the same person who ordered troops in Kargil without the knowledge of the Prime Minister of Pakistan. So how the U.S. can --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we've made very clear that there won't be business as usual with Pakistan until there is a prompt restoration of civilian and democratic rule.
Q Is the President going to release a surplus number on Friday?
MR. LOCKHART: This Friday?
MR. LOCKHART: A surplus number on Friday? I don't think so.
Q Joe, on campaign finance reform, the President mourned the defeat of the bill, even as he was preparing to go out the door for a soft money fundraiser last night. How does he, on the one hand, call for finance reform and, on the other, shake hands with soft money contributors?
MR. LOCKHART: All right, listen, we've been through this a number of times. I'll be glad to go through it again for those of you who were not lucky enough to be in this room all of 1997 -- and it was a fine place to be, here.
Q Well, things change. New people come in.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, the President has been a strong advocate for fixing the campaign finance system, something that the public is very much for. Now, as he indicated in his comments in the Oval Office, it is rewarding, I think, for all Democrats to know that 100 percent of Democrats in Congress have voted for fixing the campaign finance system.
Now, you have a number of very prominent and leading Republicans who agree with the Democrats, that we ought to fix the campaign finance system. There is a small group that has stood in the way and blocked campaign finance, blocked the will of the House, the will of the Senate, the will of the American people. That's where the focus should be here, on whether -- and as the President said, this ultimately goes to the voters, whether this issue is important enough.
While the system remains as is, the President is going to do what is in his ability to help Democrats compete around this country. That is the way to best help Democrats. It's the way that eventually we might perpetuate some change here. But as long as those who are captive to the special interests that are adamantly opposed to changing the way we fund and finance campaigns, are able to block it, we're not going to get campaign finance reform.
Q Can I ask two international questions? I think it's five ambassadors that are on hold. Is the President planning recess appointments on those ambassadors?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, if he was, I wouldn't be talking about it from up here.
Q I can't remember, did he promise after the Hormel one not to exercise the recess appointment -- I can't remember.
MR. LOCKHART: We talked -- we always have a -- in the event that we recess appoint, we have a way of letting the Senate know. We agreed that after the discussions on Mr. Hormel that we -- we basically confirmed to follow the process we've always followed.
Q Also, on Indonesia, what's the status now of American aid, cooperation with the new Indonesian government?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President expressed some optimism about the events in recent days, both the acceptance of the referendum and the presidential elections. I think on multilateral aid there are still some other issues outstanding and, as the President indicated, there is more work to be done. But there is reason for optimism and there is reason for hope.
Q He also mentioned today that he pressed Republicans with his proposal to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund. Is that the fee-for-service or is that --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Obviously, the President would like to do broader Medicare reform and is very disappointed that the Republicans have failed to take up in any meaningful way -- in fact, even hold a hearing on the prescription drug proposal that he put forward. In a narrower context of the fixes for the Balanced Budget Amendment of 1997, we have put forward ideas to the Senate on providing some reforms within the system, accepting some private sector practices that will generate some savings that will help pay for the monies, the additional monies that will need to go to hospitals, nursing homes, the other areas where the cutbacks were too severe.
Q Joe, one more. Any comments on the newly arrived Pakistan ambassador who has asked for political asylum in the U.S.?
MR. LOCKHART: I wasn't aware of that, so we'll look into that.
Q Joe, just to follow up, what type of reception did he get for those Medicare -- when he discussed Medicare with them, what type of reception did he get?
MR. LOCKHART: Specifically, I don't know if there was any resistance. I think both Democrats and Republicans realize that in order that there is a consensus, that there have to be some givebacks. And there is a consensus that they have to be paid for, and this is the most appropriate way to do it.
Q On the givebacks that were outlined yesterday, here, the ones that could be done administratively, how much would that package cost, and how would that be paid for?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the administrative ones are in the baseline, right? So it's impossible to estimate the cost --
Q Well, the report is at least $1 billion.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, my conversations with OMB is that this is a baseline issue, and I don't have an accurate estimate of the cost of this.
Q Joe, does the President plan on having a conversation with Governor Rossello of Puerto Rico, as to his policy of allowing Puerto Ricans to use themselves as human shields on Vieques?
MR. LOCKHART: The President is very much looking forward to the Pentagon continuing their dialogue and mediation, and will look to their recommendation on coming up with a solution to the Vieques problem. He does believe that we need to come up with a compromise, and he thinks that Secretary Cohen is working toward that. And he looks forward to his recommendation.
Q In his first report, he doesn't consider an adequate compromise.
MR. LOCKHART: I think he agrees with Secretary Cohen that they need to go back and do more work.
Q Will he intervene personally?
MR. LOCKHART: I think Secretary Cohen is leading this. He's doing it in a straightforward and positive way, and he will look forward to his recommendation.
Q This whole idea and the lockbox about interest savings, isn't this projected interest savings, and how would that not be a gimmick?
MR. LOCKHART: All of the surplus numbers and budgeting numbers rely in large part on projections. But I think it makes the argument for locking up the savings even stronger when you say you're not 100 percent absolutely sure how much will be there, rather than spending it.
Let's remember something here. It was only two months ago that we were all standing in here talking about an $800-billion tax cut. Can you imagine the kind of conversations we'd be having with appropriators now if they had an $800-billion hole to fill, which the Republicans confidently said they could pay for, wouldn't come out of Social Security, all of those things.
Well, the President, I think, rightly stopped that effort because they couldn't pay for it and it would have come from Social Security. So I think we rely on projections. OMB, I think, has done an admirable job if you look at their numbers over the last five or six years, but it makes the case for why we need to do the fiscally-disciplined, prudent thing in trying to tie up some savings, because spending can't be recouped.
Q Joe, isn't it still a pay-for that's based on a projection?
MR. LOCKHART: We could run around on this all day and I think you have to use, in order to do long-term budgeting and to try to extend the Social Security solvency, you have to use some projections. There's just no other way to do it.
Q Joe, will Senator Lott be forced to put away his boat in order to get a defense bill that the President will sign?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think they'll -- the appropriators and our negotiators will get together. They'll look at all the numbers. We'll see where it goes.
Q Since Senator Lott claims that by building that ship now, rather than 2003 or 2004, you'll save $1 billion.
MR. LOCKHART: It's hard to see how we'd save $1 billion. The Pentagon says they don't need it until 2011. They don't have anyplace to put it. But these are real issues that negotiators can sit down and work through, using real numbers. And we'll see where we go.
Q Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you. Okay, one more.
Q Besides the tobacco tax, what other revenue raisers are you going to submit?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, you can just go back to the President's budget. There are a series of corporate loophole closings. There's making polluters pay their fair share on the Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites. So they're all in the budget, so they're all right there.
Q How much do all the non-tobacco revenue raisers account for? What's the amount?
MR. LOCKHART: I only know -- I think it's over ten, so it was over --
MR. SIEWERT: Tobacco was eight.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. I'll have to look. I don't know off the top of my head.
Q Joe, the meeting the President has later this afternoon with young people is an outreach. I know we've gone over this before, but I figured we should again. Back in November of 1997, the President had an outreach meeting with young people, and said afterwards, "I insist that we have a reporter in every one. I wish we had one in all the others."
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Is there a reason he's retreating from that commitment?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I'm making a decision on a case-by-case basis on these, and I don't see a compelling reason to have someone in there.
Q Why not?
MR. LOCKHART: That's just a decision I've made.
Q You're going against the President's wishes?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. It happens occasionally.
END 2:00 P.M. EDT