THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART
The Briefing Room
1:45 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Let me do a few minutes first on a story I know that you're following. I've just gotten off the phone with representatives of the FAA, Department of Transportation, the Pentagon, and some of the people here in the building. As you well know now, the FAA began tracking an aircraft in distress this morning that was following a flight plan filed for Orlando to Dallas. The last communication was heard somewhere near Gainesville, Florida. At some subsequent point the Air Force dispatched chase planes.
That plane has crashed now 20 miles west of Aberdeen, South Dakota, in a swampy area. It was observed by people on the ground. There are no reports of injuries on the ground, nor of property damage. It is closest to a town called Mina, South Dakota. There are two FAA personnel that have been dispatched from their Great Lakes region and an NTSB scene.
The President was made aware of this situation this morning in a meeting with his economic advisors around 12:30 p.m.-12:45 p.m. The NSC and Cabinet Affairs continue to give updates through the Chief of Staff John Podesta, and he's now been up to date on all the information that I've give you. That's about the extent of the information I have. I think FAA, DOT and the Pentagon may have some other information available later in the day.
Q Do you have any notion as to who is on board the plane?
MR. LOCKHART: They have what they told me is an unconfirmed roster of people. They're trying to confirm that, and until they have confirmed that, there won't be any further information.
Q Joe, can you explain what is so unusual about this? I mean there are private plane crashes all the time. This is a remarkable kind of response from the government on this.
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. I think there's been some intense interest in the last hour on this, as the story unfolded. And I just wanted to get up front for everybody the latest information we had.
Q I'm just wondering how often the President is briefed on a private plane crash.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, he's from time to time briefed on circumstances that we think he'll have an interest in.
Q Does the President know Payne Stewart?
MR. LOCKHART: Does he? I assume so.
Q Has he met with him? I mean, he was a member of the Ryder Cup. Can you give us any information on the relationship between the two?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information on the relationship.
Q Is that why the President's interested?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I'm not going down that road. And if that's where we're going, I'll leave right now. So, have we got other subjects? I think I made myself pretty clear.
Q You're raising a pretty big question about why the President's taking this kind of interest. I'm just wondering why --
MR. LOCKHART: If that's where we want to go, the briefing's over. Or do we want to go further? I mean, I'm happy to end it.
Q Joe, was there ever any kind of security aspect to this? I mean, the plane is heading north. Presumably if it had enough fuel it would fly over the pole or something. Was that ever an issue?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think there's some sense -- and I think one of the reasons that there was some concern that it might go to a populated area as it crashed. But that's not the circumstance. But that's one of the reasons why he was being followed so closely.
Q Was there some thought of taking it out of the sky before it hit a populated area?
MR. LOCKHART: We certainly have the authority to do that, but there was no recommendation in this circumstance that that would be appropriate, given what they knew.
Q Is it right, Joe, that only the President could make that order?
MR. LOCKHART: I know that certainly the President has it within his authority to do that.
Q Only the President?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know the answer to that.
Q Was it near any of these military installations in South Dakota?
MR. LOCKHART: It's not far from an Air Force base in South Dakota, the name of which escapes me right now. But it was described to me a few moments ago in a swampy area, where it caused no injuries on the ground.
Q Joe, did it ever get to the point where someone said to the President, sir, you might have to make a decision at some point to shoot this plane down?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think it ever got to that point.
Q Anything on President Clinton's trip to Greece?
MR. LOCKHART: Not today.
Q Joe, since the President spoke out so commendably about the murder of adult homosexual Matt Shepard in Wyoming, I'm wondering what was his reaction to the repeated rape and murder of 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising by two adult homosexual men in Arkansas?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that the President is aware of that circumstance.
Q It was page one of the Washington Times on Saturday. Don't you read that paper, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't normally do, nor do I think the President. But I think --
Q Could you possibly -- could you ask him?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as a matter of general principle, the President abhors any kind of violent act. And we have worked very hard over the last seven years in a very productive way to reduce crime in this country.
Q As his media advisor, were you surprised that while the murder of an adult, Shepard, received enormous coverage in the big media, this multiple rape and murder of a child went so widely unreported ?
MR. LOCKHART: I try to keep my media criticisms to myself.
Q Joe, could you give us a readout on the economic meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. The President wanted to get an update on the latest state of play in the budget discussions with Congress. Jack Lew, Gene Sperling, John Podesta gave him that. I think the President, on the way to New York, will have a departure statement. In that statement he will indicate that he is vetoing the CJS bills and he will sign the defense bill. And as we move forward, we'll work very hard to make the case against the indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts that the congressional Republicans have put forward. He thinks that that is the wrong way to govern.
Governing is about making tough choices, making priorities. And it's particularly galling, given the fact that they want everyone else to suffer, but have put themselves in a position where their pay raise is exempt. And I don't think the American public is going to buy this argument. And that's the basic points he'll make this afternoon.
Q When will he sign the defense bill?
MR. LOCKHART: Sometime between now and when we leave.
Q Why did he decide to do so?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we felt -- when we talked about the defense bill last week, we think, like with any bill, you don't agree with everything that's in it, and we think this one's been loaded up a little bit with some unnecessary projects. But overall, the President's the one who started the call for increasing the defense budget, and it's very important that we meet our commitments to our national security, to our servicemen, both at home and around the world.
And I think we made the point that we wanted to get the Republicans to put everything down on the table, to show their cards, to turn their cards over so we could fully understand. We've now seen most of it, given the announcements they've made about how they want to cut spending across the board. And this bill is worthy of his signing.
Q Joe, that means that he's now vetoed or threatened to veto Commerce, D.C., Interior and Labor, and -- one more.
MR. LOCKHART: CJS. Commerce --
Q Interior, Labor, D.C. and --
Q Yes. I said Labor. What's the --
MR. LOCKHART: There are now four or five?
MR. TOIV: He also vetoed Foreign Ops.
MR. LOCKHART: Foreign Ops, yes. I thought there were five, I just couldn't --
Q Okay, my question is, he wanted the Republicans to look at this as an omnibus bill, he didn't want to do this one by one.
MR. LOCKHART: Right.
Q Does he feel he's now failed in that strategy, since they've kind of forced him to veto --
MR. LOCKHART: No. No. I think there are five bills left. We're going to have a good debate over the next few days about education, about COPS, about the environment, all the bills that are there. We have, in a sense, made them put their cards on the table about how they plan to pay for it all. Although, we don't think they're being particularly straight about the size of the across-the-board cut, if they really don't want to dip into the Social Security surplus.
But they've now done that. We're going to have a debate on it, rather than playing with blue smoke and mirrors. And we think when this debate finishes we will have secured the kind of funding we need for, again, education, police, things like the Wye River peace accord -- the priorities that the President has put forward.
Q Joe, if they've put their cards on the table and you don't think they've successfully addressed how they're going to pay for things, why did he sign the defense bill?
MR. LOCKHART: Pardon?
Q You're saying that one of the reasons you can do this now is because they've put their cards on the table, but you don't think they've done a good job of it. So why did you sign this bill?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, no, we're going to have a real debate now, rather than a false debate, of whether the spending that we need we pay for, or whether we just use gimmicks or we don't fund the President's priorities. And that's a debate I think we'll win.
Q Well, did you calculate that you can't sustain a veto on the defense bill?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think we calculated that we could. But we --
Q -- the margin was so overwhelming?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we calculated there were discussions between the White House and the House Democrats. We thought we could sustain a veto, but we didn't think that was the most productive fight to go down.
Q Joe, is there any kind of understanding with Republicans on signing the bill, any quid pro quo or anything? No deal?
MR. LOCKHART: No, only they need to understand that we're now moving to a debate that's about putting teachers in the classroom. It's about putting cops on the street. It's about protecting our environment. Their long ago idea of tax cuts has been stopped. The President believes that we need to increase defense spending. He's talked about it in the State of the Union, in the defense authorization and in his budget. And the right thing to do is to sign this and move forward.
Q Isn't it also true, though, that by vetoing the defense bill you would have generated a lot of political heat that you wouldn't have wanted?
MR. LOCKHART: I think when you're looking at politics, the politics of this are going to come when the Republicans have to stand up and talk about why they want to cut education across the board, law enforcement across the board, health and research across the board. We're going to make the case in very strong terms because we've got a lot of work to do in a short period of time.
Q You set a deadline last week of getting something done by Tuesday. Is that still something that you're shooting for?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we expect them to meet this afternoon. I think Tuesday was an attempt on our side to get all the cards on the table. And I think we've done that. We now know what we're debating. And I think the President has got a strong proposal to invest in his priorities and pay for it. The Republicans are already dipping into the Social Security surplus and want to do an across the board spending cut. So that's a debate we'll be glad to have.
Q Is he ready to invite them back? I mean, what's going to happen?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, they have yet to sit down today. I think there are some members returning late from the weekend, so we want to see how the conversations go this afternoon and see where we go. I don't know if we're at the point yet of another invitation. I think there is important work going on among the appropriators and our team from OMB, and we need to see where that goes.
Q What time today?
MR. LOCKHART: I was told it was 2:00 p.m., but it might slip. So I've just got to keep checking in with them.
Q You said CJS is going to be vetoed?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q But there is no more "deadline is tomorrow"?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's a CR that runs out at the end of the week. The deadline was only in the sense that tomorrow was the decision day for -- the absolute last decision day for defense.
Q What about ultimately scoring this by OMB, instead of CBO?
MR. LOCKHART: Scoring?
Q Scoring these bills using OMB's assumptions, rather than CBOs?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, in a way, some of the bills are already scored by OMB, because they've used the OMB numbers when they want them, they've used CBO numbers when they don't want them.
Q Would the administration agree to doing that if you could get more money that way?
MR. LOCKHART: If we could get more money? Let me look into that, that's an accounting question that I'm not qualified to answer.
Q Joe, the President said today that a certain cholesterol-lowering drug was more expensive in the United States than in Canada. Does he believe that most drugs in the United States are more expensive than they are in most of the rest of the industrialized world?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there is certainly anecdotal evidence to support that case. I think the study that he's looking for will not look at exclusively or explicitly about drug prices around the world. He's really looking at the difference between different people, different part of our population, why some people in some health plans pay a lot more than other people in other health plans.
And I think it all goes to the overall argument that the President has been making now through this entire year, that we need to modernize Medicare in a comprehensive way. And one important and elemental way to do that is to provide a prescription drug benefit.
Q So he won't compare -- so the study will not compare prices in the United States with other countries, or it will?
MR. LOCKHART: There is certainly evidence out there about people who live in the north who are able to travel to Canada and get lower prices. Beyond calling up some pharmacies, I don't think you need to do that much work to confirm that. I think they'll -- I don't want to exclude that from what they're doing, but also I think the real meat of it will be in looking between programs and between population groups and age groups on why there are people who are paying a lot more than they should be paying.
Q To go back to the defense bill, does the President now accept that a certain ship that's going to be built in Pascagoula is needed now? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: You know, I don't think he thinks it's needed now. The Pentagon doesn't think it's needed now. And that's one of the problems with many of the bills -- they're loaded up with pork. And in a way, Congress has taken a quite arrogant position, which is they've set new records as far as how much they've earmarked, which is a way of them saying, this is what you must do at an agency. They've done it more than, by a newspaper story today, than anyone else has ever done. But when it comes time for the rest, the small pool, it will be up to them to decide how to cut their spending.
Q How about Gulfstreams for all the --
Q -- and veto it?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President overall believes that the bill funds the increases we need in Pentagon -- because it's a national security interests of this country -- and he's made a commitment to all the troops, whether it be the Joint Chiefs all the way down, that he was going to provide them with the resources they need.
I think bills come down here from time to time that are not perfect, and you have to make a decision on whether you take what's good and work in the future to get the bad stuff out. And that's something we'll be doing.
Q Joe, the President, Senator Mikulski, Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Mayor Schmoke and Peter Angelos, who owns the Orioles, were all scheduled to be present today at a big fundraising luncheon in Baltimore. But despite the promise of the President's presence, the sale of tickets was so poor that the Maryland Democrats cancelled this event, and one of them said he thinks the President "doesn't do small groups." Since the Maryland Republican headquarters reported this as "Clinton Fatigue Hits Maryland," what is your explanation of this cancellation, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: It's the same as my explanation last week, and it was not anywhere near the Maryland Republican Party's explanation.
Q Joe, you answered this question last week about the Renaissance --
MR. LOCKHART: Good. Next? Sorry. (Laughter.)
Q You answered this question last week about the Renaissance Weekend. But there's a new twist to it, and you said you didn't really know at the time if they were going to do it. Did you find out if they were thinking about going back down to South Carolina for Renaissance Weekend? And now Julian Bond from the NAACP is calling on Clinton not to attend because of the Confederate flag flying --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm aware of the concern raised by the NAACP. We have made no decision yet, and that decision is normally made late in the year. So I just don't know to what extent the concerns raised by the NAACP and others will be factored into their final decision.
Q Joe, a follow-up? The President's made it very clear his thoughts on race on many occasions. What are his thoughts about the Confederate flag flying over state capitols? Has he ever made comment about it?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, I honestly have never spoken to him about it. And before I was here, I know there were some issues with some states. South Carolina, I just don't know. That's something worth checking, and I will. I'll check.
Q Thank you.
Q Joe, has the President called the President-elect of Argentina, the new President?
MR. LOCKHART: He has not, but -- and I expect we will have a statement later in the day congratulating the new President for his impressive victory in Sunday's election. We also will congratulate the Argentine people for its strong commitment to democratic government and the peaceful transfer of power.
Q Joe, what is your overall sense now as we head into the end of the week as to whether we're going to get something this week? What's your sense -- are we going to make it this week?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, again, it comes down to the majority party's willingness to get something done. We have had productive meetings at the negotiating table. There's no reason why we can't get something done this week. The only thing that will stand in the way is political considerations. And I don't know that it's any clearer today than it was last week on what their overall game plan is.
Q Joe, last week Jack Lew said that it's very probable that it could end in November and there would be a third CR. Is that a strong probability?
MR. LOCKHART: It's certainly a possibility.
Q Joe, The Washington Post's Mark Shields reported this morning that only three of 12 Towson, Maryland Democrats would vote for Mr. Clinton if he were able to run again, and these Maryland Democrats describe the President as "untrustworthy, slick and dishonest." What's your reaction to that, Joe? That came out this morning, not last week.
MR. LOCKHART: We're not running again, so I guess I have no reaction to that.
Q And who is paying for this political campaigning in New York, Joe? Who is paying for it?
MR. LOCKHART: Pardon?
Q Who is paying the cost of the President flying up to salute Hillary on Broadway?
MR. LOCKHART: That would be the exploratory committee.
I have one announcement --
Q The exploratory committee is paying for it?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I have one other -- consistent with all of the political travel the President does.
One other announcement I have -- travel announcement. The President will travel on November 4-5 to build on the remarkable private sector response to his New Markets challenge by leading a bipartisan delegation to Newark, New Jersey; Hartford, Connecticut; Hermitage, Arkansas; and Chicago, Illinois.
The goal of the first trip was to introduce the private sector to the broad range of opportunities in underserved markets around the country. The second New Market tour will focus not only on where to find that potential, but how to turn that potential into long-term partnerships. We will focus on a number of existing partnerships, including in Newark with local sports organizations, throughout the trip.
Q Joe, if the President says on the prescription drugs that this study is necessary to gather the clear and indisputable evidence, do those numbers not exist in any form, and if so, why did he wait until now to order this study?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there have been a couple of studies that HHS has done; there is a lot of anecdotal evidence. But we're moving forward in an environment where we're pushing very hard to modernize the Medicare program. The President thought it would be good to take a specific look at these issues as we move forward and try to work with Congress to get Medicare and broad Medicare reform back on center stage, and particularly prescription drugs.
Q Why is he not studying the price differences between the U.S. and Canada, for example, or the U.S. and other countries, though he cited it today --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't want to completely exclude that, but one of the things -- we have control over the health care system in this country. So I don't know, at a certain point, how much we can get. I mean, I think we know that the anecdotal evidence is quite clear from the number of people who travel north and south, as far as getting their drugs. I think -- so that's clear. I think what we need to know more about as far as the study is within the groups and within age groups why, from organization health care plans, one to another, there's such a dramatic difference in the price people pay.
Q Is it possible that, for example, in the case of Canada, the drugs are subsidized in part by the government and that would explain the price difference and be a reason for him not to --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, certainly, there are some places you go there are subsidies. I don't know about Canada. Some places they buy in bulk. They have the kind of modernized health care system that we're trying to move to, that takes the best of the private sector practices.
But the bottom line is that the President believes that seniors pay too much right now for prescription drugs. They need help. And one of the ways that we're going to move forward with that is to find out exactly why they pay too much.
Q What are the chances that the United States can reach agreement with China on WTO before Seattle?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we certainly believe that it's in the United States' interest, it's in China's interest to have China join the WTO on commercially viable terms. As far as the negotiations and trying to predict, I'm not in a position to give you the status of those negotiations, or predict whether it will be done. But we do believe and have made clear to the Chinese that we think it's important that we move forward here and that it would be preferable that we could get it done by the time of the WTO meeting.
Q How important is it to the President?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, it's important for, I think, our economy, for workers, for businesses. I wouldn't attach terribly much artificial importance to getting it done by WTO. It just, I think, would certainly -- the quicker we can do it, the better. But, again, I don't think if it's not done by a particular day in November, that doesn't mean it won't get done.
Q What about the Democrat disaster in Louisiana, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: What about it?
Q Mike Foster defeated William Jefferson 62 to 30 percent. Does that indicate more Clinton fatigue?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think it does.
Q What does it indicate in your --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know, ask people in Louisiana.
Q Joe, the President today, in the same speech in which he accused the pharmaceutical industry of distortion and deception, announced a study of drug prices. Why shouldn't this study of drug prices be seen as a punishment for the drug industry's ad campaign against the President's Medicare proposal?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that the drug companies should join us rather than be working against us, as far as trying to find a way to modernize the health care system in this country, provide an affordable way for seniors to get drugs, an affordable and optional way for seniors to get it. And I just don't think they should view the world as revolving around them.
Q Well, how about -- is this drug study a punishment for the ad campaign?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
MR. LOCKHART: No. It's none of those things. As many ways as you have of asking it, it's none of them.
Q So can that be seen as basically the next administration step on Medicare, since the drug benefits are going nowhere?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's certainly -- we tried this year very hard to do, in a comprehensive and broad way, Medicare reform. The Congress has taken a pass on it, just like it appears they may take a pass on patients' bill of rights, they may take a pass on gun control legislation. They've taken a pass on campaign finance. They may take a pass on minimum wage. These are all issues that are very important, and because Congress takes a pass, we're going to keep it center stage and keep presenting it to them.
We have discrete areas where we can make incremental steps -- in the balanced budget amendment givebacks, they have to be paid for. We all agree that hospitals, nursing homes, need -- that the cuts were too deep in 1997, and that some money has to flow back there.
What we haven't agreed on is how we're going to pay for it. I think the Republicans have argued that we can just use the Social Security surplus, since they have no other alternative. You know, we've said that you can pay for it by doing some limited reforms within the Medicare system that will actually modernize it. We can do this step by step or we can do it in a broader way. Because Congress has not chosen to move on these important issues doesn't mean that we're not going to continue to try to tackle the problems.
Q Joe, will the purpose of the drug study be to look for improper, or even perhaps illegal pricing policies that the President might be able to -- executive action? Or would it be to bring out price disparities and use them as a political tool to press legislative action?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think the purpose of this study and all studies is to understand more fully the problem so you can craft a solution to the problem based on your study and your fact, rather than on anecdotal information.
Q Joe, in Colombia the peace talks are stalled and the rebels are doing some conditionalities to the talks, like avoiding the United States intervention in any issue in Colombia, and also even the finance request by President Pastrana to help his anti-narcotic fight. How you are going to help Colombia with this kind of conditionalities by the rebels, when the people in Colombia are trying to get -- are more interested in peace than in the fight against narcotics?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we have made very clear our support for both sides engaging in a dialogue to end 40 years of violence. As far as the counternarcotics, we provide considerable support for that effort, and we are currently doing an internal review of the support we do with an eye toward the new plan that's been put forward by President Pastrana, and when we come to a conclusion, we'll make that known.
Q What's the timetable on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have a precise timetable. I know that they've been talking about this since the meeting at the U.N., so that was about a month ago, I think.
Q You have stood up there and you've been critical of many of the provisions in the defense bill. You've said there are hundreds of millions of dollars that need not be spent.
MR. LOCKHART: Right.
Q Why does this not cry out for the President's veto?
MR. LOCKHART: Because there are billions of dollars of national security spending in there that's vital to this country's security. We have tens of thousands of servicemen who depend on what we do for them around the world, people who put their lives at risk. It's unfortunate that the bill has gotten loaded up with the pork barrel spending of individual members who have their own interest at heart, things that the Pentagon didn't want, but overall, the President has made the judgment that our national security concerns here are paramount and that the bill is worth signing.
Q Joe, how is the relationship right now between the administration and Congress on appropriations? I mean, you're getting them now on the congressional pay raise, and yet you signed the defense bill. Is it better than last week?
MR. LOCKHART: It's early in the week. Listen, we've got a lot of work to do and we've made it very clear we're committed to getting it done, and we're trying to put politics aside. We hope that that will be reciprocated and that they'll work in good faith. And the proof will be in the negotiations and what we get done.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:15 P.M. EDT