THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:07 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: I open it to your questions.
Q Joe, the Russians said that they were providing a safe corridor for civilians to leave Grozny, but apparently they have not stopped bombarding the city, so people are afraid to leave their houses. Has this changed the administration's view in terms of what it can or should do?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, as the President addressed directly yesterday, we have made the case to them, both publicly and privately, that we don't believe a military solution can be imposed here, and that they need to open a dialogue.
There's some movement on the OSCE mission, but we've made it very clear, as I think the entire international community has, how much concern the international community has about their recent actions, that is only deepened by the events of the last few days.
Q What are the consequences?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the consequences are, this is damaging to Russia; they further face isolation within the international community. The results of this, we believe, potentially are counterproductive, hardening the resistance of the terrorist efforts in Chechnya. And I think we have made clear on many occasions, now, how counterproductive we find their policy to be.
Q But what will the U.S. do, Joe? What will the U.S. do if this continues?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we will continue to make the case to them on how counterproductive this is. I'm not going to get into any specifics of any action we might take down the road. We will continue to make decisions based on what we think our national security interests are.
Q Why should the Russians not simply conclude that the only price they pay is rhetorical, because the United States has done nothing on IMF loans, has done nothing on -- which we support to Russia. I mean, we're not even talking about doing those things?
MR. LOCKHART: What's going on on IMF loans? I mean, examine your question -- what's going on on IMF loans?
Q Hasn't the United States opposed the granting of further IMF loans to Russia?
MR. LOCKHART: IMF loans are blocked right now, which we support based on other considerations. It hasn't even come to that so I think you can, in your own way, develop a rhetorical device that has no meaning here. We have made the case, but we are ultimately going to make our decisions based on what our national security interests -- if you look at the aid that we provide to Russia, the vast majority of it is to make our life safer. The vast majority of that aid goes to reducing their nuclear threat, and I don't know at this point -- the productivity of removing that assistance. I also don't know the productivity of removing the assistance we give to democratic institutions outside of Moscow that promote democracy.
Again, I don't think this is a situation where you want to undermine your own national security to make some sort of statement.
Q What happened at the Robertson meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: The Robertson meeting -- they discussed -- as I previewed this morning, they had a discussion on the situation in Chechnya, shared mutual concern there. Also talked about the European Security Defense Initiative, an extensive discussion on Kosovo, the situation with KFOR and the United Nations mission there, and as I mentioned this morning, the President reviewed our current thinking on national missile defense and our ability to work with the ABM Treaty.
Q Joe, what's the current thinking on how long troops will have to -- American and other troops will have to stay in Kosovo?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any update beyond -- we, I think, learned in Bosnia that setting a hard and fast timeline is not the right way to move forward. They will be there as long as it takes to get the mission accomplished.
Q Has the President made up his mind now on SDI? Is he definitely going ahead?
MR. LOCKHART: A national missile defense decision will be made later next year, based on the feasibility, the technology, the cost, and there's no decision -- and the threat, obviously.
Q What was Robertson's attitude? Do you know what Robertson said?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll leave it to Lord Robertson to express his views.
Q When you say get the mission accomplished, what is the mission at this point? What would be accomplishing the mission?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, they're providing peacekeeping support right now. We are moving in a transition between the KFOR mission and the United Nations mission for restoring basic elements and components of self-government. That process will go on for some time, and I'm not in a position to predict how long that will take.
Q Were you saying before with regard to Russia that there's not a lot that we can do specifically to influence their behavior?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I wasn't. I just was responding to a question that was asked of me on particular issues.
Q Is there a lot we can do?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that there is a lot that the United States can do and the international community can do as far as indicating to them how strongly we feel about this. But, again, I don't see the utility in getting into any specific steps that may or may not be taken.
Q But in terms of withholding aid or sanctions, it seems to me that you're indicating that there isn't a lot that we can do.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm telling you that we'll make our decisions based on our national security interests, what we'll do on aid, what we'll do on sanctions. Right now, the IMF is holding up economic aid based on purely economic issues. When those are satisfied, I don't know -- I mean, it's trying to look into the future on what decisions may or may not be made.
As far as the bilateral aid that's given, we've indicated what -- you know what that aid is for. And I don't know that it makes sense at this point to stop efforts to reduce the nuclear threat to this country in order to make a statement on another issue.
Q Does the President believe that there's a form of ethnic cleansing going on in Chechnya now?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President's very concerned about the humanitarian plight of the people of Chechnya who are being in some places moved, in some places being kept from moving. I don't know that it fits the pure model of ethnic cleansing. But the distinction is probably lost on those who are facing a humanitarian crisis.
Q Given the outcome of the WTO in Seattle last week, how do you move forward selling China's admission up on the Hill, particularly with the insistence on labor standards, and their own record on that subject?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we move forward by making the case directly on why it's in the interests of U.S. business, U.S. families, why it's in the interest of continuing to sustain the remarkable and unprecedented economic growth, and why we think it's in the interest of trying to integrate China into the international community. That effort has already begun, and will continue from now until the day of the vote.
Q Joe, you indicated yesterday when you announced the plans for the news conference that the President wants to talk about the agenda for the coming year. Considering the makeup of Congress and other political reality -- the increasing lame-duck status, and the campaign year -- what realistically do you think are the prospects that the President's wish list is going to go anywhere?
MR. LOCKHART: I think one of the things that we've all learned here is not to worry too much about the labels and the predictions. We joke that there are a lot of people who write and are scribes and pundits in this town, who wrote us off after the first two weeks in the administration. So the President has an aggressive agenda which he will articulate both in his budget and his State of the Union early in January and February, early in the year. They will be issues that you've heard before, some are familiar as far as extending Social Security and modernizing Medicare, moving on issues that we did not finish this year, like gun control, patients bill of rights, and he'll have a number of new initiatives that he'll outline in the State of the Union. So I think he's very anxious to get moving with next year's agenda, and optimistic that we can get a lot of work done.
Q Was the date for the press conference scheduled, or at least tentatively scheduled before the WTO meeting, or was it --
MR. LOCKHART: No, it was about two weeks ago that we settled on the day. We had committed to do one more before the year was over.
Q The President, in the past, has often, when he's had a setback, generally he'll come right out and either hold a press conference or something like that. Will he be talking about WTO in his opening remarks?
MR. LOCKHART: I doubt that it will be central to the opening remarks, but I certainly anticipate that there will be a question or two.
Q What will his remarks be about?
MR. LOCKHART: We're still working on it.
Q The President did not seem to want to deal with the Cuba question. A deadline has been imposed by --
MR. LOCKHART: The President did not want to take any of the suspense and enjoyment out of tomorrow's hour he's going to spend with all of you.
Q What is the United States reaction to this threat by Castro to take unspecified --
MR. LOCKHART: The same as I articulated yesterday. We will make decisions here based on what the laws of this country indicate -- also based on the best interests of the young man in question. We do not respond to the kind of threats that Castro has engaged in, and we also made quite clear that we hold him responsible for the safety of Americans who are in Cuba.
Q Does the political nature of this case suggest that it may be prudent to have some involvement by Washington and not leave it entirely to the state of Florida?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think that is has been left to the state of Florida. This is now at the INS, they are going through the process, this is a unique case, but it is not one that they are not equipped to deal with. They have a process that we're dealing with. I know they will be talking to the parties and communicating to the interested parties relatively soon about how this can potentially move forward.
If you listened this morning to the U.S.-based lawyers for the family, they've indicated they would like to work this out within the family. That is a possibility. There is a possibility it could be worked out within the context of the INS. Or it may have to go to a state court if there are joint custody claims. This is something that has not played out. But the INS is working through their process, and will do it based on their procedures, based on our law, and not based on some threat from an outside force.
Q Joe, we have an agreement with Cuba, as I understand, the migration agreement says basically that if someone reaches the U.S. shore on their own, they're allowed to stay; if they're picked up at sea, they're returned to Cuba. Why was there an exception in this case?
MR. LOCKHART: Because from time to time, the INS makes exceptions. And I would go to the INS for the particulars of why they've made this decision. But from this point on, there's a procedure that the INS follows. And it will be done based on their rules, based on our laws. And eventually, it may have to be adjudicated in a state court. It may not, though.
Q But this is an agreement the administration signed with Cuba, not that the INS signed with Cuba. So I'm asking, is the administration satisfied with the way this was handled, and does it believe an exception was made in this case, in that the normal procedure was not followed?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, in this particular case, as you remember, there was -- not only for the young man, I think, for some of the others -- there was a need for emergency medical care. That is certainly, I think, understandable by all rational parties.
Now we're in a situation where we have to go through a procedure that the INS does -- again, this is a somewhat unique case. It's not something that's in the ordinary order of business. But they have a procedure that they will follow. They will communicate with interested parties soon about how they'll move forward. And this can resolve itself in a number of ways of which we don't know at this point.
Q But they've given him parole, so he's allowed to stay here for the moment. What is the INS role in sort of-- you make it sound like they're mediating between his father in Cuba and the families in --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think they will work through the issues of how to deal with the young man, but they will do it in a way that allows interested parties to understand the process and how they're going to move forward. And, again, as has been widely discussed, there is some possibility that they're could be a legal custody claim that might involve the state court. But, again, there's nothing that's been filed.
I think there is a temptation to get a little ahead of ourselves here on how this will play out. I can only tell you that the INS is working this and will be in touch with the families.
Q What is the INS decision that has to be made now? What is the next step here? I don't understand what you're saying.
MR. LOCKHART: They, because they are INS, regulate immigration policy. And this is an issue where they will have to decide the ultimate fate of this young man. And the only thing that I can tell you that complicates it somewhat is that there may be a custody claim here, and that's just got to be worked through. They've got a process here that involves gathering the facts, which they have been doing. That process is not complete, and they're just going to have to work through it. And in a 24-hour news environment, I know that it may be frustrating that this takes time, but it does.
Q Joe, in the Rose Garden, the President, when asked about liability of people who admit past mistakes, he seemed to indicate it probably wasn't much of a problem, didn't see that there had been a problem in the 22 states where there have been -- where there is some kind of legislation now. And then he said, it doesn't matter because we've got to stop people dying and we've got to admit past mistakes. But when these health care providers came out to the driveway, they said they need legislation to protect them. They're talking about that old term, tort reform, to give them some kind of protection so that an employee can come forward and say, I made a mistake, we have a wrong kind of procedure here, and have some kind of protection. How does the President feel about liability protection?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's a number of levels of answer to this. I think most doctors, when they take an oath to become a doctor, when they make a mistake they're responsible for coming forward, based on the obligations they've made in becoming a doctor. I think we've -- the IOM has indicated that we have 22 states that have a mandatory requirement that when you make a mistake you need to report that -- a mistake that causes a fatality. They have recommended that all states take on that requirement. I think the President believes that's the proper course of action, that all states should have the requirement.
But part of the process here is we're going to take 60 days to look at how we implement and move forward with these changes. I think the President's point here -- and another point, and probably more to what has gone into this discussion is there's -- I think if you just take the 22 states, they already have a requirement. This wouldn't change anything. And I think most Americans would believe that it wouldn't put any additional burden on health care providers to come forward with these mistakes.
But I think one of the areas that there's been a lot of discussion on is what, in the health care world they call the near-miss, where basically they make some sort of mistake, but they catch it and they're able to provide health care that does not cause a fatality. That's really an area where there's not incentive right now for people to come forward, but there's an obvious benefit if there is some pool of information about it, because people -- I think doctors make mistakes, and if there is a pattern of mistakes, it's easier to correct and I think improve the ultimate health care. So that we have to look at how we can create an incentive in those areas.
So I think there is a lot to discuss over the next 60 days before they report back to the committee, but I think ultimately, what has to come first is the health and well-being of patients. I think what you've heard from a number of people today is that's ultimately what they're concerned about.
Q They were talking about near-misses. Obviously, if somebody does something that causes a problem for a patient, well, there are laws in effect and you've got to report those. But -- so the White House would not necessarily be against some sort of protection for people to encourage them to report near-misses?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we have to -- and one of the things we have to look forward in as this process goes forward is, is how we can find a way to create a system where there is an incentive to look at these near-misses. How that happens, I don't know. This is obviously, the experts are going to work on this. But we have a system now that does not provide -- does not require or provide any benefit to the health care provider to provide this information so that people can pool the information and make judgments ultimately on any potential changes that might be needed.
Q Joe, the Social Security Task Force said that the system is actually going to be in worse trouble, because they're underestimating the life expectancy of baby boomers and subsequent generations. Does this change the President's strategy to revisit his Social Security?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not really. I think this is a board that provides advice on a yearly basis to the Social Security Trust Fund, and their report this year is somewhat mixed. It's actually -- if you're a normal person, it's all good news, but it has different impacts on the trust fund.
First, life expectancies are longer, which is good news for everyone, but actually has some marginal -- provides some marginal strain to the trust fund. Wage growth is higher, which actually lessens the burden, and they note that interest rates are lower, which obviously has good impact on people's daily lives, but does provide some strain to the trust fund.
I think as far as when the trust fund will have problems with solvency isn't likely to change by a significant time frame. I don't think they, with this advice, they're looking at changing the years -- that it will come upon us much faster.
But I think it does underscore the fact that Social Security needs an infusion of capital on the solvency front. We need to look at the Social Security system. And the President will return to this early next year, and challenge Congress to work with him to find a long-term solution.
Q Well, he did that this year and he didn't get anywhere --
Q He did it last year, too.
MR. LOCKHART: He did.
Q And he did it last year, so what is he going to do differently this year --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, he is going to continue to work with Congress and hope that something -- maybe it's the nearness of them facing their constituents again, and the prospect of having to discuss Social Security and why we haven't been able to find a solution. I can't predict what will happen. But the President is committed to continue working on this.
Q Are you saying that -- the election will make it more likely to happen?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, it's a strange city.
Q You're saying that he's not going to propose a plan to reform Social Security, and then try to generate support for it. He's going to wait and hear what Congress might support?
MR. LOCKHART: No, no. The President has put forward a number of ideas. We've sent up lockbox legislation --
Q But reform of the system, not the financing, but actual reform, like dealing with questions such as the level of benefits, the retirement age -- all the things that people in the administration once talked about as things that needed to be addressed.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there are issues that need to be addressed. I think the first issue is solvency. We've put forward legislation on solvency, and we'll continue to work in what we think is the best way to get the Social Security system reformed.
Q Has he cleared his desk of all the bills on his desk now? I mean, is he ready to face the future --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, no, he's probably got another 50 or so that have to be signed. There are some that haven't come down here yet, or are on the way down. I guess -- is Kennedy-Jeffords down? Everything's now down. We'll do some signings in a public way; most of them will be signed privately, but that process won't be complete for another week.
Q How do you plan to deal with the next two weeks, start of the new year? What will he be working on?
MR. LOCKHART: We will have the press conference tomorrow, we've got a number of new initiatives that the President will talk about next week and the following week. I think the week -- he'll have some time off around Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year's. We have a few events that deal with commemorating the millennium.
Q Does this report, the Social Security report provide, since it does indicate that people will be living longer provide any more incentive for the President to consider raising the retirement age further?
MR. LOCKHART: I think again, it doesn't -- it does not provide a radical change in the solvency issues, but I think it does underscore, as I said, the need to look at solvency and look at some reforms. So I don't think it has a qualitative impact on the President's views on Social Security, except to underscore the fact that we need to deal with it soon.
Q Has the President ruled out moving the retirement age further?
MR. LOCKHART: I think he's spoken to that and spoken to the problems that -- doing that, both on Social Security and on Medicare.
Q And what did he say on the retirement age?
MR. LOCKHART: That there are a number of problems with moving the retirement age, but we need to sit down and work through a number of the reforms.
Q Does he plan to stay here during the whole Christmas season? Is he going to travel to --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have a travel schedule much beyond next week. I don't know of any trips that are in the works.
Q -- contacts by the President with the European Union on the upcoming Helsinki Conference on the candidate status for Turkey?
MR. LOCKHART: No contacts that I know of in particular. I do know that the President spoke quite strongly and forcefully on that issue while he was in Turkey, and his views, I think, are well-known.
Q Joe, speaking of travel, can you finally lay to rest some of the reports in the Northern Irish newspapers about the President possibly going there by the end of the year? Has he decided against doing that now?
MR. LOCKHART: At this point, I have no way to -- I don't believe the President will travel between now and the end of the year to Northern Ireland or any other foreign destination.
Q How about -- is he likely to take vacation time after the first of the year?
MR. LOCKHART: That is something I have been trying to find out about, and I don't know the answer to. (Laughter.) For personal reasons.
Q Is there any likelihood that the Kennedy-Jeffords bill would be signed this week rather than next?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so.
Q Is he going to help his wife move?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q Put the furniture in the right place, and all?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, he'll pack up, unpack, whatever. Whatever is appropriate and necessary, or necessary and appropriate.
Did I do it? Yes. Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes.
Q It seemed like an hour. (Laughter.)
END 1:33 P.M. EST