THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EST
Q How is the millennium going?
MR. LOCKHART: The millennium is 19 days old. That's the only comment I'm going to make on it.
My day on travel pool was incredible. It was like a walk down Memory Lane. The idea of being able to tell a group of reporters, "take a step back now," or "move forward now," is just beyond belief.
Let me just say for the record, as we're now back on the record, that any references that Gene made to Chris or Chris made to Gene could mean any Gene or Chris for the purposes of the transcript. And all questions addressed to, "Well, Gene, what do you think?" could mean any Gene. There are a lot of Gene's in the White House, so I don't think we've quite figured out this background briefing thing here at the White House. I think we need to take some lessons from some of our counterparts around the agencies.
Q -- hear from McCurry -- (laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Basically, that was to try to forestall another McCurry e-mail on this subject.
Q This may be a chicken or egg question, but the President did thank the Vice President for his health care proposal. Who is the appropriate father? Did the Vice President influence the administration, or did the administration thinking influence the Vice President in terms of this expansion of CHIPS?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the -- obviously, the President has been -- health care has been an issue that he has been quite involved in and he's had many ideas. I think in this particular proposal, it was the Vice President who first raised the idea of expanding CHIPS to family members, which is actually a significant improvement in the program and a very good step as far as overall impact on dealing with the uninsured in this country. So I think this is the President's proposal, but as with many of his, it's influenced and shaped by the thinking of the Vice President.
Q Joe, since the President and the Vice President have both asked the South Carolina legislature to take down the Confederate battle flag from their state capitol, will the President ask that in the State Department and the Kennedy Center, flags of Mauritania and Sudan be taken down because they have black slaves in these two countries today, or is that not considered important?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think that it's fair to equate the two subjects together, and I'm not --
Q Well, there are no slaves in South Carolina --
MR. LOCKHART: -- aware of any move there.
Q You mean, that's not important?
MR. LOCKHART: April?
Q On that Confederate flag subject, you did say that the President opposes the flying of the Confederate flag. Has he sent a letter to the Governor, rather, of South Carolina, or will he do anything --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the Governor of South Carolina is actually trying to mediate this situation in trying to find a solution to the problem. I think the President made his views know yesterday through me because there's such intense interest in it now, particularly with the marches over the weekend. I think, though, that the Governor down in South Carolina is trying to find a solution to this.
Q Joe, a follow-up to that. Last year, we were asking about the situation if he was going to go to the Renaissance Weekend down there. Was the idea not to go to Renaissance Weekend and say it was the millennium parties, rather, kind of deflection or kind of a politically correct way in not having to deal with the situation at the time?
MR. LOCKHART: No, it was actually the parties. It was the excuse was the excuse.
Q Joe, if the President believes that the Confederate flag should be taken down from a public building because it offends some blacks, does he believe that --
MR. LOCKHART: It's not the view that the President expressed, so next question --
Q Let me finish my question, please.
MR. LOCKHART: No, that's not the view he expressed, so let's go around a little bit.
Q What's the White House's reaction to the failure of the missile tests, and how will that potentially affect the President's --
MR. LOCKHART: Obviously, you're talking about something that's very technologically challenging. The feasibility of -- I can't remember the exact numbers, but you're trying to hit like a fired bullet halfway across the country at vast speeds. So this is something that's very challenging.
I think as far as the reaction to this test, we know that it didn't meet the standards that the Pentagon had hoped in moving forward with the test, but I think they need some time to assess the data to look at the reasons. I don't think they, at this point, have been able to develop the whys behind the failure of the tests, so I think they'll do that, they'll make an assessment. There's no reason at this point to believe that they can't meet their summer deadline of making a recommendation to the President, but it's not something that's completely knowable at this point. They will need to go through the data and make an assessment off of that.
As you know, they've got another test planned for, I think, three months from now. They'll work very hard to incorporate whatever went wrong in this test into that one, so I think at this point, for at least the next couple of days, we'll just have to wait and see.
Q Just to follow, is it too early to speculate on what impact these failures --
MR. LOCKHART: I think it is. I think that they do these tests for a reason. Obviously, if this was easy technology, they wouldn't have to test, they would just go ahead and deploy. Obviously, they can't do that. I think they need some time to figure out what went wrong, see what they can learn from that, see how big a problem they have. But there is no reason at this particular point in time to say one way or the other definitively that this will have an impact on the self-imposed deadline.
Q What happened at the Cabinet meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: The President took the opportunity to let the Cabinet know where his thinking is on the State of the Union, on the upcoming budget. It went around the room, Cabinet members discussed from the perspectives of the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, where they were as far as what part of the budget they were out talking about, what their plans were for going up and promoting the President's agenda, both around the country and on Capitol Hill with legislators.
I think there was a section from the national security team just giving a brief to the rest of the Cabinet and the President, as well as Secretary Daley leading a discussion on how the Cabinet will need to get behind our efforts for NTR and China.
Q The President made reference to the Arafat meeting tomorrow. Two things. What exactly will the President be offering about these present Wye River dispute? And will Arafat get involved at all in the Syrian situation?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't expect him -- on the first point, I think the President looks forward to this meeting as a way to get up to date with Arafat on a number of issues that are involved in the process. Obviously, there has been an aggressive agenda set for finding a framework for peace in February. That's something that more work still needs to be done, so the President looks forward to this meeting as a way to move that process forward. It's in the afternoon.
Q Did Arafat request a meeting, or did the President invite him?
MR. LOCKHART: Not sure, I'll check on that.
Q Does the President have any view on the issue of the possibility of postponing that mid-February, the February 13th deadline by a couple of months to give the parties a little more time to try to reach a framework?
MR. LOCKHART: We're going to work with the parties and work in what we think is the best interest of the process. But at this point, they are working toward a February deadline to try to find a framework and we're going to do what we can to help them do that.
Q And does he expect to talk to Barak in the next day, or following the Arafat meetings --
MR. LOCKHART: He has kept up a regular schedule of conversations with the Prime Minister, obviously punctuated with intense conversations since Shepherdstown. So I can't tell you that there's anything scheduled right now, but he talks to him on a fairly regular basis.
Q Joe, do you have anything on -- Mr. Summers' visit to India, if he was getting any special message from the President or anything to do with a presidential visit to India?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as the press coverage indicates, there has been some discussion about a potential presidential visit to India, but I'm not ready at this moment in time to make any announcements on that.
Q Joe, does the President support Jesse Jackson's call for a boycott of Georgia because of the state flag, in view of his signing a bill to make one of the stars on the Arkansas flag representing the confederate states?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me try to break that down, because there has been a lot of misinformation in some of the reporting on this. I made the President's views on the flying of the confederate flag clear yesterday to the reporters traveling with us to Boston. On the Arkansas state flag, that is a historical reference to the different governments that Arkansas has been under in their history -- whether it be France, whether it be England. So trying to compare them is like trying to compare apples and oranges.
I think what's important to remember here is the spirit in which this flag was raised in South Carolina in 1962, not 1862. This was at a time where it was done in defiance of the civil rights movement, symbolic of their opposition to desegregation that I think has moved this country along, and that's why the President opposes it.
Q Joe, a question on Waco. Have any White House staff, to your knowledge, given any depositions or affidavits to special counsel Danforth?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Have there been any document requests, as far as you know?
MR. LOCKHART: There were some document requests early on in the process, and whatever documents we have I'm sure we've provided.
Q Joe, relatives of Elian Gonzalez are going to take a legal step against the INS. Why is the President of the United States allowing people to take political advantage of this boy --
MR. LOCKHART: Why is he allowing people?
Q Yes. I mean, why he won't take action to order something, like to give the business to the --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we live in a democracy here. People, whatever their beliefs are, are allowed to express those beliefs. We also have a court system and the Justice Department will make their case in court if this case is filed this afternoon, as anticipated. I think the President has been very clear that we ought to do what the facts and the law dictate here. And I think he's been very clear in chiding anyone who's tried to inject politics or make this young boy a political football. But there's nothing he can do to stop people from doing that. That's part of our system.
Q The government hasn't received the official request of a visa from the father of the boy and the grandmother?
MR. LOCKHART: No, we have not, as far as I know, not received an official request for a visa.
Q Joe, with the Cabinet meeting today, the State of the Union a little more than a week away, the health care proposal today et cetera, I'm wondering if sort of behind the scenes the President and staff are not starting to prioritize what they think can be done this year, before the political atmosphere takes over?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'll tell you, I think that we have a contrary view of the political atmosphere than most. And at the end of the year we'll make a judgment, and you all will make a judgment to see if we were right. We went through 1996 in a year where I heard from a lot of people who live off of their ability to judge what goes on in this town that -- that was a nice way of putting it, wasn't it? Write that one down. (Laughter.)
Q You may need it someday. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I might. Exactly. Counting on it. (Laughter.)
Anyway, all of those incredibly intelligent people who I think the world of -- (laughter) -- and would love to be on the other side of a panel with someday -- no, I think in '96 people thought that nothing would get done, and we got a lot done in 1996. And I think in the year 2000, we take the view politically that the particular basket of issues that the President is pushing as part of his agenda are something that the public has been demanding, and it's been the narrow special interest here in Washington that have been blocking, whether it be patients' bill of rights, whether it be sensible gun control, whether it be minimum wage, whether it be Medicare reform and prescription drugs.
I think as members -- and we've got a very small majority, Republican in the House, as members go home and they talk to their constituents, as they have been for the last couple of months, and realize that they've got to go and ask for their vote again this year, these issues are going to be very difficult to ignore the will of their constituents, because there are some narrow special interests.
So I think if you look at the issues that the President is going to put forward, we're very confident this will be a year of legislative accomplishment. There will be plenty of things that we can still argue about that define the parties in a different way and give the public a choice, so I don't think that there's any real worry about that. There's always a choice, because as much as we get done, there will be areas where we disagree and can't get things done, but I think the President is very confident in the environment in Washington this year, or probably more aptly, the environment outside Washington this year, that will lead us to get things done.
Q What's the trip like? I mean, how long -- is it Friday?
MR. LOCKHART: The trip at the end of the week? We go out very early Friday morning. We give a speech at Cal Tech on the President's science and technology agenda. We do a DNC fundraiser in the evening, we do a brunch Saturday morning and come back.
Q Any news in the Cal Tech speech?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think he will have some new initiatives in the science, technology and research field, as well as an overall agenda of where the President thinks we should go.
Q Joe, what was the President's reaction to the arsonist in Richmond, Virginia, who firebombed the Lee mural?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that he was aware of that. And if he was --
Q It was in the Washington Post, Joe.
MR. LOCKHART: -- and if he was, he didn't comment on it to me.
Q Doesn't he read that paper, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: And if he was, he didn't comment to me.
Q He has no comment? Don't you? How about your comment? What do you think?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I didn't read the story, so -- next?
Q Didn't read the story --
Q Is there any formal celebration tomorrow of the last year?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the DNC will take note of it tonight in the gala that the President will be attending. We'll, in a political way, take note of all the accomplishments of the last seven years under this President, including a strong economy, a safer country -- safer in the streets, safer in the world -- reduced welfare; a country that's seen the kind of prosperity that is, by the time we get to the next reporting period, we'll know is unprecedented.
I think as far as the work of this building, we're going to keep going. I mean, I think the President made clear today when he talked to you all that he looks at the next year as an opportunity to get things done. And he wants to take advantage of every hour, and every day, and every week. And I think it's our judgment that he will.
Q Did he tell the Cabinet that?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. This is something that he has reminded the Cabinet of quite often -- although, with this Cabinet, which has been a remarkably stable group, as far as looking at the historical levels of turnover within the Cabinet, most of the people around that table have been with him from the beginning, or for quite some time. So I think they understand the President's agenda, the President's work style, and his impatience with the idea that, for whatever reason, you stop working.
Q Will the President do a little drop-in with the pharmaceutical people tomorrow? I mean, when the staff discussions are going on?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't expect he will, but if he does, we'll let you know.
Q Joe, the Department of Energy issued a report today on racial profiling. Are other agencies, to your knowledge, doing the same thing? And where do things stand in terms of a federal government-wide look at it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know about other agencies. I know that this issue was specific to the Department of Energy. But the President is, as he said in the middle of last year, opposed to racial profiling, for one reason that he thinks it's an ineffective tool for law enforcement. And what we've done here is decided to collect data from the various federal law enforcement agencies. I expect that to be done later this year, and then I think the President will have more to say on that.
Q What do you think of Bradley's taunting -- well, asking Gore to go to the President and ask him to issue an executive order?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we want to make decisions based on facts, not anecdotal information. And I think the Vice President answered that quite properly when he said, I don't think the President needs a lecture from anybody about standing up for African-Americans and Latinos in this country.
Q Joe, can you explain how the Drug Czar's Office has revised its guidelines on handling scripts and so forth? And how did that come about?
MR. LOCKHART: I can tell you -- I'll leave it to them to do the absolute details, but here it is in a nutshell. They've revised their policy to no longer look at scripts or do changes in programmings for credit before a program is finished.
Q I thought the claim was that they never looked at them before, only after.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that -- my understanding of the situation is, there was some technical advice given. There were various scripts that came in from people who were looking for technical advice. And those may well have been scripts that they were given credit on. So I think what they've done here is basically decided that they're not going to look at scripts anymore in the context of giving credit. There's lots of places to get technical advice, and I think other places will be used.
And I think at the basis of this decision is that General McCaffrey believed, and the President believes, that this is a very successful program. This is a program that's getting results on a problem that every American family has to deal with at some time. I mean, it's just one of those problems that we need to be aggressive about, and we need to continue the fight.
And the controversy surrounding this small part of the program, I think they believed, and rightfully so, threatened to sort of pervade the entire program. So they've made these adjustments, which are quite modest, and I think puts the program on a track where it will get universal support.
Q Based on protests from the public, or the --
MR. LOCKHART: No, based on the fact that this is a program that doesn't get a lot of reporting on, which is fine because it's not based on glowing newspaper stories about it, but we had two or three days of controversy, of people suggesting the program was improper, when they were looking at a very small part of the program. And there was no reason in the world why making these adjustments -- when you could make these adjustments, that it was worth putting a program that was working at risk to political debate, when these adjustments were easy to make.
Q Joe, is the President aware of the threat by the government of Mexico to close its border to the American trucks until this government allows the Mexican trucks come to the United States, using NAFTA?
MR. LOCKHART: He's aware of the discussions that are going on. Those discussions are going on out of USTR and he is kept informed of those on a regular basis.
Q Joe, no doubt the U.S. has the best health care system in the world. But First Lady and Senator Kennedy have been trying for many, many years to pass that every American can afford health care system or medical -- what's the problem, lobbyist or when you say special interest groups, are these lobbyists or politics?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there were powerful forces aligned against the program that the President put forward early in the term. Since then, the President has worked very diligently to keep stepping up and fighting the problem of uninsured. We do have the best health care system in the world; the problem is access to is. It is an ongoing problem that we continue working on. But today's proposals represent a bold and serious step towards addressing that problem.
I don't know that there's any benefit in going back over 1994 and looking at the reasons. But I think it is significant when the symbol of opposition to the health care plan in 1994 -- the Harry and Louise figures -- in the year 2000 are out there saying that we need to do something about the uninsured. I think the problem -- all sides recognize the problem. The President has a very positive proposal for dealing with it.
Q Do you think this will be done this year?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think as the President said, we're very confident that this proposal will meet with significant support on Capitol Hill and will be passed.
Q A follow up on the health care front. Last year, the patients' bill of rights was bottled up in conference over the issue of right to sue. Does the President still support right to sue and is there any realistic hope that that's going to get out?
MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely. I think the President absolutely supports the patients' bill of rights that was passed by a large majority in the House. He has criticized sharply the tactics that have been used by House leadership and Republican leadership in Congress to bottle it up, as you said. I think that the public is demanding a patients' bill of rights, a real patients' bill of rights, with real enforcement in it. And I just think as every day passes and every day we get closer to members facing their constituents again, it's going to get harder and harder to explain why the insurance companies' interests are more important than your constituents' interest.
Q What is the White House views of the intended referendum by Barak government on any agreement with Syria, since this land is occupied and many legal experts are saying it's illegal even to hold a referendum in occupied territories --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we have a lot of issues to work through in order to get to an agreement, so I don't see any purpose in addressing how Israel will internally speak to whatever agreement they make. The important matter now is to, as the President said, find a way forward, find a way to build on the commitment that's clearly there from the leaders to reach a comprehensive peace and that's what the President's focus is.
Q Joe, the President has taken a great deal of interest in and has spoken frequently about the First Lady's race in New York. And I was wondering what is his reaction to this morning's Washington Post editorial, "Mrs. Clinton's Soft Reply," when she met with Al Sharpton and learned about Reverend Charles Norris's disparaging reference to his former employer as a "Jew"?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't talked to him about that.
Q Could you talk to him? I mean, he certainly is concerned about this, isn't he, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: If it comes up.
Q Are you concerned about it, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Next?
Q Thank you.
END 1:15 P.M. EST