THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART
12:35 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Let me start quickly by reading a statement from the President about the Supreme Court decision today on campaign finance, we will release it after the briefing.
"The Court's opinion is a victory for democracy. The American people know that our political system needs to be fixed, and today's decision sets the stage for further reform. For years, I've challenged Congress to pass legislation that would ban the raising of unregulated soft money, address back-door spending by outside organizations and strengthen public discourse. Now I am again asking Congress to restore the American people's faith in their democracy and pass real reform this year."
Q Joe, the Congress seems likely to pass a bill this week to grant citizenship to Elian Gonzalez. What will the President do when that passes?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think since the House doesn't come back for votes until next week, it would be unlikely they'll pass anything this week.
But let me address that. I think, obviously, we're going to wait and see what they have in mind before making any decisions. The President has several times over the last few weeks stated his concern that he doesn't want politics injected into this case, and that still stands. I know the Senate is trying to use some procedural mechanism to bring this up quickly, and that will be their business -- and if they pass something, obviously, we'll take a look at it.
I would certainly hope that given the vigor that they're showing on this case will spill over into other cases. We heard from Senate Majority Leader Lott last week that he didn't think they could get anything done this year. And now they're going to waive a number of rules to try to get something done in a couple days. I think our challenge to the Republican leadership is use the same vigor on patients' bill of rights, on getting a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, on minimum wage, on passing sensible gun safety legislation. If they can show that kind of vigor on these issues, then I think the American people will come out all right.
Q Do you think that this speedy process that the Senate has taken -- is that the political process that the President didn't want this case to be --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we'll have to see how the debate goes. But I think there is a real danger here that this can become a political issue, that this young boy will be a political football. And I think the President has made it very clear to everyone that they ought to stay away from politics here and stick to what the facts and the law dictate.
Q Well, Joe, would the President prefer that Congress stay out of the matter?
MR. LOCKHART: This is obviously a case that's in the courts now. So the courts will have to decide, based on the filings that have been made before. And I think there is concern that if this goes to the floor of the Senate or the floor of the House that it's going to become a political debate, rather than the substantive debate that it should be.
Q But isn't the boy already a political football between the anti-Castro Cubans down in Miami and the Cubans in Cuba?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that the President has spoken very harshly about some of the things that have gone on in Cuba on this case. And I think politics has become too important here. But that doesn't mean that we can't base our decisions on the facts and the law and move forward, and try to do everything we can to keep politics out of it.
Q Joe, with this case changing attitudes towards immigrants in general, as it apparently might have had an effect on Haitian immigrants, will it open up the process to more immigration from Haiti and from other Central American areas?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, I think that we believe that we have very sensible immigration laws in this country that are administered in a proper way. I think you'd have to go to the House and the Senate to see if they believe that more needs to be done on Haitians or any other immigrants.
Q But Cuba appears to get special treatment.
MR. LOCKHART: No, Cuba is treated -- we have very strict regulations on the immigration of Cubans. We want it to be legal, safe and orderly. And that's what guides the policy. And we think that that policy makes sense, and we don't see any reason to change it.
Q So he is not -- I mean, until he gets the bill, then he would --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we're not even sure what they're actually proposing at this point. There's a lot that would have to happen on the Senate floor and over in the House, so we'll wait to see what they do.
Q If Congress decides to grant him citizenship, is it something that the President would have to sign? Do we even know that much about the process?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's certainly my understanding that to pass a law, it's got to come up here to the White House for signature at some point.
Q I mean, do we know -- can Congress grant somebody citizenship without the President --
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Is residency more acceptable than citizenship to the President?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, this is a matter that is before a federal court now and I'm certainly not going to try to litigate here for the sake of public discourse.
Q So might he sign a bill and say, I'll sign this, but let the courts make the ultimate decision?
MR. LOCKHART: I wouldn't get into a "might" or "if" here.
Q Isn't a "might" or "if" a religious sort of -- (laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: To tell you the truth, I was just reading a very interesting segment of Helen's book yesterday, while I was going through. And it has a section in there where my predecessor talked about, only fools answer hypotheticals. So I will not be foolish today.
Q Well, I have a hypothetical. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Helen, what is the name of your publisher, again? (Laughter.)
Q Have you got any more information now on Switzerland, because apparently last word is the President is going to fly from Quincy to Switzerland.
MR. LOCKHART: Do we come back here before we go? Let me check on that. I have no other information, as far as the schedule. I know that at this point we're scheduled to make the speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Saturday morning. And then we fly back.
MR. LEAVY: Nanda says we come back here.
MR. LOCKHART: We come back here. Yes, that was my understanding.
Q For 30 minutes at Andrews?
MR. LOCKHART: We'll have some time. We don't leave until the evening, Friday night, for the Davos trip.
Q Joe, the President has no votes in the Congress to support the package for Colombia. The President of Colombia is visiting the President tomorrow. How many votes do you think you have to --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we haven't done a vote count, but the support fighting drugs and narcotics has been one that's enjoyed bipartisan support in the past and we expect to get bipartisan support on this plan early this year, when Congress takes it up.
Q Do you think the President will convince the Democrats on the Hill that it's going to be guaranteed that the military aid is going to be used only against narco-traffickers and not --
MR. LOCKHART: That is certainly what the proposal calls for, so I expect the President will be persuasive in making that argument both to Democrats and Republicans who raise that concern.
Q Is the President looking out back at all at this demonstration? Does he have any comments, any thoughts on the abortion -- anti-abortion demonstrators?
MR. LOCKHART: The demonstration yesterday?
Q It's out there now.
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, that's out there now. No, I don't doubt he's looking out there. I think he spoke a little bit over the weekend on this subject Saturday at the fundraiser. We have a fundamental disagreement right now between the -- at least the presidential candidates out there. I don't know that they speak for all of their parties. But the President believes that Roe versus Wade is proper and is a law that should be upheld. There are many who have expressed recently that they think that goes too far, and that just is, as the President said over the weekend, a service to people as they make up their mind on who they're going to vote for.
Q He's not going to, at the last minute, meet with any of them.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think we've gotten an invitation.
Q What do you think has happened? Didn't Trent Lott say last week that there wasn't going to be anything new proposed, because he couldn't get anything done? But over the weekend we read lots of stuff. They have a big agenda, and --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know, and I can't get into -- I mean, there are -- just take the tax cut, for example. The House Budget Committee Chairman says he will support and push through the massive tax cut that Governor Bush has put through, almost $500 billion tax cut over five years, that all the experts have looked and say there's no way to pay for that. We had that debate last year.
The Republicans have signaled on some levels they don't want to have that debate again this year. But then, you know, much of their leadership says that they will and they'll push forward. So at some point, they'll figure out the agenda they want to push forward. We'll have a debate over it. But I think the President made clear last week that this isn't a year for inaction; this is a year we're going to get things done.
Q When would he -- would you expect him to meet with members, leadership of Congress, at some point relatively soon? After the budget or --
MR. LOCKHART: We'll see. I don't expect he'll have a meeting before the President sends up his budget. But I think, you know, some time in the period after that he'll have a chance to sit down with the leaders from both parties.
Q Is the President going to put out a statement tonight, or make any telephone calls, after the Iowa caucus?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we've planned any sort of statements for tonight. I'm sure that there's a possibility -- he talks to the Vice President on a regular basis, so he'll probably talk to him sometime tonight, once the results are known.
Q What do you think about the Doonesbury cartoon yesterday?
MR. LOCKHART: I didn't see it. What did it say?
Q Oh, you've got to see it.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I guess this makes great radio, but I -- (laughter.) Yes, sorry.
Q For a change of pace, let's talk about the strategic petroleum reserve. Apparently Senator Schumer's got some legislation that would give the President authority to sell oil from this reserve to counter high oil prices. Is this something that Clinton would support?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we've seen that legislation. Obviously, we will take a look at it. I mean, as the law is written now, you're not permitted to do that for the sole purpose of trying to increase supply to reduce the price. I just -- I can't really speculate on where we'd be on that without understanding what conversations we've had with Senator Schumer.
Q Joe, the President has -- the United States recognized Gustavo Noboa as the constitutional President of Ecuador. Has the United States government been in contact with him? What is the situation right now?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there have been some direct contacts. There's obviously been contacts through the OAS, which is really the organization that we work with for that part of the world. We will work -- the new President got a two-thirds majority of the legislature, and we will work with that government as we move forward.
Q Joe, Al Sharpton is in town calling on the Attorney General to open an investigation on the Diallo shooting. Are you concerned about attempts to draw the President into local issues in New York?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not concerned about it, because the proper channel for someone who has concerns is to take it to the Justice Department. I wasn't aware that he was in town doing that today. But that is the appropriate way to do it, and the Justice Department would handle a case like this, not the President.
Q Are you concerned about a rash of efforts to draw this administration into what otherwise would be state -- potentially political issues in New York?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I haven't noticed any rash lately.
Q The Supreme Court today upheld spending limits in Missouri on campaigns. Do you think that that's going to affect the national debate about campaign finance?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, as the statement that I read at the top of the briefing indicates, we think that it will. We think that this ruling provides new impetus for passing the kind of campaign finance law that the public has been demanding over the last few years, that the President supports strongly -- and in fact, every Democratic member of Congress supports. And in the face of public support, the Republican leadership has consistently blocked this.
I think that campaign finance has been an issue that has been discussed in this year's presidential campaign. I expect it to be discussed in congressional campaigns. And we hope as we get closer to election day, the Republican leadership who would like to stay in the leadership will understand that it's in their interest to move this legislation forward and stop blocking it.
Q Joe, according to this India Globe, at the very high level meeting in London, U.S. and Indian officials met and agreed to fight terrorism worldwide, and also very high U.S. official is in Pakistan and Afghanistan meeting Taliban people. How do you describe that -- information for the --
MR. LOCKHART: According to my Indian Globe, which is different than yours -- what was the question again? Sorry.
Q To fight terrorism they are in London, at a high-level meeting, and also the U.S. high-level official --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, obviously, they're having discussions and that's certainly on the agenda. I know that Secretary of the Treasury Summers was in India, as were I think Assistant Secretary of State Inderfurth and some of his team. So, obviously, our efforts on fighting terrorism are worldwide, we work with a number of countries on. And this is something the President takes very seriously and will continue working hard at.
Q Just to follow, the Inderfurth meeting with the Taliban people and leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is there something -- new doors between U.S. and Afghanistan or --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to speculate on that. We've seen over the last year or so, from time to time, rhetoric that raises the possibility of progress. But the rhetoric is never backed up by action. And I think our message has been pretty consistent to the Taliban, that the time for words is over, the time for deeds -- if they want the relationship to change -- is now.
Q Joe, also according to one report in Pakistan that U.S. officials are in Pakistan because they're making the way for the President to stop in Pakistan also while on trip to India and -- How can he go to Pakistan --
MR. LOCKHART: The second part would be one of the dreaded hypotheticals; the first part would be absolute news to me. So I can't answer that.
Q Thank you.
END 12:50 P.M. EST