THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
2:08 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Gene is unexpectedly delayed on the Hill, so we thought I would come out first and be the warm-up act and do --
Q Can we get running status reports?
MR. LOCKHART: We could if you want.
Q Why don't we postpone him?
MR. LOCKHART: Gene and Tom Kalil will come out when I'm done to answer any questions you might have on the important digital divide event that the President had today. But I'll be glad to take any of your other questions while we wait for Gene.
Q Joe, Schumer is saying the Clinton administration is seriously considering an Energy Department proposal to swap oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve oil companies, and a decision should be made soon.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't really know anything about imminent timing on that. I can tell you that, obviously, the administration is concerned about the rise in oil prices, particularly given the combination of cold weather here and the impact on low-income families who have heating oil bills to pay. We have made about $50 million available in LIHEAP low-income housing money for those who are having trouble making ends meet, and we'll continue to look at other options to see what we can do about this.
The only thing I can say without getting into the details as they look at the policy is whatever we do will be done consistent with the statute on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and consistent with the overall philosophy that the market dictates prices.
Q What has the Reserve traditionally been used for, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the statute provides for millions of gallons of oil to be used in the event of a national security crisis, and that's what it's traditionally been used for. And the management of it is done as such by the Department of Energy. Again, they are looking at ways to deal with the current issue that is a problem for millions of Americans right now, but there's no decision on that. So I can't provide any details, only to say that there are ongoing discussions and whatever we do will be consistent with the limitations that the statute provides.
Q You mean it's the White House's view that the President doesn't have the statutory authority to use the Reserve except in a national emergency?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think that -- well, he certainly has authority in something that involves national security. As far as any of the proposals that have been floated, the policy discussions are ongoing and no conclusion has been reported to me.
Q Do you want to see the price of the oil go down?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, obviously, the increase in oil prices have been difficult for Americans, particularly in places like Alaska and the Northeast where we've had a hard winter. So it is something that the President is concerned about and various people in the administration are spending time looking at.
Q Do you have any reaction to the bankruptcy bill, minimum wage increase that was passed today?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we oppose the provisions in the minimum wage bill. We don't think the actual rise in the minimum wage goes up quickly enough, and we find that the tax cuts that are put in there are not paid for and are skewed to those who don't necessarily need tax cuts at this time.
I think what is important here is, if you look at the evidence, the last time we raised the minimum wage, various academic institutions looked at this, studied the issue and found that there was no negative effect on economic growth and there was no drag on the economy by the minimum wage. So I think the minimum wage, as 45 Democratic senators wrote to the leaders today, needs to be raised, needs to be raised quickly over a two-year period, and does not need a bevy of unpaid-for tax cuts for the special interests as the Republicans have tried to push through today.
Q So is that a veto threat?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we have made very clear and we made very clear last year and we reiterate today that that is not the kind of legislation the President can sign with the minimum wage provision in it.
We think on the merits of the bankruptcy bill, per se, the Senate has made a lot of progress. The House bill is unacceptable, we have made that very clear over the last several years. The Senate bill has made a lot of progress. We want to make sure that the protections for consumers that are embodied in the Senate bill get protected in conference overall what comes out -- when that bill comes out of conference, we'll have to make a decision on it. But the minimum wage provision at this point is unacceptable.
Q Joe, you mentioned at the gaggle the President spoke with Vice President Gore last night.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Has he had a chance to speak with him a little longer? I understand the Vice President came to Washington --
MR. LOCKHART: Came to Washington -- I don't know if they've spoken today, given the fact that they've both been moving around this morning. But he spoke to him last night at about 12:30 a.m. The President had his annual CINCs dinner last night with the military commanders, so he didn't really get out of that until around midnight, I believe.
Once that dinner was over, he said he had a chance to watch on replay the Vice President's speech, and after he saw that, he called him. He talked to him for a little bit and basically congratulated him on an important victory and noted that the Vice President had come from behind. He was standing well back in the polls many weeks ago, run a very good campaign, connected with the voters of New Hampshire and scored an important victory.
Q Can you tell us why the Vice President came down this morning?
MR. LOCKHART: The Vice President came down at the request of the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Daschle. There was an important vote on a Schumer amendment to the bankruptcy bill, which would have prohibited those convicted of violence against anyone at an abortion clinic from using the bankruptcy code as protection.
It is a well-known fact that people like Randall Terry and others have used the bankruptcy provision. It is well-known that they now boast about how they can use the bankruptcy provision to keep their assets safe from those that they perpetrate violence against, and even, I understand, use it as a precursor for membership that people are willing to use the Bankruptcy Code. This is not what the law was intended to do and I think Senator Daschle, having counted heads, knew that this was a very close vote, that the Vice President potentially had to break a tie on.
Q Is this the vote that went 80 to 72?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think, obviously, the Republicans looked around and decided that maybe it wasn't such a smart move to be opposing the Schumer amendment. And if they took political -- if it was a political calculation that led them to that decision, then we're all better off for it. I think the Vice President is certainly an imposing figure and if the fact that he was sitting ready to come in and sit in the chair made 30 Republicans change their vote on common-sense legislation, good for him.
Q They're describing the Vice President's appearance on the scene this morning as sort of a political stunt.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, from a group of people who changed their votes on the floor today for no apparent purpose to be calling something a political stunt is kind of rich. Senator Daschle thought it was important to have the vote, the Vice President was willing to do it because he feels strongly on this issue, as does the President. And if his mere presence could change 30 votes, that's a good thing for this country.
Q Joe, if the Schumer amendment doesn't make it to the final bill that gets sent to the President, would that be grounds for the President not to sign the bill?
MR. LOCKHART: That's kind of speculative and hypothetical. I think we have made clear in our SAPs how we view the bill and we'll see what they do in conference.
Q The Archer marriage penalty bill is being marked up today. It's about four times the size of the President's. Is that an unacceptable bill --
MR. LOCKHART: I think Secretary Summers has written to the committee and raised a number of concerns about the bill that they're marking up, one being the size. I think there is a way to target this relief that makes the tax cut effective and affordable.
But I think, more importantly, we face a fundamental decision, and the House and the Senate may face a fundamental decision on whether we're going to be serious about getting things done this year or whether we're going to return to last year's effort of playing games and playing shell games and moving numbers around. It's very clear from some members -- I mean, the Speaker of the House spokeman said that they're going to try to get last year's tax cut, but just try to divide it up and send it down here. He said, Humpty-Dumpty has fallen off the wall and we're going to put it back up there.
We need, in order to support a tax cut, which we think the American public deserves, to see what all the numbers are. We need to see what the budget -- what the Republican budget provides. We don't need a series of tax cuts that add up to the trillion-dollar tax relief, the over trillion-dollar tax relief that Governor Bush has put on the table, that will squeeze out Medicare, will squeeze Social Security, and potentially return us to a situation where we're deficit spending.
You can change the tactics, you can change the packaging, but if the overall goal is to do a trillion-dollar tax cut that squeezes Social Security and Medicare, we're going to oppose it. So there's just no way that we're going to be able to work with Congress unless they're willing to put all the numbers down on the table like we did at the end of last year, and work with us in good faith.
Q Does this seem to be sort of a -- already -- a trend? Yesterday was all sweetness and light and it seems like somebody has thrown down the gauntlet already with all the --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that yesterday was a very positive meeting and I think that there are a lot of things we can work on, but there's always difficulty here in Washington to translate rhetoric into action. And it's disappointing to see that some members of the Republican Party think that they can somehow repackage their tax cut in a series of bills and try to get the same thing through when the President has made clear where he stands, and the country has made clear where they stand on this.
Q Joe, the Fed has just increased interest rates, saying that they see a risk of inflation. I know you're not going to comment about the increase itself, but does the administration share the Fed's anxiety about inflation? Does it have any particular policy remedy?
MR. LOCKHART: I think overall we view the fundamentals of this economy as remaining strong, strong economic growth with low inflation, low unemployment, and historically low interest rates. So, obviously, the Fed does what they do; we concentrate more on fiscal policy. And I think anything more I said would be interpreted as some sort of analysis of what they've done, which I'm not prepared to do.
Q -- administration's desire to continue to pursue the reduction of the federal public debt as a response, particular inflation --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that this particular movement by the Fed or any other movement by the Fed really adds to the overall rationale for paying down the debt. The President thinks we can do it in 13 years now, given the surpluses that we're now running. It has a real impact in people's lives as far as lowering interest rates, better job prospects, stronger economy, and wherever -- whether it be the Fed or the Congress or anyone else, that's the policy the President is going to pursue.
Q With all the promises of the GOP leaders of bipartisan work, the President will be ready to submit the request for fast track this year?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the primary focus on trade in the early part of the year will be on NTR and we'll take these things one at a time. The President has made very clear his commitment to free and open trade and opening markets around the world.
I think we have an important challenge in front of us to secure permanent NTR for China and thus securing their accession into WTO. We believe that we have a strong coalition that will build support for that around this country and will ultimately lead to a success on that front, but that is really what the focus for the next few months will be.
Q In other words, are you saying he probably will ask for fast track at the end of his term?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm saying that we'll take these things one at a time, and this is the one we're on now.
Q I think he also mentioned CBI.
MR. LOCKHART: Sure, yes.
Q And the African initiative.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Obviously, they're -- certainly in the meeting with the Republican leaders there was a good bit of discussion on how to move forward, and we almost got there last year on CBI and African trade. I think there's some work left to do, but we certainly hope to get that done. I think the main trade debate which will generate some interest, though, in the next few months will be on NTR and China.
Q Joe, has the President had a chance to review the decommissioning report from Northern Ireland, and has there been any other additional contacts with Gerry Adams or Tony Blair, or the principals involved?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that on a staff level here, there's been constant contact over the last few days. The President, as you know, made some calls a couple days ago. He's certainly aware of the issues that face the parties as he said yesterday, which continues to hold today. We think it would be counterproductive to discuss those in public, only to urge all the parties to seize this opportunity and to understand the risks of turning back now and to understand how harshly history will judge the parties at this point if they turn back from the progress they've made in this very important Good Friday Peace Accord process.
Q Has he reviewed the report itself?
MR. LOCKHART: He is certainly aware of the situation. I don't know that he's seen the report, no; but he's certainly aware of the issues that the parties are currently discussing.
Q Back on the marriage penalty. Yesterday in that meeting, Republican leaders mentioned it as a key priority for them. Was there any discussion from the President on that with his concerns about the size of their proposal, or no?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we certainly made clear in a letter that we sent up from Secretary Summers today -- and again, I don't know exactly, not being here yesterday, exactly what got discussed in the meeting, but the President has put his proposal -- made his proposal clear in the State of the Union, and certainly Democrats and Republicans alike are aware of it.
We think the best way to approach this is to target the relief to the 42 million Americans that we believe are in most need of the marriage penalty relief. You can do that in a way that costs you a third to a fourth of what the Republican costs, but I think more broadly speaking, we're very certain that we don't want to go down a blind alley of open-ended tax cuts that revive failed ideas of the past in a different package that came along last year.
We're three years running now on the Republicans trying to pass a huge tax cut that isn't paid for, that would be bad for the economy. The packaging this year appears to be different, but we have the ability to see through the packaging, get to the substance. We think that we can work with them and do the kind of tax cut that's targeted to the middle class that the middle class deserves in this country and we'll continue to work with them on that.
Q Joe, two China-related questions. First of all, does the administration consider it helpful or harmful, the House action on the Taiwan Relations Act yesterday, dealing with all the China issues that will come up from it, trade relations status and WTO? And I have a second question.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me deal with the action they took on Taiwan yesterday. On its merits, we oppose it because we think, although the proponents of the legislation argue that this would increase or enhance the security of Taiwan, we believe just the opposite -- that it decreases rather than enhances the Taiwan security and the stability of the entire East Asian region. That is why we oppose that and will continue to.
As far as its impact on other issues, I think that the NTR issue is something that is very important. China is a huge market that is currently mostly closed to American business, to American families. It is a kind of a one-way street right now where we open our market because that's our policy, the Chinese are now willing to open their market.
And I think members of Congress have to decide, as we look for ways to keep this unprecedented economic expansion going, what is the value of that and what is the cost of opposing it. And I think there are enough factors on the merits for them to make this decision based on the debate about NTR rather than other debates.
Q Why do we have so many reports that everybody in the White House is being told now to give a big push and make a big campaign out of it? Is that a fact?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, this is something that's very important to the President, very important to this country. And I think, again, there is a coalition of people in this country who feel very strongly and we plan to work with them very actively in order to make the case so that at the end of the day Congress does pass a permanent NTR.
Q Joe, does the administration find anything particularly alarming about this Pentagon report that has analyzed some Chinese writings talking about a particularly hostile attitude toward the U.S.?
MR. LOCKHART: Not particularly. I think - and you can go to the Pentagon for more detailed information -- but in talking to them, I think it is written by someone who does not represent the views of the Pentagon or the NDU, who has written a number of alarmist papers and books, and it is not something that is particularly alarming.
Q The administration views it as alarmist, in other words? The administration, therefore, views this report as alarmist?
MR. LOCKHART: I think it probably safely falls into that category.
Q Joe, when the White House put out a paper yesterday, the President had televised remarks for the Puerto Rican people, asking them for their support for the agreement he had reached with the government. Last night, Ricky Martin was here on a private visit to speak with the President. Do you know if they touched the subject of Vieques?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I know he was here for a visit for a tour. I think he met briefly with the President. I think he had a chance to express his views and concerns on this issue to Maria Echaveste, who has been helping coordinate our policy on this. So I think the substance of the conversation that he had was with Maria, and I think the visit with the President was social.
Q Joe, the report in a German newspaper today says President Clinton has asked Larry Summers to ease up on criticizing Germany's candidate for the IMF presidency so there isn't any bad blood between --
MR. LOCKHART: I wasn't aware that Secretary Summers was criticizing him, nor the President was asking him to stop, so that's certainly not something that's crossed my desk.
Q Some members of the Clinton administration have made some comments regarding concern of the democracy situation in Venezuela because of the deepness of the economic problems. Does the White House share that concern?
MR. LOCKHART: Again, I have not heard concern. I know we've been working closely with them as they've gone through a process of changing through a democratic process of looking at the Constitution and making some changes. Again, I'm not aware that there has been any concern expressed to the government about any particular action concerning their commitment to democracy.
Q The President has been generally supportive of the death penalty, but I wonder if he had any reaction to the Illinois Governor's moratorium on the death penalty there, or is he reassessing his support of the death penalty more generally?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that this is a case that obviously, given the facts that face the Governor of Illinois, that he felt strongly, and I think it was proper that he look at reviewing the process there. I mean, the numbers there are somewhat startling. I don't think the President has reviewed this in great detail. We talked about this a little bit the day before yesterday, I think, so he really hasn't had a chance to review all the numbers, just the press reports that have been out.
I don't think it's changed his basic view that supports capital punishment. But he certainly does not, on the merits of here, disagree with the Governor that it ought to be implemented properly, because it's obviously decisions that should be taken very seriously and done with the utmost care.
Q Joe, when you talked to the President about capital punishment, did he say anything about the spate of executions that's coming up, or I believe underway for people that committed crimes while they were a juvenile?
MR. LOCKHART: No. That wasn't part of the discussion. We literally had a brief discussion about the press reports coming out of Illinois.
Q The underlying problem is that the Governor of Illinois said, there was a big problem in my state, but the larger question is, there could be similar problems in other states where innocents are convicted and sentenced to death. Does the President share, more broadly, concerns about that --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know at this point that there is evidence that there are problems in other states. And if there are, it's certainly something that governors and state legislatures should take with great care. Obviously, capital punishment is an issue that is 99.9 percent of the time administered and litigated at the state level. If there is evidence in other states, then obviously the administration would support looking into it and doing the kind of review that's appropriate. But at this point, I just don't know that there is evidence of a problem in other areas.
Q Joe, a couple of weeks ago, you said you would try to work into the agenda a formal press conference of the President. Any news to report on that?
MR. LOCKHART: Getting close to working it in. How does, like, mid-June sound? No, it's certainly my guess that before this month is over the President will find an opportunity to hold a formal press conference. I'll have to get back to you on the date.
Q How are you going to roll out the budget, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: We'll probably leak a bunch of stuff between now and Monday. No, we'll do -- I think 10:15 a.m. -- we normally do this in the OEOB, right? Presidential Hall, the President will -- the Eisenhower Building -- thank you. Thank God I get help now. At 10:15 a.m. he'll make a statement. That will be followed by a number of briefings and briefings around the agencies that traditionally happen. It will be very similar to what we've done the first seven years.
Q Are you going to have them here? Are you going to have any of the books here?
MR. LOCKHART: The books? Yes. We'll have books here, with big numbers and numbers that add up and actually are in the black, rather than the red.
Q He broke out of the caps -- he's broken out of the budget caps?
MR. LOCKHART: The caps don't exist anymore. They were shredded by the Republican Congress last year. I think the leaders in Congress have made very clear they had not respect for them last year, have no interest in them being this year. We are going to propose a budget that has a new framework that will help keep our fiscal discipline, spend sensibly and pay down the debt, pay down the debt by 2013.
MR. LOCKHART: You'll see.
Q If he's breaking out of the caps, how --
MR. LOCKHART: I think when you have a chance to look at the budget, you will be very impressed.
Q Can you give us any guidance on aggregate growth in domestic spending or a target debt reduction number?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I can tell you on debt reduction that by 2013 --
Q The operative one would be for this year -- that will influence spending and tax-cutting decisions.
MR. LOCKHART: That will all be in the budget which we will release on Monday.
Q When do you start leaking?
MR. LOCKHART: As soon as I get back to my office. (Laughter.)
END 2:35 P.M. EST