THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
11:33 A.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Good morning. Let me try to get through this quickly so you all can go off and cover the important event. Let me just run through the schedule briefly, since we didn't have a chance to meet this morning. The President, as you know, at 12:05 p.m. will make a very important announcement on an issue of medical privacy and genetic discrimination. He'll sign an executive order which will ban the federal government from using private genetic information, which will, inevitably, through advances in science, become available to discriminate in employment or promotion.
He will also endorse legislation put forward by Senator Daschle and Congresswoman Slaughter from New York extending that to the private sector. Chris Jennings, the President's health care advisor, will be down here after the event to do a briefing for you all if you have detailed questions on that.
We'll do the Medal of Honor ceremony that we discussed and debated a bit on Friday at 2:20 p.m. And then tonight, the President has two DNC events.
Q Are they fundraisers, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Can you tell us how much he's going to raise?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know how much he's going to raise, but the DNC, I'm sure, will have one of their handy sheets available later on this afternoon.
Q This executive order only applies to federal workers, which is only a couple million people. What is the President exactly trying to do with this? Is he trying to set precedent?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, actually, the federal government is the largest employer in this country. It applies to 1.8 million people; that's a pretty big section of the population. The President, by executive action, can only extend this kind of protection to the federal work force, so he's going to do that today. But I think it sends a powerful message to the private sector about how they'll need to deal with the advances in science, the advances in both technology as far as information sharing, and what we will know from the human genome project.
So I think it starts an important process on an issue that all the surveys show Americans are very concerned about, moving into the future. And he, the President, will get behind the Daschle-Slaughter bill to extend those protections to the private sector.
Q Joe, the National Council of Churches, which is headed by two Democratic Party politicians, Andy Young and Bob Edgar, which is $4 million in the red, chartered a plane to bring Elian Gonzalez' grandmother to the United States. Was the President grateful for this expenditure, or given what grandmother Mariela Quintana announced on TV that she did to Elian, does the President feel this was a mistake?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has not taken a view on what a private organization has done in this case.
Q I mean, what does he think of what she said on TV that she'd done to Elian?
MR. LOCKHART: Haven't discussed it with him, and we'll cut it off here, Lester, so you can't get a cheap thrill off of words that I'm not going to talk about.
Q Joe, back on the genetic information issue, are all federal departments covered by this order? Are there any exceptions for certain departments, certain types of jobs?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware that there's any exceptions. Chris Jennings might know a little bit more about this, but I'm not aware that there are any exceptions within the government. I mean, this is something that I think as we move into the future, becomes more and more of a concern.
But there are already studies out that indicate that this is a real problem for some Americans. There was a Science -- a study published in Science in 1996 that showed that 15 percent of individuals who have a genetic condition reported that they had been asked questions about it in the job process, and that 13 percent reported that they or a family member had been denied a job, or fired from a job, because of a genetic condition in the family. So, I mean, this is a very real problem now, but becomes increasingly as the science of this improves.
Q Well, what about DOD, just for example? Would it apply to them?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no information that there's any exceptions within the executive order. You can query Chris a little bit further on that when he comes out.
Q Joe, the marriage penalty. As we start to go down the road here, finding things to work with the Republicans on, is that an area where there's some compromise?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I mean, we both, the Democrats and the Republicans, agree that we ought to address the marriage penalty. It's how we do it.
I think now that you've seen some realistic numbers, you can understand some of the problems with Chairman Archer's calculations. He's talking about a $180 billion tax cut, when there's only roughly $750 billion in on-budget surplus. He'd like to argue that there's $1.9 trillion, but even his own Speaker of the House has said those numbers aren't real, and they're not using those numbers.
And as, I think, the President said recently, we're very concerned that they're taking the same tax cut they had last year and just taking the staples out; they want to pass it page by page. We're just not going to let that happen.
So we think that you can go and do this in a way that's affordable, and that's targeted at people who suffer from the marriage penalty. Under the Archer plan, the people who have -- who are subject to the marriage penalty get tax relief, but there are also millions of Americans who get a marriage bonus, who actually pay less taxes because of their marital status. Well, they get another bonus. We just don't think that's good policy.
Q Joe, on foreign policy, how much of the President's legacy is dependent on peace in Ireland and in the Middle East? And how concerned is he that so much of his effort in those two areas could be on the brink of crumbling?
MR. LOCKHART: Again, I don't think the President connects those two questions together. His legacy will be decided by thankfully, not by us and not by any of the people who are scribbling in notebooks that, over time, historians will take a look at this and make a judgment.
As far as Northern Ireland and the Middle East, these are issues the President has worked on since day one. We've always expected and have always anticipated there would be problems. These are not easy issues, but the President is going to remain engaged and continue trying to push the parties to understand the importance of taking the historic opportunity that faces them and moving forward and continuing on in their commitment, either committing to the Good Friday Accords in Northern Ireland or working through the final issues for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Q Joe, when you say you don't want the Republicans in Congress to go forward with different tax cut measures on an incremental basis, does that mean the President would rule out signing marriage penalty relief if it came as a free-standing bill, or if it was balanced and modest in size, might he be willing to sign it?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we'd prefer to see how all the numbers add up and would prefer to see what their budget is and how it adds up. Certainly, Secretary Summers made clear last week that the bill, as constructed now, is not something that we could support. If they were to pass the proposal that the President put up, that would be a different thing, that we might be able to sign that. But I think we're really not going to make any progress until they put all of their ideas out on the table, put a budget on the table and we know where things begin and where things end.
Q Just for the record, then, obviously if you see something that is closer to what you have put forward than Chairman Archer's plan, you're certainly willing to talk?
MR. LOCKHART: Obviously, we have a marriage penalty proposal in the budget that the President talked about in the State of the Union, and we support this. But it's got to be one targeted at the people who are subject to the marriage penalty and be something that's affordable.
Q Summers indicated last week that he would really have to look at it in the context of the whole budget picture, and other tax cuts coming down the pike and so forth. You seem to be indicating that if it came along and if it was an acceptable --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think -- go back and look at my words. I said, if they were to send back a bill that reflected the President's budget and they were to accept the President's overall budget, certainly it would be something we could support.
Q Well, you're not going to get that next month.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we're in hypothetical. I'm doing my best here.
Q Thank you for entering that realm. (Laughter.)
Q Just to clarify, are you saying you don't want the tax cuts to be piecemeal? In other words, you want all of the tax cuts to be in kind of one big package that -- or are you saying you want the entire budget to be resolved first?
MR. LOCKHART: No. We need to understand before we move forward -- and we had this debate last year and it's why we were here until November discussing the budget -- we need to understand how it all adds up. Is there going to be a tax bill. If there are going to be six different tax bills, what are the tax bills, if they want to try to do it in a way that's tactically different.
And until we know how it adds up, until we know what their budget is, we can't really have a serious discussion about areas where we can find agreement and areas where there's disagreement.
Q So you're saying you want the spending side out on the table before you even talk about the tax cuts?
MR. LOCKHART: No, we're saying that you can't make a final decision on tax cuts until you know what the overall budget is. We put up a framework that we think allows for important tax cuts, family tax cuts, important investments, but also a plan to pay down the national debt. It is not a serious debate, in no context of any kind of budget, throw out a number or tax bills without any way of knowing how it adds up.
Q But, Joe, last year the President did sign appropriations bills on a piecemeal basis without having an idea of how it was going to come together in the end.
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there were a number of areas, but we held up a number of appropriations bills with or without -- for precisely the reason of knowing how the numbers were going to add up. So there is no difference here from last year, except for some of the tactics have changed, but overall, we're going to make sure that we get to the same result.
Q An individual tax bill comes up here in the springtime before you've seen the final numbers in a budget resolution, the President will veto it?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't see any purpose in going down and setting artificial barriers. We've made very clear what we need to see. Secretary Summers' letter was very clear about the objections both in principle on the overall budget numbers, with the marriage penalty bill that Chairman Archer has put forward, and in the size of it. So I think we'll leave it there.
Q But, Joe, isn't this just like -- I mean, just like last year, you have more leverage if you can kind of negotiate between and among appropriations and tax bills, as opposed to taking things one at a time.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know if this is leverage. What I do know is we have a record of fiscal discipline, and the way you remain fiscally disciplined is to know what you're spending and to know what taxes you're cutting. And we're not going to walk down a blind alley of individual tax cuts until we know what the overall plan is. They know that, and it may take them a couple of months to come around to the wisdom of that, but that's where we'll be.
Q Speaking of taxes, Joe, The New York Times reports that Mrs. Clinton said she was -- quote-- "stunned to discover New York residents' tax burden." And I'm wondering, two-part question, was the President also stunned by this and by the $900,000 cost to the taxpayers Mrs. Clinton's 50 campaign trips for which her campaign paid only $34,000, or 3 cents on the dollar?
MR. LOCKHART: What's the question? If you've got a question, ask it.
Q Well, -- the President -- well, all right --
MR. LOCKHART: Lester --
Q -- let me go on.
MR. LOCKHART: Lester, there are -- no, let me talk for a second. There are a lot of forums, where you can make your statement, however valid or ridiculous it is. This isn't one of them.
Q Could I ask --
MR. LOCKHART: Questions? Next?
Q On the executive order, I take it it's going to say that no agency can use genetic information to discriminate. Does that mean some agencies were, or some Departments were, looking at this --
MR. LOCKHART: What?
Q Does that mean some Departments were using --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think this is actually something new. And you know, OPM could probably offer you some insight into whether there has been. I think the President's taking these steps because this is a new issue. It is a new debate, both in the medical and health field, and also in the information technology field, those who gather a lot of information and profiles on people.
So I don't know that there was a particular issue within the government. But the President wants to make sure that as we move forward, that A, we do the right thing, and B, we begin to set the example for the private sector in doing the right thing.
Q Would you know if it's ever been used by any government agency?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know.
Q Joe, the high-tech industry is seeking an increase in the number of visas for foreign college graduates --
MR. LOCKHART: H-1-B?
Q H-1-B, yes, exactly. And there's some legislation that's being drafted by Hatch and Gramm to raise this ceiling. Where is the administration --
MR. LOCKHART: You know, I know we have worked very closely with Congress on this in the past. Jake, did we do something on this last year?
MR. SIEWERT: Two years ago.
MR. LOCKHART: Terry, I just -- yes, I think it was two years ago, where we worked with them and did something on H-1-B. I honestly don't know where we are this year, but let me check, and we'll get back to you.
Q -- the figure is going to drop to 107,000 on October 1, and 65,000 if there's no new legislation.
MR. LOCKHART: Right. I mean, I know that there's work going on between a number of members' offices, the high-tech industry, and Mr. Sperling's office. But I haven't gotten an update recently, but I will, next time.
Q Joe, you mentioned last week that the question of tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was under review. Can you give us an update? Is there any new information on that?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think Secretary Richardson spoke to that this morning. He was on a television program. He's got a number of proposals that he will be laying out over the next couple of days as far as addressing it. But I think he was pretty clear that the way the statute is written and the way our overall philosophy of trying to not manipulate prices in the market, severely limits any ability to use the strategic petroleum reserves. I don't know that there will be anything coming on that front.
Q On that point, I heard Secretary Richardson this morning say that basically they were going to be talking to our allies in the region about if they can provide any help on this matter. Is the President also willing to make calls to our friends in that region?
MR. LOCKHART: I think Secretary Richardson will be talking to some of the members of OPEC. This is a production -- as he said, a production problem, a price problem rather than a supply problem. So I expect he will do that. I also suspect that those conversations are best done diplomatically and privately rather than publicly.
Q Joe, with the State of the Union and the budget done now, what would the President be turning a lot of his attention to in the next few weeks?
MR. LOCKHART: I think today's a good example. Here is an example where the President can use his executive authority to move forward on a very important issue. This is something that may not get debated very much inside the Beltway, but it's certainly a kitchen table discussion item with Americans who have genuine fear and justifiable fear about how information is used and how their privacy will be protected.
So I expect the President to have a number of initiatives that will involve executive action and we'll start the important work of building support in Congress for the agenda that he's put forward in the State of the Union and the budget, as well as a number of foreign policy areas that take a lot of his time.
Q You're saying he's going to have a number of initiatives in the privacy area, or --
MR. LOCKHART: No, just that involve moving forward, using his executive authority. I don't want to rule out there aren't more privacy things, because I think over the year, we will come back to this several times. But I think you will see over the next weeks and months that we'll have a number of initiatives that do not require congressional action as Congress's schedule works somewhat differently than ours. Their work is back-loaded until the end of the year.
Q Joe, the Republicans' health care bill of rights provides that private insurers, both individuals and group plans, cannot discriminate based on any obtaining of genetic information. The one thing Republicans don't do is provide similar protection for hiring and firing decisions. Why does the President believe that component is also important in this whole issue?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, because he thinks that certainly it is an area of protecting one's rights as we move forward into the future, as either technology or science or our culture evolve, as we're faced with different issues. One hundred years ago, there were large segments of this country who didn't have their rights protected, whether it be women or minorities. This is an issue the technology has thrust upon us, and the President believes that people should not be discriminated against based on their genetic map, and based on what science and technology can tell us.
There are enormous, almost incalculable benefits to the work that's going on in this field as far as understanding one's personal future as far as what your medical tendencies will be and as far as addressing those. But they also raise a number of issues like this that the President thinks we ought to address early.
Q Joe, an irenic question, if I may --
MR. LOCKHART: A what?
Q An irenic question --
Q A peacemaking question.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q There's a new organization in Washington called Citizens Against Sacajawea Hype -- they object to the spending, the U.S. spending $40 million to promote acceptance of the Sacajawea coin in view of the Susan A. coin being massively rejected. Does the President think this is a wise expenditure?
MR. LOCKHART: Are you going to give me some help on this, Nanda? (Laughter.)
MS. CHITRE: Negative.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, he does.
Pool should gather at the side doors for an escort to the motorcade. Can I join the pool? Bernstein, come on, we're switching again. (Laughter.)
Q And one follow-up. Bill Safire's new book about James Callender notes that this newsman defamed Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Does the President believe Callender's Sally Hemings' slanderous myth, which is now being used to promote a CBS special, or not?
MR. LOCKHART: I have never talked to him about that, but it was good to see that there were some journalists who were --* before their time. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
END 11:55 A.M. EST