THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:20 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Gene Sperling, the Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, will deliver an address on China, WTO and Economic Freedom before the Economic Strategy Institute from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 23rd. The Economic Strategy Institute is hosting a special policy forum on China's accession into the WTO.
MR. LOCKHART: At the Economic Strategy Institute. In can give you a number to call if you would like to attend. Call (202) 326-8554, or 326-8573.
Q Is that 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. on the 23rd, or 12:00 p.m. on the 23rd until 1:00 p.m. on the 24th? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can tell you what it's scheduled for, but I wouldn't want to speculate.
Q Can we get a copy of it?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll ask Gene if they can get a recording and we can't transcribe it. (Laughter.) We'll try to get a copy of it, yes.
Q Joe, a question. The situation with Preston -- the pardon yesterday -- why Preston and why now?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that has something to do with the timing of it, but I think he made a case and the President -- which is within his authority to grant pardons -- believed that it was appropriate in this case. I think the timing was somewhat accelerated by the fact that he did have a family situation to deal with, so there was some acceleration to deal with that. But based on the merits, the President felt like it was appropriate in this case.
Q But he's had other family members to die and he hasn't been granted this pardon before.
MR. LOCKHART: As far as I know -- and Jim knows more of the details than I on this -- but the actual process of trying to seek this only started recently. So the President made the decision, and made it in a way that will allow him to be with his family.
Q Joe, The New York Times quotes you as saying, about President Clinton's being voted by 58 historians as having the lowest moral authority of all the Presidents -- quote, and you tell me if it's an inaccuracy -- "I suspect that that's more a reaction to reading the tabloids than a fair reading of history." Now, do you believe that Lou Cannon of The Washington Post and former Secretary Joe Califano, and Stephen Ambrose and David Kennedy are all either influenced by, or even regular readers, of tabloids?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think that the point I was making, in a longer session with The New York Times, and I think it's something that most historians would agree with me on, is it's very -- the utility of trying to measure the historical value of something that's unfolding is not very high. I think most people believe that if you want a historical perspective on these kinds of very worthy questions, historians need time to elapse to make the kind of detailed judgments that they've made on many others. And I think historians will say that their value in judging President Clinton or President Bush is quite limited.
Now, you know, it's always fun to do these kinds of surveys. It's kind of the C-SPAN sweeps equivalent of "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire." And I'm sure that people enjoyed the process. But I think the point I was trying to make was that historians will themselves make the argument that the best works that are done on people are some decades after. So I don't think you can take with all that much seriousness the responses they got on Presidents, you know, within this decade.
Q Could I follow up?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q If no one else -- was the President sorry that Messrs. Gore and Bradley spent so much time attacking each other last night, while not saying one word of criticism of Al Sharpton? Or does the President believe Mr. Sharpton to be an admirable man?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't talked to the President about the debate, so I wouldn't know.
Q Joe, is there anything that the President could offer these truckers who are in town today asking for such help as a reduction in the excise tax on diesel fuel, among other things?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think some of the same problems that have been faced by many in the Northeast who rely on home heating oil have been faced by truckers who obviously rely on diesel oil. It comes from the same stock, and obviously when there's pressure on home heating oil prices, there's going to be pressure on diesel.
Some of the things that we've done, though, over at the Department of Energy, have an impact of getting supply. I think you'll see that prices, over the last week, have begun to come down, in some places in the mid-Atlantic by 10 to 15 cents -- which still puts them at, in perspective to some months ago, at a higher level, and are causing concern within the trucking industry. I think if you couple that with the fact that as we get into the spring there will be much less pressure on diesel prices, because the need for home heating oil will be reduced.
Having said all that, the Department of Energy is doing what they can. And any proposal that comes to us, or we look at, will be done with the same philosophy of trying to allow the market to dictate the price here, and not trying to intervene in a way that manipulates the price.
Q Joe, when they sort of say, look, the Feds could make it easier by cutting the tax and doing sorts of immediate steps, that's just not something you would --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it's difficult to intervene in this way. The tax is set at what the Congress and the President believe is an appropriate level to help -- I mean, the tax, there's 24 cents a gallon of tax; 23-point-something of it goes toward the highway trust fund, which goes to building the highways the truckers depend on. So I don't think that necessarily is a viable option here. I think we have been doing things to make sure that more product gets particularly to the Northeast. It's been disproportionately hit by both home heating and diesel. And it's certainly -- we have some evidence, now, that prices are coming down, and we'll continue to watch the situation.
Q Joe, Senators Frist and Jeffords are interested in taking whatever compromise legislation is reached on medical records and medical errors, and putting that in the patients' bill of rights. Is that something the administration would support?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the administration -- it's a high priority for the administration to get a strong, enforceable patients' bill of rights. It's also a high priority to make sure that we deal with this important issue of medical errors. If we can move forward -- because these are complementary issues -- in a way that doesn't slow down one or the other, these things can work together. But we don't want one issue to impede progress on the other issue. So we'll do them separately. There is a chance we can do them together; the important thing is that we get it done this year.
Q And related to that, Republicans are also considering placing the liability in the federal court system, and making sure that the patients' bill of rights would not have liability in the state court system. Does the administration have an opinion on that?
MR. LOCKHART: It's something that we have been looking at. We want to make sure that people do have a real redress to wrongs within the system, or wrongs as they perceive them. I think there has been some discussion about the advantages and comparative disadvantages to federal versus state. I don't know that we've made a final decision. But it's certainly something that we're looking at, and --
Q It's not a deal-breaker, in other words?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, not at this point. We want to make sure that at the end of the day, the public feels that they are entitled to a process where they do have some redress within the system, and we have been looking at this. I don't know that any final decision has come, but it's not something on the face of it, which strikes us as something that we can't work with.
Q Joe, on that same topic, will you seek compromise with the Hospital Association and the AMA on the mandatory reporting provisions of the measure, or will you force them to swallow this pill regardless of how they feel about it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's always best to let people characterize their positions themselves, but if I understand the characterization of their position, I think those organizations believe that there is a lot in this proposal. There are a number of elements, and I know our previous briefers went through in great detail that they can find the support.
We just -- the President's come down and made the decision that this will work best if it's mandatory rather than voluntary, and we will work with them on how we do this and how this is implemented, because these are important elements in making sure that this system works properly, but the bottom-line decision that the President had to make, he has made, and he believes it should be mandatory.
Q Do you agree with them that it may have a chilling effect on the reporting of medical errors?
MR. LOCKHART: We don't believe, at the end of the day, that it has to. We think we can work together to find a way to move forward that has mandatory reporting, but that also gives confidence for patients and they can address the concerns of the hospitals and the doctors.
Q On China, you talked about it this morning, but I'd like to address it again for camera, if you don't mind -- some tough talk out of China regarding Taiwan. What's the administration's position on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have much to add to what I said this morning, but I'll say that the U.S. government rejects any use of force or any threat of force in this situation. We believe that a peaceful dialogue and bilateral engagement between the two sides is the best way to move forward.
Q Has there been any attempt to clarify or find out what they're talking about or if this is very factual stuff from China?
MR. LOCKHART: I think this is, as described for me, as something like an 11,000-word white paper with lots of different issues in it that our China people are looking very closely at. But as far as any suggestion that this situation can be resolved through the use of force, that is something that our policy opposes.
Q It comes at a time when you're dealing with Congress on WTO. Doesn't that hurt your cause, then?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think that this has to be looked at with some perspective. I think the WTO case, on its merits, are very clear. The benefits to opening the Chinese market to American businesses, to American families, are quite clear and quite one-sided, and that's the case we're going to continue to make.
Q You don't think that the opponents per se against trade and so forth would use this?
MR. LOCKHART: I can't speak to what opponents of this agreement will or won't use. I can only speak to what I believe are the merits of the WTO deal and providing normal trade relations.
Q How far along are you in lobbying for this?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the President will speak to a business group later this week. He had two meetings last week with small groups of members, about 15 to 20 in each. I expect him to have at least two more before this month is over and to continue to make the case, both publicly to the American public, to the American business community, urging them to do what they can to generate support, and also privately to members. That process is well underway and will continue.
Q Before Mr. Talbott and Mr. Steinberg left for China, we were told that one of the things that they would discuss with the Chinese leaders in Beijing was trying to discourage them, or at least have a dialogue with them about stopping or preventing any provocative statements from the Chinese government before the Taiwanese election. Considering the length of this document, were either of them given any heads up that this was coming, or does the administration in any way view it a provocative act in light of those recent conversations?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we equate one with the other. I don't know if any heads-up was given. If there was, I haven't been made aware of it. I think the purpose of those meetings was to discuss the state of our relations, to make sure that we were doing what we can to put them back on the right track, in a follow up to the meeting that the President had in Auckland and in light of the events of last year. So I just don't know whether there was any sort of heads-up on the existence or preview of the document.
Q Can you give us an idea of how much money the United States is willing to commit to the Burundi peace process?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me take that, Terry. I don't know off the top of my head, but that should be easily found.
Q Joe, let me get back to medical mistakes. It's only mandatory reporting if these additional 32 states, where it's not mandatory now, decide to make it mandatory. Does the President plan to jawbone on that? I mean, how do you get them to come along?
MR. LOCKHART: Basically, my understanding of the President's announcement is we will phase in mandatory to the states, providing the states the tools they need and the information they need to provide it. And if, at the end of three years we don't have 100 percent participation, we will take a different legislative route that will require states either to participate or there are other ways -- for instance, you know with the Brady law, the states that don't participate operate a different way through the federal government.
But the end game on this, at the end of three years, is that we will either have mandatory participation -- mandatory reporting from 50 states, or we will take steps to make sure that reporting is done in the 50 states on a mandatory basis.
Q The states have to voluntarily agree to do something that's going to be mandatory. So is your threat, then, that the federal funds which go out to hospitals, for example -- we know the carrot; what's the stick?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no reason to believe at this point, given the bipartisan support that we've seen, particularly today on the Hill on this issue, that there's going to be any significant problem. But we can take further steps -- and I'm just not going to get into what those steps might be -- to make sure that all states participate, just like we do on a number of other programs.
Q Joe, was the President disappointed today that the AHA and the AMA did not stand with him as he made the announcement?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we have worked very hard on this issue and we have worked very hard with those groups. And all things being equal, I think the President would like as many groups that are important in this process to stand with him on an issue of this importance.
But we have to make a decision -- the President has to make decisions based on what he believes is in the best interests of this country, not any specific constituency group. And that's why he took the position, took the decisions that he did in this case. And we will push -- with, as I earlier noted, a significant bipartisan support -- to get this done.
Q But when you look at the important groups that could stand with him, though, these two would probably rank number one and number two.
MR. LOCKHART: No. No, I think the most important group would be the American public, who want something done. I think particularly on television, you know, when this IOM report came out, it got a lot of coverage, and that was appropriate because this is a real problem that we need to address. We now have put together serious steps toward solving the problem. I expect that to get a good bit of attention. And this is really about patients, not necessarily the narrow interests of a particular hospital or a particular group of doctors.
Q Were they invited?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, they were. Yes, they were. And I will -- this is an overall package, which, my understanding is, they support many elements of. I think they have a problem with the mandatory nature of the reporting. That's an issue that, while taking their position into account, the President made a decision that in order for this to be useful for the public and have the confidence of the public, that you needed mandatory reporting.
Q Joe, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, arrived in Washington today and he has a state visit to the President tomorrow. What are the main issues the President will deal with with the King?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, the President very much looks forward to the meeting, the state visit of the King and the Queen. I think, first off, he'd like to reciprocate the gracious hospitality that was afforded to the President and the First Lady on their visit to Spain. And I think this is an opportunity for the President to highlight the deep and rich nature of our relations with Spain, and to continue ongoing efforts to expand and deepen the friendship between the two countries.
Q It's ceremonial, then, mainly?
MR. LOCKHART: That's pretty much what I'd read from that answer.
Q Joe, the medical mistakes thing, how solid is that bipartisan support? Does it go much deeper than the committee that we've seen this morning?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, my guess on that is yes. I mean, I think we had people, the important people from the committee, saying positive things today, there is a hearing today. But I do think that when this report came out, there was not a partisan reaction to it. There was a singular and unified reaction that we have to do something about it. I think the President has moved quickly to address this problem. Congress stands ready to move quickly, as evidenced by their hearing today, a hearing that has support on both sides of the aisle, to do something about it. And I think the public is expecting that action to be taken.
Q Joe, aside from the 32 states that don't have any mandatory reporting rules, are you going to be looking at the 18 states that do to see if they need improving --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think one of the things that we need to do is to provide a sort of comparative base for states as they move forward. It's certainly our view that even among the states that do have mandatory reporting, that we can all do better. And I think the states have indicated that themselves. So part of this effort will be to not only add to the states that are not doing this reporting now, but to improve the value of the data, and ultimately the value to patients, of the states that are currently doing the reporting.
Q Has the President made up his mind about Pakistan yet?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Joe, what is the White House's response to Senator Bradley's statements that he would support the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate 1996 campaign fundraising irregularities?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that would put him in a majority of one in this country.
Q Joe, there's much public interest in what the President's going to do after January the 20th, and I presume -- he has certainly discussed that with you, right?
MR. LOCKHART: Vaguely.
Q All right. Can you tell us --
MR. LOCKHART: You've got to be noncommittal on these long questions.
Q -- a little bit about what he has in mind, and whether that includes the practice or teaching of law.
MR. LOCKHART: I'll let the President address that, although I think he has, as far as what he plans to do with his center. But I haven't heard --
Q -- the center down in Little Rock?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, and some other things.
Q What other things?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll let him do that.
Q Joe, getting back to the truckers for a minute. A lot of people who have looked at this situation said one of the big concerns that this whole situation we're facing right now with heating oil and diesel fuel is the fact that we continue to have a reliance on foreign oil, and nothing is being done to improve production of domestic oil, and therefore, we are held somewhat hostage by other countries in the world. Is the administration looking at anything to try to beef up the domestic production of oil so that we're not held hostage every time prices fluctuate?
MR. LOCKHART: Without going into too much detail on the domestic oil situation, because I don't currently know that much about it, I think there actually have been things done domestically, although we can't rely entirely, based on our economy, on domestic oil. But a lot is being done on other fronts. I think you'll notice in the paper this morning that, working with this administration, Daimler Chrysler is coming out with a new model that gets exponentially more miles to the gallon than anything now.
We're doing a lot as far as renewable fuels; there's a lot of money in the budget for that. So there is a lot being done on trying to make sure that we meet the energy challenge that's before us. So it is -- and I don't think -- I think it sort of short shrifts the overall debate when you just look at domestic crude oil production.
Q May I just follow up, please? Does the White House view that as just a production problem, or a national security problem?
MR. LOCKHART: Which?
Q The fact that we have so much reliance on foreign oil.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's certainly a challenge to this country, which is why the President has been out front on making sure we're meeting it as far as how we go about building the next generations of automobiles, how we deal with alternative sources of power, how we deal with things like climate change. These are all challenges that I think this administration has faced.
Q Joe, by holding off on the decision on racial profiling until the study is complete, it seems like the President is saying that that there might be some facets about racial profiling that he finds valid. Is that true? Is there something about it that --
MR. LOCKHART: No. Let me say something about the criticism here. There's very limited federal government/law enforcement of this kind. But in order to make a decision, I think we felt it was best to look at all of the areas where the federal government might be involved in these types of issues, and base it on facts rather than on anecdotes or this story or that story. So that's what we're doing. But I think more importantly is, if you look at what the civil rights division at the Justice Department is doing, they're out trying to make sure that people aren't discriminated against. It's what makes this argument somewhat hollow when it comes from Senator Bradley.
The civil rights division went up and actually, through their actions, helped New Jersey and prodded New Jersey into making the changes they've made. And I don't remember any help coming from Senator Bradley, even though it was his own back yard. So I don't know that this is the best line of political attack for him. As far as what we're doing to do is, we're going to concentrate on getting the job done, and that's why the President did issue the executive order that he did earlier -- late last year. And we're going to get hard facts and make sure that racial profiling is not used and that -- or is not used as a tool of discrimination against anyone in this country.
Q Would it ever be acceptable?
MR. LOCKHART: This is what we're looking at as far as --
Q I mean, isn't it automatically a form of discrimination?
MR. LOCKHART: There are certainly areas when you're looking at people coming into this country, you can tell by --
Q -- how they look.
MR. LOCKHART: -- how they look whether they may be from this country or may not, and we've got to look at whether any element of any --
Q How can you tell how they look?
MR. LOCKHART: That's why we're looking at this and that's why the President is taking the lead on this. And we've got to look at whether there is any element of any of the tactics or procedures used by law enforcement that discriminates, and if they are, we'll get rid of them.
Q Joe, back on China, could you explain why the administration views China's threat of force against Taiwan as a grave concern, as you put it this morning, yet you don't believe that China's actions should become a stumbling block on WTO debate?
MR. LOCKHART: I think, as I said this morning, if they were to take action, which would try to resolve the issue between China and Taiwan through force, we would view that with grave concern. That's the position articulated in the Taiwan Relations Act and that continues. They haven't done that.
Q What will we do besides view? Will we just view or will we take action, like sending --
MR. LOCKHART: We would work with Congress, as administrations going back three decades have, to take the appropriate action.
Q That would include military action, wouldn't it?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not telling you what it would or wouldn't include.
Q Joe, how's the aid to Colombia coming along from Congress, according to the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that bill is set to go up this week.
MR. HAMMER: The bill went up.
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I'm sorry, I've got it confused with the supplemental. I think that there is increasing support. General McCaffrey, I think, is traveling to the region today or tomorrow, and will continue the important work he's doing. And we hope for a vote on this early. I think Senator Lott indicated in his comments last week that he hoped to get this done early, WTO and Africa and CBI. So I think that's a hopeful development.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:48 P.M. EST