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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 9, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                             JOE LOCKHART

                  The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:34 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Questions. What can we do for all of you today?

Q How are you feeling?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm feeling great. (Laughter.)

Q Are you ready for the trip to India?

MR. LOCKHART: Am I ready? I'm very ready, and I'm not going to do autographs in this session.

Q -- going, or Chelsea?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't believe so. You should check with her office.

Q And one more. How do you rate or see the relations today between India and U.S.? And do you think after the presidential visit, will they change?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we certainly hope the President's visit will deepen that relationship. India is obviously an important relationship, and important friend to the United States. It is an extremely large democracy, an important country as far as security in that area in the world, and important country as far as economic development around the world which impacts this country. And we hope -- it's been over 20 years since a President has visited India, and a trip is long overdue. So we certainly hope that the trip will serve, among other things, to deepen the friendship among all Indians and all Americans.

Q Joe, there are hearings on the Hill today about the oil price, and there have been a number of proposals with regard to create -- there's been criticism that there's not what they call an energy policy. That is, a number of proposals have been put forward -- creating the Strategic Petroleum Reserve when prices are low, and then -- it out when prices are high -- in order to avoid these kinds of crisis, like we have in New York state, rather than always having face an emergency. Is there any consideration of developing --

MR. LOCKHART: First off, I would reject the idea that, a, we don't have an energy policy and, b, that we're always facing an emergency. I think if you look over the last seven years, you will find that by any measure, oil prices have been low in this country. We are now facing a production problem that we are addressing at the appropriate level.

I've seen a series of ideas put out there; I haven't seen any potential legislation so I'm just not going to get into it. I also saw something on sales tax, which, on the way out here, I saw two members of the Republican leadership saying that they were against. So I think we are dealing at the appropriate level on dealing with the production problem. We've done an enormous amount as far as home heating oil, as far as weatherization at the Department of Energy, and we will continue to keep options open should this problem get worse.

Q But Joe, we have capabilities of producing ourselves, and it's also not only a question of energy supply, but also if the U.S. were involved in a conflict in which OPEC was not prepared to cooperate, they could raise the price of oil, and to the extent that we don't have our capabilities ourselves to use our own oil resources, it could be a problem. Isn't --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, no, I think we do have the capability, and that's what the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was designed for, and that's what the statute and the law that set it up requires that we use it for. And we will continue -- I mean, we will reject some ideas that are out there as far as further exploration in Alaska and the Arctic area, but we will continue to work on this. So I don't think there's an issue that the President is briefed on more often and will continue to work toward providing a more stable supply and stable price.

Q Joe, has the President been warned that we're approaching the area where this could trigger higher inflation, that oil prices are high enough about at this point that this is a real danger?

MR. LOCKHART: I think, obviously, oil prices get factored into our inflation; both the main rate and the court rate excludes energy prices. I think, overall, the inflation picture in this country remains in check, but this is something we will watch from month to month.

Q Joe, the Colombian Vice President is in Washington lobbying the Hill on the aid to Columbia package, and it looks like the legislation may be voted on in the House next week. Is the administration confident it has the votes to get it through?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we're making a strong case for our own national interests, as far as the supplemental bill that includes the aid to Colombia. We think President Pastrana has moved forward and put together a very comprehensive program that both Colombia will contribute to, the European Union countries will contribute to, and the United States will. We think there is enormous concern in Congress about the drug trafficking in this country, and we expect at the end of the day that we'll have the votes to pass this legislation.

Q What about the WTO, Joe? Do you feel like you're making progress on the Hill? Are the votes there?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it's early now to start trying to count heads, and I would suggest that anyone who's putting head count numbers out now is speculating rather than providing real solid information. The President, over the last six weeks, I think, has come back to this subject over and over again, whether it be in public speeches, whether it be in private phone conversations, whether it be in bringing members down here to the Hill. He's made very clear the importance -- I think yesterday's speech laid out in great detail why it's in the United States's national interests to have China in WTO. We'll continue to make that case, and we're hoping that some time in the spring we can bring this to a vote.

Q Hey, Joe? In his interview with CNN last night, the President said that he's owned a number of guns, including one when he was 12. Do you know if he owns any now?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't believe so, but I can check with him on that.

Q Does the current oil situation suggest that alternative fuels, creating and using those should be sped up? And are there incentives coming from the administration?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, sure. There's a lot of incentives. If you look at the budget the President sent up, there's a number of incentives that we hope Congress will act on. It's an important point that we need to pursue alternative fuels. There's a number of exciting developments going on, whether it be in Detroit with automobiles, prototypes that get in excess to 100 miles to a gallon, or whether it be in the research labs where a lot of work is going on. But there are incentives, and it has to be part of an overall and comprehensive energy program that we try to find more alternative, cleaner ways to expend energy. And we've had a very aggressive program on that over the last seven years.

Q But a 10, or 15, or 20-year thing, though, or is that something that come at least in small steps?

MR. LOCKHART: No, this has been going on. I think you can see it in various levels. If you look at the climate change program, you will see that that goes well out into the next decade as far as what the United States should do. But if you look just at what Detroit's doing as far as working in partnership with the government, you will see that they are very close now to rolling out cars that will get much greater fuel efficiency and will go some way toward addressing, if even temporarily, the spikes in oil prices here.

Q Joe, the President talked about Canada and drug prices today and how seniors are crossing the border. I had read that Senator Gorton commented at a hearing the other day that it's unfair for America to be subsidizing, in effect, lower prices in other countries such as Canada. What's the administration's position on this?

MR. LOCKHART: The administration's position on this is that we ought to pass the President's prescription drug program, give seniors the bargaining power to reduce the price, and answer a question that's unanswered, in a way, to answer a question that's completely unanswerable to seniors right now, which is, why do Americans -- why do Canadians get to buy American drugs at a much lower price. If we pass the legislation with the reforms in it and with the bargaining power that this prescription drug benefit within Medicare will have, you will find, as the President just said, an evaporation in that price differential.

Q And would the President sign either a stand-alone prescription drug benefit, or just Medicare reform without prescription drug benefit?

MR. LOCKHART: I think as the Democrats showed today and in a very unified way, you've got to put the two things together. So I think we are going to continue to work through Congress, Senate Finance Committee has gotten to work on this issue, but we think in order to get a program that makes sense and is affordable, you need to go with a program that has the kind of market reforms that the President's plan has and that the Senate Democrats' principles laid out today.

Q Joe, back to gasoline prices. Is the President concerned in this election year that this might get caught up in politics or that there might be pressures from Congress or from within the administration to try to take actions that might either be, or be perceived as tied to the election?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President's concerned with people who have to go out and either heat their home, drive their car, and right now are paying high rates either at the gas pump or through their home heating oil company. But we need to take an approach here that makes sense. And I think we have, if you couple the LIHEAP with some of the work that Secretary Richardson has done. And if that work is not successful, there are other options that will be available.

But I think right now, our approach here is to keep this out of politics, and try to make sure that the public interest is taken care of. For those who want to play politics with that, that is their right. I don't know whether they will be helpful, neutral or unhelpful to the process. But we're going to keep moving forward.

Q Is use of the reserves still an option? He said in February that he --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. There's been nothing taken off the table, and the context we're in now, it's not something that we're actively considering, but no option has been taken firmly off the table.

Q Joe, regarding the report on homosexuals in the military, the President said he needs to read it, Secretary Cohen needs to read it. Any sense of a timeline on when those --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, that report, as I understand it, goes over the past year. And if you'll remember, it was late last year that the Pentagon took some steps, as far as education within the military, and as far as communicating with the officers, on better implementation of the policy. So I wouldn't expect that effort, which the President supports, to show up in this report.

Again, I don't know the details in the report, so I don't want to comment on it specifically. I can only say that the Pentagon has demonstrated a desire to implement this policy more vigorously and fairly, and that the President supports and the President understands, and I think the Pentagon understands, that there is more work to do on this subject.

Q Going back to energy and Bush's apparent idea for a temporary rollback of the gasoline tax, would it be the administration's feeling --

MR. LOCKHART: Whose idea is this?

Q I understand that it's something that Bush is kicking around. But anyway --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know -- (laughter.)

Q Oh, you know, somebody. (Laughter.)

Q But anyway, I want to ask you, with higher fuel prices, that discourages use of fuel, which may or may not be a good thing in itself. But that also lowers revenue from the gasoline tax. So are you concerned that without even -- if you kill the gasoline tax entirely, it would have a really disproportionate effect on revenue. I mean, are you concerned about the fact that you're already going to have lower revenue anyway, because presumably you won't be getting as much as you did, for example, last year, when gasoline was cheap and people were driving --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you've got to consider, anytime you look at repealing a provision, where the money's going to come from and who is going to pay, and how we're going to pay for the highway construction and the highway repair that gets done, because that's where that money goes into. And I think that's why you've seen some of the Republican leaders on the Hill on the tax committees suggesting that this may not be such a good idea.

Right now, there is not a proposal out there to really analyze. I think if the Republicans or the Democrats on the Hill want to come together with a proposal, we'll take a look at it. There are obviously some issues that we're going to have to deal with. I think -- but given the fact that there isn't one right now, we think that we're doing -- we're taking the appropriate steps, and these steps that we've taken are going to take a little bit more time before you see some results.

Q Did the President make any calls today on the Paez nomination or try to push that forward?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that he's made any today. Over the last two or three weeks, he talked to a number of Republican senators who we thought might be able to support both of these nominations, but I don't know that he's made any today. I suspect that most people have made up their mind on both of these judges.

Q Will the President be making any calls on the minimum wage at all -- any calls to Republicans today?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. We try to limit the President's time to something that's useful, and I don't expect calling Republicans, particularly the leadership, on minimum wage would be a good use of his time. I mean, let's be serious what's going on here. They have stacked the deck here. They either don't want a minimum wage passed, but don't want to pay a political price, or they're either too desperate to get their risky tax schemes through. I mean, I think if you read the paper this morning, you'll find the Speaker of the House saying that when all is said and done and they get all their tax plans forward, they're either going to be at or above the tax cut that the public rejected last year as unaffordable. It will squeeze Social Security and Medicare.

And I think, really, this is just -- right now, it's a political debate, and it's a political debate that reveals the Republican Party's lack of commitment to working people in this country, and their slavish dedication to providing the most wealthy in this country tax breaks. And these are tax breaks that it's debatable whether they're needed, but it's not debatable whether we can afford it if you look at the numbers.

Q Joe, one more thing, going back to the President's trip to South Asia. If you can please clarify -- this is troubling to a lot of people, including many Pakistanis in this country, that U.S. is to preach and to believe in and to promote democracies around the world, which they have done, of course, in every country, but also, at the same time, how can a U.S. President visit to a military dictatorship and greeting and meeting him while a democratically-elected prime minister is in jail, number one?

Number two, Usama bin-Laden is also in the area and -- Afghanistan which Pakistan has contact with the Taliban and Usama bin-Laden. Three, if the President is making any efforts to meet Musharraf or to get release of him from the jail? And also, if Usama bin-Laden is going to be brought to justice?

MR. LOCKHART: Can you repeat the question? (Laughter.) Let me try to untangle that. I mean, the President has been very clear on the former Prime Minister, as far as pressing the government there to provide both due process and transparency in that trial.

I think anyone who states that our visit there is somehow a validation of the military government there is flat wrong. The President has made the judgment that, given the tensions in the region, that it's important to engage and make the visit, and that's why he's going to make the visit. But it is absolutely wrong to read it as any kind of acceptance of the military government. We will continue to promote democracy around the world. We will continue to bring our message when we go to Pakistan about the importance of democratic and constitutional rule.

Q Joe, do you have any comment on what reportedly would be the next Republican tax proposal to raise the allowable amount that could be contributed to IRAs --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think that the leaders must think that everyone's fairly simple, if they think they haven't figured out what they're doing. The Speaker of the House this morning in the paper is on the record saying they're trying to pass last year's risky tax scheme piece by piece.

Q He said that?

MR. LOCKHART: Piece by piece. And we're not -- you know, nothing has changed since last year.

Q I missed him. (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: I'll wait. You all done?

Q One more question.

MR. LOCKHART: Okay, why don't we go to the next question. Or why don't we just finish?

Q Oh, go ahead.

Q So this is not something that --

MR. LOCKHART: We want -- we're going to get serious on budget and tax cuts when the Republican leaders get serious themselves. We need to see what all the pieces are, how it adds up, who it benefits, and how it's paid for.

What we're not going to tolerate is taking last year's -- and the year before's, for that matter -- failed tax cut and send it down here piece by piece in a way that ensures that we'll have to oppose it.

The President has put forward a targeted tax cut plan that helps the middle class in this country. The Republicans should come forward with their idea, and then we should decide. But we're not going to do this piece by piece.

Q So the problem is not necessarily with that particular proposal, but that it may be part of a larger scheme?

MR. LOCKHART: The problem is when you add them all up, you're back up at $800 billion to a trillion dollars of tax cuts that we can't afford, that will either squeeze Social Security and Medicare, or eviscerate discretionary domestic spending in this country. So the Republicans, like we did last year, will be forced at some point to stop the shell game, come clean, and say they want tax cuts for the best off in this country, or they want to cut Medicare and Social Security, or they want to cut things like education and health care. But until they get to the point where they want to do this in a serious way, this will all just be about politics and an all-political debate.

Q Joe, now that the Vice President basically has the nomination sealed up, is he going to become any more involved in the China trade bill?

MR. LOCKHART: I expect that he will continue to be involved in a number of issues within the government that he has been involved. I don't know what his travel schedule is over the next couple months, but I'm certain he will remain an important part of the team here.

Q One more -- please forgive me. Can you have any comments on what General Musharraf has said in Pakistan that by accepting my invitation by the United States President, that means he is accepting my government or he's endorsing?

MR. LOCKHART: I cannot find another way or more emphatic way to say that he is wrong in that statement.

          Thank you.  Terry, see me in my office.  (Laughter.)
                               END          12:50 P.M. EST