THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:04 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome back. For those of you who didn't come with us, you look a lot better than I feel. Questions?
Q What happened at the meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: P.J. is right now -- it just broke, the lunch just broke, and is right now trying to get a readout for me. So hopefully by the end of the briefing, I can give you some sense of both the meeting and the lunch. If not, I'll have P.J. and Mike do something with you all as soon as this is over.
Q Joe, what precisely does the United States want from OPEC in the way of oil production increases? Do we have a goal, a set number of barrels per day increase?
MR. LOCKHART: I wouldn't say we have a set number. We want to make sure that there's a better balance between supply and demand here. That is something that we've been working hard with the oil-producing countries.
You have both what's going on with OPEC, but you also have discussions we've had with the non-OPEC countries -- Norway, Mexico -- as far as their increased production. And I think overall, from what we see -- although we haven't seen a final announcement, we've seen encouraging signs that production will increase to address this problem.
I think you have to look at this over a time frame longer than a day or an hour here. I think if you look back to where we were at the beginning of the year, OPEC was in the position where they did not believe that they needed to raise production. We've worked hard -- the President, Secretary Richardson and others -- in making the case that it's in OPEC's interest to make sure that worldwide economic growth continues, that it hurts oil-producing countries if demand and growth is somehow adversely impacted. And I think that's what you see at these meetings going on right now in Vienna, that they're addressing those issues. And we'll see what they come out with at the end of the day.
Q Joe, what about some concerns, though, on the part of some OPEC members, particularly Iran, that the United States, who's been perhaps a bit heavy-handed, maybe even intrusive, in its lobbying efforts to get production increased?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think the United States reserves the right to make our case. We believe it is in the interests of consuming nations. It is in our national interest to have a more stable oil price. But we also believe it's in the interests of the oil producers. So I think we will reserve the right going into the future to make the case in whatever way we feel is appropriate.
Q What is the imbalance between supply and demand these days? Is that about 2 million barrels a day?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know what the actual imbalance is, and some of this has to do -- I think there's been kind of a shorthand in the press in the last few days, which does not necessarily reflect what is a much more complicated picture, between quotas, output, OPEC versus non-OPEC. There's a certain level of producing that's done that's not reflected in the quota.
So we're looking to see an increase in production that will go toward this imbalance, and mostly -- which will manifest itself in a downward trend in oil prices and directly translating into lower prices at the gas pump.
Q Do you have a sense of how much it would take to actually influence gas prices? For one thing, if Iran apparently wants to increase the amount of production, only by the amount that is now being -- the cheated amount on what was --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the Energy Department economists have a much better sense than certainly I do on the actual numbers, and I also think that there are discussions going on in Vienna as we speak. So I don't want to prejudge those. If they reach some conclusion in the next couple of hours, Secretary Richardson, Gene Sperling and some others will make themselves available to talk to you all.
Q I think they have reached a conclusion -- it's 1.7 million barrels a day. Is that adequate?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, as of walking out of here, they had not reached a conclusion, so I don't want to base any judgment. I think what's important here is that you look at what OPEC's doing, what the non-OPEC countries are doing, how that impacts the price of oil that we return stability and stability in a downward direction for oil prices, which is in the interest of, again, consumers and producers, and that's something we're just going to have to wait and see.
Q Do you have a target price? I mean, it's now roughly $30 a barrel. I mean, is $25 acceptable or --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think Secretary Richardson and others talked about $30 a barrel being too high, and certainly it got to the point within the last year where the price at $11, $12 was too low for the producers. I don't know that we have a particular target except to say that the price and the volatility at levels that we saw some weeks ago, which they have come off where they were some weeks ago which is good, had the potential to impact world economic growth. Not necessarily here. I think, obviously, the strongest economy will probably be the one that feels it last.
I note that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve yesterday in testimony indicated that he did not view oil prices -- or gas prices at this level and oil prices as an inflationary risk for our economy. But if you look around the world and you look at some of the economies that are more fragile than the U.S. economy, increasing oil prices could have a negative impact and all of this could have an overall worldwide impact.
Q But most Americans probably don't care that much about OPEC's internal deliberations and the mechanism that's going on. How quickly -- whatever decision is made today, how quickly do you think people can expect to see that reflected in oil and gas prices in this country?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, obviously there is some lag between what oil companies pay for a barrel of crude oil and what Americans pay at the gas pump. But I think it will be important as the price gets pushed down that oil companies pass on savings immediately to consumers. When that will happen I can't predict. But I think what's important here is you saw a rise in the price of a barrel of crude oil and then a subsequent rise in gas prices at the pump. And I think if you've watched the price of oil over the last few weeks, you've seen a fairly significant reduction. I think as stocks are replenished, as there is increased production, I think there will be some relief for all Americans at the gas pump.
Q Isn't there a refinery problem, though, because you've got a backup difficulty in refineries? Once they start buying more oil and they have more oil to buy at cheaper prices, doesn't it take a while?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. There's obviously some lag. There was some lag in the price -- when the price of a barrel of crude oil went up, as in the price of gas. So there is some lag. But I think Americans who have watched this story closely understand that, but will also understand that they'll be looking for the cost savings that the oil companies get to be translated into -- directly to the price at the gas pump as soon as possible.
Q Q So even if this imbalance is corrected, you're going to have something of delayed gratification here for consumers.
MR. LOCKHART: I wouldn't expect, if OPEC makes an announcement at 2:00 p.m., to have people going out and changing the prices at the gas pump at 2:15 p.m. That's not how the oil market works. I think people understand that. But I do expect that oil companies who will benefit from increased production and increased supply will pass on their savings to consumers.
Q Joe, the supplemental is going through a rough ride, especially in the Senate. Senator Lott seems to be saying we can wait until after the emergency. What is the White House doing about it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's a peculiar thing with the fate of the supplemental. And it says something about how Congress does its work. We sent up some time ago a supplemental which we think met very important urgent needs -- counter-narcotic program in Colombia, very important and high priority for this administration; replenishing the LIHEAP money which needs to be done and was very important in the Northeast this year; peacekeeping in Kosovo which we think is very important. We sent that up, and when it got to the House, they saw it within their wisdom, the Republican leadership, to load it up with another $3 billion or $4 billion worth of spending. So when it went over to the Senate, the Senate Majority Leader said, oh, I'm sorry, this is too big, we can't do this.
So I think Republicans have to get together and decide whether they're going to play politics or whether they're going to try to get the people's business done. We remain ready to work with them, but this seems to be to be a problem between the leadership in the House and the leadership in the Senate, and they ought to get these problems worked out, because these are programs that can't wait. Our drug strategy depends on addressing the problem in Colombia, and there is a limit to how much time we can wait.
Q Back to OPEC, assuming there is an agreement announced, does that mean -- is that issue over? Do you see a need to reassess energy policy and --
MR. LOCKHART: I think -- let me say a couple of things on that. I think no matter what OPEC does, we're going to continue to monitor this closely. It's a very important issue. I think the fact that we have addressed the production problem the way we had done, it brings credit to the President and to the Secretary of Energy, because as I said earlier a couple of months ago, OPEC was of a view that production was at the right level. And I think we have successfully made the case that there was an imbalance, and it was important to address the production shortage.
So we will continue to monitor this as the days and weeks and months go by, but I think secondly, it does raise an important issue of what we're doing as far as long-term energy dependence. This Congress has shown no willingness to move forward on the President's proposals of tax incentives for alternative fuels for alternative energy programs. And I think they're quick to run to the gas pump and criticize, but when it comes to actually doing something, they don't really have any concept of how we move forward.
I think if something can come out of this over the last few months -- if Congress can take a new look at the proposals the President presented, and actually get some of them passed, we'll be in better shape for the long run.
Q Well, Joe, they actually have several concepts. I mean, one is to increase drilling, potentially, to increase the amount of domestic production. Would the President consider any of that?
MR. LOCKHART: No, the President has said that he is opposed to that. I think ultimately the long-term solution is in alternative energies, sources. We can do that through a series of tax incentives and other proposals the President has put forward. And I think it's important for Congress to do more than say we have to deal with energy dependence and actually do something.
Q Joe, as the President's chief media advisor --
MR. LOCKHART: Is that a promotion or a demotion? (Laughter.)
Q -- are you able to imagine that if a young German mother had drowned in 1938 while trying to get her boy to Denmark, that the Danes would have sent the boy back to his divorced and remarried father in Hamburg?
MR. LOCKHART: I can't possibly think what case you're making, so -- (laughter) -- let's just move back on.
P.J. gives me a note here, which I will read, as a readout on this morning's meeting. The President and President Mubarak had a full range, a discussion of a full range of issues during their meeting and their lunch. On the Middle East peace process, they agreed to work together on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks. The President has made a specific request, as he said this morning, of President Assad to come back in the aftermath of Sunday's meeting, with some ideas of how to move the process forward. He hopes that all parties will remain fully engaged on all tracks.
On the bilateral issues with the government of Egypt, they spent some time talking about our military-to-military cooperation, trade issues. And finally they discussed some regional issues, including Iraq and Iran.
Q Joe, the issue of Mozambique -- we understand that U.S. forces are pulling out of Mozambique, as well as the fact that funding that you had given over there is lowering, it's depleting. Is that it for Mozambique, the United States effort?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there's a shift, and I think the government of Mozambique would agree that the military effort is now nearing completion and will be phased out. I think the government is very pleased with the efforts that the U.S. government provided, as far as the immediate relief that we were able to provide through our military assets.
I think now, there is a shift towards helping along the civilian front, as far as aid, as far as what USAID is doing. We have some $50 million already allocated for this effort, and we will look at other requests as this effort of rebuilding and reconstruction continues.
Q Well, they say that $50 million was almost gone.
MR. LOCKHART: I think a lot of what they've done of the initial money was towards getting in relief supplies, things that the military does and can do in a way that no other federal agency can do. But I think there is a good amount of aid there as far as trying to help them recover from this, and we will continue to work with the government of Mozambique.
Q Joe, Dan Burton has asked Justice for an outside counsel to investigate the White House e-mails. What's the White House response to that?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the Justice Department will have to make that decision. I will only remind people that Dan Burton asking for an outside counsel or a special counsel is like the sun coming up in the morning; it happens once a week or once a month, and you all will have to remember all of the pressing issues that he called for outside counsels on and what came of them.
Q Does the President believe it was right or wrong for the State Department Inspector General to begin a criminal investigation of the Vice President's campaign leader, Mr. Coelho? And if he believes that this was right, does he believe that Mr. Coelho should step aside until the $18,000-a-month apartment and the chauffeured Mercedes matter is somehow justified?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has never expressed a view to me on what the Inspector General may or may not be doing at the State Department. I think the President believes that Mr. Coelho is doing a fine job with the Gore campaign.
Q Joe, the President's going to be in South Carolina tomorrow speaking at a predominantly black college. Obviously, South Carolina's much in the news for the issue of the confederate flag. What is the President going to say about the confederate flag, and is he going to take a shot at George Bush and his position on it?
MR. LOCKHART: I expect the President will discuss it, because it's obviously an issue that's very front and center in South Carolina. But I don't expect I will preview what he's going to say.
Q Joe, in what form did Clinton ask Assad to come back? Is that something he's communicated since the meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: No. During the meeting, he discussed, and we have subsequently communicated, that it's certainly our hope that, given where we are in this process, that President Assad and the Syrians will spend some time working through some of their ideas and come back to us.
Q Can you tell us how long the meeting lasted this morning, and then the lunch -- what time everything ended --
MR. LOCKHART: The lunch broke at about 1:00 p.m. --
MR. CROWLEY: About an hour for the two meetings, about an hour for --
MR. LOCKHART: Okay. So they went from the time that the pool spray ended up until about 1:00 p.m., with a small break between the two meetings and then the lunch.
Q Joe, just to follow up on the special counsel issue, the White House is now the subject of a civil suit over part of that issue, the FBI files issue. So the Justice Department is representing the White House as basically their defense attorneys in that case. And at the same time, there's now a criminal investigation into whether things were mishandled. Isn't that indeed a conflict, as Mr. Burton points out? Or would you not acknowledge there's any difficulty in the Justice Department playing both roles --
MR. LOCKHART: No, that is why I think the Justice Department took the step to stay the civil case while they looked at other issues. So I think they've addressed that.
Q Joe, Congressman Matsui said yesterday that as time goes by on the China vote, Democrats may be less inclined to vote for it. Where are we in terms of persuading Congress to pass, to vote on this? And are you concerned that Democrats are peeling away?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think I've got any particular concern at this point. I think, in fact, the President has been making the case very effectively and aggressively with members on both sides of the aisle for why this is in our national interest and why we need a vote, and a positive vote, on this. I expect that he'll make a dozen or so calls this week to members to make that case.
What we need, though, is the Republicans to set a date for the vote. It should be soon. I don't think that this should be used as a partisan issue in an election year, and the vote should be delayed for political reasons. We're hoping that they will set a date soon. I think the Senate is moving on this, and hopefully the House will move soon.
Q If the President opposes the U.S. flag protection amendment the Senate's voting on today, does he believe in the right to publicly burn crosses as well as the flag?
MR. LOCKHART: Pardon?
Q If the President opposes the U.S. flag amendment, as you're familiar with, they're voting on it in the Senate -- if he opposes that, does he believe in the right to publicly burn crosses as well as publicly burning flags?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President abhors both.
Q Joe, this morning President Mubarak said that he would -- or that he may meet with Barak when he gets back to Cairo. Is there any chance for him talking with Assad or trying to work the Syria-Israel part of this equation?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't want to speak for President Mubarak or his plans, but, obviously, he occupies a unique position of leadership within the region. He talks to the leaders. He's been an important part of the peace process for the last two decades, as has Egypt been over the last two decades. And it's certainly our hope that he will use his influence in whatever way he feels is appropriate to move this process forward.
Q Did the President make any specific requests of President Mubarak, as far as any kind of mediation?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any specific request.
Q Joe, House Minority Leader Gephardt is proposing what sounds like -- almost like a Republican plan on some high technology initiatives. He wants to increase the number of H1B visas; he wants to permanently extend the R&D tax credit -- a whole list of proposals. Do you have a view on that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, as I understand his proposal, he's got a number of things on Internet taxes which track exactly with what our views are. He's got a proposal about phasing out the telecom excise tax. We agreed in policy terms that that's a worthy goal; we have to figure out how it gets paid for in the overall framework of what we're doing with Social Security and Medicare and what we're doing with cutting taxes. So we look forward to working with them on that, and we have been a strong supporter of the R&D tax credit.
What was the last one?
Q The H1B visa.
MR. LOCKHART: Again, H1B visas -- we reached an agreement with Congress the last time this came up, and I believe that Representative Gephardt agrees with us that you have to have a balanced approach here. You need to make sure that you balance the needs of American industry and their need for high-skilled workers with the training of American workers to make sure that that balance doesn't get out of whack.
Q Did the EgyptAir investigation come up this morning, and if so, who brought it up? And if it was Mr. Mubarak, what were his concerns?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll have to check on that. I think -- I'll just have to check.
Q The Egyptians are saying that Mr. Mubarak invited the President to come to Egypt in the fall, hoping there is an agreement by then -- Egypt being the host of the next North Africa-Mideast Economic Conference. Is that a thought that the President is considering?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm sure the President warmly received the invitation, but I have no travel announcements.
Q Getting back to the Confederate flag issue, the President -- you and the President spoke very strongly about your disdain for what is happening in South Carolina. Many of those persons who voted to keep the Confederate flag will be with him tomorrow, correct?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I know of.
Q Well, some of those people might be there the way we understand. But either way, will the President say -- make those strong statements --
MR. LOCKHART: I expect the President -- I know the President has views on this subject. I expect him to express them tomorrow.
Q As strongly as you have in the past?
MR. LOCKHART: That's for tomorrow. We've got plenty of other things to talk about today.
Q The Washington Post says that -- in a profile on Secretary Albright that she has a very diminished role now in foreign policy and lost her influence and so forth.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think for people outside of Washington this may take some explaining, but let me take a second on this. In the peculiar world of Washington and Washington politics, the way you know you have influence and power is when people start taking shots at you. And the way you know you have no influence and no power is when people ignore you. So in our own peculiar little world here, I think that story highlights the fact that the Secretary of State has a very important role in the formulation of foreign policy and is a highly skilled and trusted advisor to the President.
Q Joe, does the President agree with the National Abortion Rights Action League in their effort to get the United Nations to revoke the Vatican's observer status? If he does agree with it, does he think we ought to withdraw our ambassador to the Vatican?
MR. LOCKHART: I've never heard him discuss the first issue, and I have no reason to believe we'll be withdrawing our ambassador.
Q Can you tell us who is participating in the outreach meeting with Arab Americans today or what the general topics of discussion are?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll try to get a list. The topics will generally be determined by those who have been invited to the meeting, issues that they have on their minds that the two Presidents can discuss with them.
Q Joe, what would be wrong conceptually with reducing gasoline taxes by some small amount over the -- during this year? It's effectively an emergency spending measure --
MR. LOCKHART: I think, conceptually, if you talk to economists on this, they'll argue that not only will consumers not get the benefit from that, that it will actually be a windfall for oil companies and OPEC. So that's on the economic argument. On the budgetary argument, you have to figure out then how are you going to pay for the highway construction projects that are actually quite important, that this tax goes to pay for.
I don't know that at this point it makes that much sense to dip into the surplus to pay for something that most economists will tell you won't have any impact at all, and in fact, most of the Republican leadership will tell you -- as Don Young has called it, one of the dumbest ideas he's heard in a long time.
I think it does highlight the approaches that some of the leaders up there are taking. I think there are some people here who want to go to a gas station, get on television, score some political points. That's fine; that's their right. But I think the important thing that we can do is to do the difficult work, to do the hard work on the diplomatic front, to make the case to the OPEC nations and we'll see how it all turns out.
Q Joe, you've said that you want the oil companies to immediately pass on any savings to the consumer if production goes up and the price of a barrel of oil drops. Is there anything realistically that the federal government can do to make them do that?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that we shouldn't assume that the oil companies won't act responsibly.
Q Tomorrow's news conference, what's the opening statement about, what's the purpose of it?
MR. LOCKHART: I expect the President, in addition to his overarching desire to spend more time with you -- (laughter) -- will use tomorrow's opening statement to go through what he hopes to get accomplished for the rest of this year on his domestic agenda, whether it be shoring up Social Security, Medicare, providing a prescription drug benefit, getting a real minimum wage bill passed, getting through permanent, normal trade relations for China -- a whole host of other issues -- gun control and those issues; and what he hopes to do in the coming months to help make that more possible.
Q Why does he feel the need to re-launch this agenda?
MR. LOCKHART: I think for the last two or three weeks we've been focused on the world at large. It's important to get Congress focused back on our domestic agenda. We're getting into April. The House of Representatives has only been in 25 days. I think most Americans would like a job like that, whereby in the first quarter they only worked 25 days. It's time for Congress to get to work. I think the President will be sending a strong message that we can get a lot done this year and we've got to get started soon.
Q Thank you.
END 1:30 P.M. EST