THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: I'll start with a couple statements today from the President. The first, on the announcement of a summit meeting between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, South and North Korea.
"I welcome the announcement that the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea will hold an historic first summit in June. Direct dialogue between the two Koreas is something we have long advocated and is fundamental to solving the problems of the Korean Peninsula. This announcement is testimony to the wisdom and long-term vision of President Kim Dae-jung's engagement policy. I congratulate both leaders on their decision to meet."
Second is a longer statement on the release of today's prescription drug report. "Today's release of the Department of Health and Human Services report on prescription drug coverage, spending and pricing practices provides further evidence of the need for a voluntary, affordable Medicare prescription drug benefit that is available to all beneficiaries. This report makes clear that uninsured seniors not only lack prescription drug coverage, but are also denied the significant discounts and rebates that those with coverage receive. This price gap is wide and growing. It's time to level the playing field for both coverage and prices for all of America's seniors.
"Although the HHS report provides the most comprehensive analysis to date on prescription drugs, there is still much that needs to be learned and conveyed to the general public and to policymakers on this important issue. For this reason, I am announcing that the administration will hold a national conference this summer on drug pricing and discounting practices, and their impact on Medicare beneficiaries and pharmaceutical innovation. I believe this conference will help us determine how the best purchasing and quality improvement practices from the private sector can be incorporated into a Medicare prescription benefit.
"I am encouraged that there is growing support from both parties to address the prescription drug cost and coverage problems that burden our nation's seniors and people with disabilities. As today's report makes clear, the challenge of prescription drug coverage for the uninsured and underinsured Medicare population is one that afflicts millions of beneficiaries of every age and income level. However, we must make certain that any legislative proposal is more than a benefit in name only.
"As I have said repeatedly, the only way this issue can be adequately remedied to through a Medicare drug benefit that is voluntary, affordable, accessible and administered competitively, using the most successful private practice system to negotiate discounts on behalf of seniors. It should be enacted in the context of broader reform that modernizes and strengthens the program. I believe that the release of today's report shows how vital it is to reach this goal."
Q Are those printed?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, we'll get it out as soon as I'm done, both of these.
Q Joe, does the administration favor price controls on pharmaceutical?
MR. LOCKHART: No, the administration has a proposal that would take advantage of the best practices in the private sector, as far as allowing those who are uninsured now to take advantage of the discounts and rebates that are available to those who are lucky enough to have the kind of private sector, or private health care system that many Americans don't have access to now.
Q Joe, do you look for any breakthroughs tomorrow when the President meets with Prime Minister Barak? What are you expecting out of this meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I expect this is just another step in moving this process forward. The parties are on a very tight time line that they set for themselves to try to reach an agreement by September. There has been very important work being done here, among the parties, at Bolling Air Force base. But the President believes that it's appropriate from time to time to sit down and talk to the leaders face to face to try to move the process forward. So I don't know that there is a breakthrough expected, but there is a lot going on on this track in the peace process. And the President believes the time is right to sit down and meet with both leaders, in the context of this week and next week.
Q Well, would there be practical results that you expect to announce after tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I expect that it will be another step in moving this peace process forward towards completion.
Q Is this an evening meeting tomorrow with Barak?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think about 7:30 p.m.
Q Is it in the residence?
MR. LOCKHART: Probably be over here, but I think it's about 7:30 p.m.
Q And will there be coverage of it?
MR. LOCKHART: We're still working on that.
Q Joe, will the President share with Prime Minister Barak the results of his meeting with Assad in Geneva? And if so, how do you think he will characterize --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President shared the results of that meeting that evening on the telephone. I think there will be -- and those discussions have continued. I expect the primary focus of the meeting to be on the Palestinian track, because it's coming in the context of further discussions there. Chairman Arafat will be in next week for a meeting. But to the extent that Syria comes up, the President will reiterate our view, and our willingness to help try to bridge the differences.
Q Back on prescription drugs for a second. Is $40 billion enough, does the President think that's enough to pay for a prescription drug benefit?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the President has in his budget a budget number, which I think it -- Jake, $43 billion?
MR. SIEWERT: Overall for the drugs? Yes.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, $43 billion, that meets the tests of accessibility, affordability, that he has laid -- universality -- that he has laid out. There have been a number of proposals, or ideas, that have been thrown out by the Republicans, none of which have actually been really formulated so you can examine them yet. And you know, from what we read about them, they fall short.
But I think what's significant here is, we started this debate last year and Republicans were adamantly opposed to doing a prescription drug benefit. Then they talked about maybe doing a block grant. And now they're talking about something else.
We are moving in the right direction here. I think the Republicans are on to the fact that the American public is demanding a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, and we're going to get there.
Q So, Joe, your dispute with them isn't about the money, since the money is almost identical to yours, it's how their plan is structured?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we don't know how their plan is structured because there are different ideas being thrown out there. No one has put a legislative proposal down that details how it would work. There is one proposal out there now that is being discussed that talks about having private insurance companies run a prescription drug benefit. One of the problems with that is the private insurance companies have said it won't work. A second problem with that is it leaves most of the people who need the insurance left out in the cold, because at 200 percent of poverty, which for a single person is about $16,700, that's where the benefit ends. So you're basically the status quo is okay -- for anyone who earns anything more than, say, $16,700, you can get what you get now, which is not a lot of anything.
Q Is the President a supporter of Slade Gordon's bill?
MR. LOCKHART: We don't really know what the --
Q -- Slade Gordon's bill, which is different.
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, this is on the --
Q Just to go back to Mark's question about price control. He has a bill that says you can't charge more than you do in Canada.
MR. LOCKHART: That's another -- again, that proposal is not about providing specifically prescription --
Q Right, but it's about this general problem.
MR. LOCKHART: I'd have to go and check with Chris Jennings and some of the people. I don't really know much about it as far as -- how that would work.
Q But that's clearly price control.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes -- I know that under the President's proposal for providing a prescription drug benefit, there is not a provision in there for price controls.
Q Joe, if the White House tries to bring the cost of prescription drugs for people that aren't in these plans now down, won't the drug companies just try to recover those costs among people that currently have insurance? Don't you think it's a zero sum game?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not necessarily, because if you look at the economics of the pharmaceutical industry with more demand, they'll sell more drugs to people who are currently now not buying them because they don't feel like they can afford them. So I don't think it's necessarily a case of the cost just shifting from one group to another.
I think the private plans that exist have shown good economics, where the insurance companies do well, the pharmaceutical companies do well and, most importantly, the consumers do well -- they get prescription drugs, the drugs they need; they don't have to choose between what prescriptions they think they need or what they can afford, at a price they can afford.
The problem is, is the number of people who have those programs is very unstable and going down. I mean, I think if you go out and talk to seniors, you'll find in almost any group someone who has lost their private insurance because of changes in corporate philosophy on this, or someone who knows someone who has. So there is a real fear of people -- even those who have the coverage, that it's not stable, that they're not going to be able to keep it.
You look at this report and you see that the Medigap, which expensive coverage, isn't stable enough that -- I think it's something like half the people don't have it for the entire year. All of this adds up to a strong case for why -- to have a modern medical system, you need prescription drugs. They need to be affordable, and you need a prescription drug benefit.
Q But how do you encourage the industry to provide those drugs at an affordable basis, Joe, without using some sort of formal government requirement or restriction, to get them to move --
MR. LOCKHART: You do it the same way that the private sector does it. You do it in volume. You do it in discounting. You do it in rebates. These are all practices that work in the private sector, and can work through the Medicare system.
Q Joe, as you pointed out, the Republican proposals are more targeted towards lower-income folks. How do you address the criticism of this as a plan to expand the welfare state to create another middle-class entitlement?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, in 1965, when Medicare was created, 50 percent of seniors had coverage, 50 percent didn't. But in the wisdom of the legislators at that time, and their political leaders, we needed a universal medical benefit for seniors in this country. This isn't expansion. This is an acknowledgement that 35 years on, prescription drugs now play an essential part in health care in this country. It's an acknowledgement that we live in the year 2001 and not in the year 1965.
So this is not an expansion. It acknowledges that the world has changed, that we can be healthier, that we can have superior health care systems, as long as we acknowledge how we do that.
MR. LOCKHART: 2000? 2000, sorry. (Laughter.) -- in the movies. (Laughter.)
Q The President laid out his priorities he hopes, before Congress even leaves on a recess. Does he expect to get any of that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the only thing we had asked them to do before they left on what is, I think, their second or third recess of the year, was to try to get something done by the Columbine anniversary. I don't expect now, given the woeful lack of progress and the real lack of seriousness of purpose among the Republican leadership on this issue, that they will get that done.
And hopefully, when they get back home, they're going to get an earful from their constituents, because there's no doubt that the public wants this, that they want further gun safety legislation. And they don't really understand why even though members of Congress have continued to draw a paycheck back home, they can't have a meeting about an important subject to them. So it's certainly our hope --
Q Is that you talking, or do you have any kind of proof of that?
MR. LOCKHART: That they can't have a meeting? Well, we've been watching pretty closely.
Q No, that the American people feel that way.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you should go out and ask them. It's certainly our sentiment that they feel that way.
Q What's the difference in content between the gun event tomorrow and the gun event Wednesday?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, tomorrow's is acknowledging an important bill being passed in the state of Maryland, which requires a couple of things. One is gun safety locks, also training and prevention programs for gun purchasers. Wednesday is the launching of a public referendum campaign in the state of Colorado, to do something that the state legislature wouldn't do, which is close the gun show loophole.
Q Does the President want to encourage other states to go this route?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President thinks that there is many ways to attack a problem. And that's been the way he has worked through the seven and a half years he's been here. And in this case, the most obvious and direct way is for Congress to pass federal legislation. And we're going to keep pushing on that.
But in the absence of that, the President will continue to support states that are taking active roles, whether it be Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts or others. New York has recently put down some proposals. And we can also work administratively with companies. We have this arrangement we have with Smith & Wesson. Discussions continue with other gun makers, which is very important. So I think he feels there are many ways to do this and we need to stay aggressive on all tracks.
Q Why did he think that Congress is not going for this, in view of the public support?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has articulated that there are certainly some in Congress who would rather stay with the status quo or who are beholden to special interests and those large givers that have traditionally been allies, however out of touch they are with the general public. Beyond that, it's really up to the Republican leadership to talk about why the will of both Houses right now is being thwarted.
Q There was a recent poll that found that voters have more confidence in George W. Bush than in Al Gore on gun control, and also several polls that have found that Americans think the answer is better enforcement of existing laws, rather than new laws. Wouldn't that help explain why Congress isn't acting?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think the American public knows because they've seen an over 30-percent drop in the crime rate in this country that we are doing a better job enforcing laws. But look at the President's proposal for enforcement. He's got a $280 million proposal to hire 1,000 new gun prosecutors and 500 new ATF agents to go out and do even more on enforcement. And the Republicans answer to that and gun safety legislation is to put down a piece of legislation that is purely political by Congressman McCollum that will spend $10 million on enforcement; won't put a single new prosecutor in court. But it's all about let's do just enough so it looks like we're not ignoring the will of the American public.
Q Could you explain why Americans would have more confidence in George W. --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I haven't seen the poll, so I'm not going to try to explain it.
Q Joe, do you have anything on a report that Russian criminals and some renegade Russian military are involved in the transshipment of arms to Colombian rebels, and that Colombian rebels, in exchange, load up planes with cocaine, and it involves transshipment through the Amman, Jordon airport, with corrupt officials there, and then it gets distributed?
MR. LOCKHART: No. (Laughter.)
Q Well, it's something to look into.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay.
Q Yasser Arafat has been quoted as saying that he regards Barak, Prime Minister Barak as worse than Netanyahu when it comes to living up to pledges or intentions. What does that say about the state of the Palestinian track right now?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that there is important work going on. The deadline is short for getting an agreement, and I think one of the things that we have consistently said is that rhetoric of that kind does not positively contribute to an ultimate solution here.
Q In terms of the Mideast talks, isn't the first thing on the agenda that needs to be addressed is Israel's pullout from Lebanon? I mean, that's going to happen in June.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's obviously a number of tracks here and a number of issues. But all of them are getting attention. I expect that the President and Barak and Arafat will have a chance to talk through all the issues, but particularly the Palestinian-Israeli track.
Q Joe, is the Barak meeting an indication that the talks at Bolling are just going nowhere?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think we think that those talks are quite useful. But as we've said at various times in this process, the President thinks it's appropriate to meet directly with the leaders, and that is this week and next week.
Q Anything new on Elian?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Joe, has the President received the answers from President Hafez al-Assad?
MR. LOCKHART: He did receive some oral response through the embassy and Damascus. We will be communicating back with the Syrians. What I can say is we didn't hear anything in these responses from this that addresses the remaining gaps between the parties.
Q Is the ball still in his court?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know, I'm sure I could come up with a good alternative cliche, but I'll try not to today. (Laughter.)
Q Joe, about summit talks between the two Koreas. Did the President play any role, directly or indirectly helping arrange that historic meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the United States has been involved at all levels of this process. It's certainly something that we believe was necessary for peace in the peninsula. But I think the President rightfully today in his statement extended credit to President Kim for his leadership on this issue.
Q How much advance knowledge did the President have of the meeting? Or the administration have, of the meetings?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we, because we are involved in this process on an ongoing basis, we were properly briefed on this. But I'm not going to get into those details.
Q Do you have any idea why North Korea all of a sudden has decided to hold talks for the first time in 50 years?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think I'll leave it to them to discuss their motivation.
Q Joe, on China, the AFL has a huge rally planned to oppose the vote this Wednesday. Does the administration have anything to -- a lobbying counter-offensive to that, as the members go back to their home district?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we have, over the last two, two and a half months, waged a very aggressive and effective campaign to make the case for China's ascension into the WTO, for why it's in our interest, both our workers, our business. We've done that both publicly and privately and will continue to do that.
The AFL-CIO has a different position on this, they will make their case. But I expect that our efforts will not be adjusted very much by the fact that they're having a rally. We'll continue to make our case.
Q Joe, describe how important you think William Perry's efforts were last year, dealing with the North Korea-South Korea reconciliation issue.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it's very much in the philosophy -- for lack of a better word -- of what the Perry report was all about, about promoting direct dialogue as the key to achieving peace in the Peninsula. So I think he did very important work here, as well as others. But, ultimately, it's for the parties to make the decisions. This, obviously, was an important decision for both of them to move forward and I think the President has rightfully put into perspective how important this is.
Q Joe, any reaction on the elections in Peru yesterday?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as we've said through this process, there were a number of problems leading up, as far as providing an uneven playing field for the opposition parties. That point was made directly to the government of Peru. I think they took some steps late in the campaign to correct these deficiencies.
As far as the elections themselves, they appear to have gone off largely under normal and orderly conditions. I think the most important point that we would make now is that as we go into this run-off, the government of Peru needs to do everything in their power to make sure that these are free, fair, transparent elections.
Q Joe, before the OPEC meeting on the increased production, you made it clear that the administration was going to keep an eye on oil companies to see if gasoline prices dropped after the production was increased. Is the administration satisfied with the pace of gasoline prices?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I saw a survey out this morning showing, I guess, the largest drop in several years. I think obviously, as we said at the time, there were depleted inventories, which would take some time to replenish. I think this is something we're going to continue to watch. You can see from the futures market that the price of crude oil has gone down from the futures market. The price of unleaded gasoline has gone down, and we expect the consumers who go to the gas pump will realize that benefit.
Q Joe, can you explain why the White House, or the administration, thinks it's a bad idea to eliminate tariffs across the board for poor countries, as was suggested --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we -- this, I'll tell you something, and there's a basic, I'll say, hostility in the question that I don't think is fair. This country has done more than any country, as far as relieving debt, as far as trying to reduce tariffs, as well as trying to promote economic development among poor countries.
What we're trying to do here is do something we think we can achieve. We have a broad and sweeping bill, the Africa trade bill, that was done based on a lot of negotiations about what we thought we could do to get a majority in both the House and the Senate. Even that bill, you can see how hard it is, because it has languished in the Senate now for month after month after month.
So what the United States government is for is what we can achieve. And what we think we can achieve is the Africa trade bill. We call on the Senate to get moving on that, and the broad and sweeping debt relief that you saw the President push through out of the Cologne meetings, and that we fought very, very hard for at the end of last year in the appropriations process.
Q -- the President's statement, his strong support for the Jubilee 2000, has raised some concerns that he might be encouraging what could turn into a Seattle-type protest. Why should it not be seen as that?
MR. LOCKHART: Because it's not.
Q The fact that you've decided not to support this move on tariff reduction for third world countries, would that jeopardize your efforts on WTO, getting permanent --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't see how it would. We have a very far-reaching Africa trade, Africa-CBI trade bill, which reduces tariffs, which will promote economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world. That's what we think we can get done, and that's why we support it.
Q But supporting this other measure, do you think it would jeopardize the Africa trade bill?
MR. LOCKHART: That's kind of a double hypothetical. If we had another policy position, would that jeopardize another policy goal we have? That's just not how we think.
Q What specifically is the administration telling Senate Democrats to override their concerns about the Africa trade bill? Because they appear to be the ones causing the most trouble in the Senate.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know on that analysis whether that's true or not. But we believe that this is a sound policy proposal to try to promote economic development in places that we have a real interest in promoting. If you look at our trade with Africa, it's one of the fastest growing areas of trade increase that we have in the world, but it's still relatively small, as compared to other parts of the world. So it's very much in our interest. There is strong support for this on a bipartisan basis and we're working hard where we think they should get moving.
Q Joe, Japan's new Prime Minister, Mr. Mori, is hoping to meet with the leaders of all the G-8 partners between April and probably May. Can the President make it --
MR. LOCKHART: I wasn't aware that he had set such an aggressive goal. But I think the President talked to him last week. He's looking forward to meeting with him in Okinawa. Whether there will be a meeting before that, I just can't speculate on that now.
Q Joe, Japan today announced they erased the debt of the 40 most heavily -- 40 poorest nations. You just a minute ago spoke of U.S. leadership in this field and, yet, the proposal the President has made has languished in the Senate and you don't seem to be able to get action on it. So how can you say the U.S. is leading in this regard?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the U.S. is leading because we did push through debt relief last year. The Africa-CBI trade bill is more of tariff reductions. I think anybody who was anywhere near Cologne, Germany, last year and had any access to the discussions that went on there would not dispute the U.S. leadership in this field.
Q And, yet, the Common Market is waiting for the U.S. to actually put up the money before European countries put up what they have pledged for debt relief. So once again, how is it that we're leading?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, you can hold your opinion here, and I think I've made my case.
Q Is the federal government bracing for demonstrations in this town for the IMF, and are they prepared?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, yes. There are demonstrations every day in this town. I expect that there are demonstrations -- the ones that are planned in conjunction with the IMF will probably be a little bit larger than what we see most days here. But the District government, the federal liaisons with local law enforcement, have a lot of experience in dealing with those who come to demonstrate.
It is certainly our hope that those who are coming here to demonstrate will demonstrate peacefully. We welcome those who come on all sides of issues to demonstrate peacefully. We don't welcome, and we condemn, those who come here to break the law.
Q Joe, will federal police receive any liberal leave or any other additional deals to deal with the protestors?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Just to follow up, in Seattle the President expressed some sympathy with the goals, if not the violence, of some of the protestors. Does he have similar sympathy with the goals of the protestors here?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what their goals are. There's a lot of different groups coming. I think the President has articulated his view, as far as globalization, world trade, relieving third world debt, and they're all open and subject to anyone's examination.
Q And does he plan to meet with any of the people that are coming to demonstrate here?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as of Friday we'll be gone to the West Coast, so I don't expect there will be any meetings.
Q Is that deliberate?
MR. LOCKHART: Nope. It's been on the schedule for quite a long time.
END 1:45 P.M. EDT