THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:31 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: We'll make this short and painless, I hope. Let me just do the rest of the day's schedule since we didn't see each other this morning.
At 6:20 p.m. this evening, the President will be meeting with the Chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, Martin Lee. That meeting will be about the importance of passing PNTR. I expect that Chairman Lee will be available after that meeting at the stakeout for those of you who are interested in his views. His views, as articulated before is, he is a strong supporter of PNTR as a way of engaging and promoting democratic reform within China.
At 7:00 p.m. tonight, the President will have the seventh in a series of congressional meetings on China and the PNTR vote that we expect at the end of the month. I think that will be a group of Democrats numbering somewhere in the 10 to 15 range. We'll try to give you a number later on today as more firm up. The President will once again be making a case, making the case for why it is in our national interest for China to enter the WTO and why the vote at the end of this month is so important to our economic and national security future.
Q Joe, is the President as confident in the outcome of that vote as a story in the paper this morning would have indicated?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the story may have overstated it a bit. I think, as I said in opening this briefing, this is the seventh meeting that the President has held, primarily with wavering legislators, those who are undecided, and I think he has spent a good bit of time working with and talking to Democratic members.
I think there has been some progress on that front in those conversations as far as making the case, but we still have a lot of work to do and we're not there yet.
Q Joe, at the Chamber of Commerce, Chairman Archer said it would help a lot if the President got on TV and made an appeal. Is he considering that?
MR. LOCKHART: The President, I think, if you have been away for a couple of months, anyone can tell you that he's probably had one or two events a week on this, and they generally get covered, so I think we've made the case, but we're going to continue to make the case.
We have a number of events that are in the works right now over the next couple weeks; as they come together we'll let you know about them, but I think you will see when all is said and done on this, the President devoted the time and resources and energy to this particular legislative issue in a way that exceeds, I think, almost any other legislative battle that we've been in.
Q Joe, the House Republican leadership has begun, in its conversations with people who support the various parties and as they try to increase fundraising, say the Republican Party is the pro-business party, and if you have any doubt about that, you should check the PNTR vote. And it's now clear the House Republican leadership is trying to drive up the Republican vote to contrast it sharply with the Democratic support for PNTR as the ultimate signal to the business community that Republicans are the party that can help them out the most, and that will help them in the congressional races. The President wants PNTR, but he also wants a Democratic Congress elected.
Does the administration have any anxiety about Democrats being portrayed or being seen by the business community as less than supportive?
MR. LOCKHART: I think on this issue, the President wants people to vote for PNTR, because he believes it's in the best interest of this country, both economically and as far as our national security is concerned. I think if you want to understand and put a label of pro-business, all you have to do is look at the last eight years. And I can't imagine there is a businessman in this country who doesn't think that they benefit from lower interest rates, getting rid of the deficits and surpluses, and there isn't a businessman in this country who runs a publicly-held company that hasn't benefitted from a stock market tripling. Anyone can put on any slogan they want; I think the facts speak for themselves here.
Q Joe, the Vice President was quoted as saying the administration abandoned its plan to invest surplus revenues in equities for the purpose of shoring up Social Security. I was not aware that the government had abandoned the plan. Is that correct?
MR. LOCKHART: My guess is, and I haven't talked to him about this, about what specifically he was referring to, and last year when we put out a plan, we had a limited plan of the government investing some of the interest savings, some of the surplus for Social Security to try to raise the rate of return in what we thought was a responsible way.
There was pretty good debate generated by that proposal, but in our judgment, it did not have the support that was needed to get it passed in Congress. And you will note that when we sent up our Social Security legislation last fall, it did not include that proposal.
Now, there are things in our ongoing budgeting that offer a variety of options for how you can enhance and extend the Social Security Trust Fund, the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund, and I think there is a sense that the -- investing in equities are something that's still quite controversial and we're very comfortable with the concept of paying down the debt and using the savings that we will save from interest payments to extend the Social Security Trust Fund.
Q In your February budget, there is a provision to --
MR. LOCKHART: That's what I've just acknowledged.
Q Right. Okay, so you stand by that principle that the government should invest --
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I think if you look in the budget, there are options on how to move forward for extending the Social Security Trust Fund. Paying down the debt obviously is one; looking at a limited use of government investing the surplus as another. I think right now, there obviously is no consensus on investing in equities. I don't know when or how that will develop, and we're very comfortable with the idea of paying down the debt and using that savings from interest payments to shore up and enhance the solvency of Social Security.
Q So the equity was on the back burner, but you still favor the concept?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I mean, I think it's a political reality in this town now that is something that is on the back burner. Our interest is in making sure that we extend the Social Security Trust Fund, and we're comfortable with making a downpayment on that through the process of paying down the debt and using the savings from doing that.
Q What is the argument against taking a portion of the payroll deduction and investing it in private accounts?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the main argument about it is you're taking money out of the Social Security Trust Fund, and that goes to solvency. I think the second argument you couple with is, if this is indeed what the Governor of Texas is proposing, is, how do the numbers all add up. But I think we ought to wait and see what he wants to do before we reach any final conclusions, but it's hard to see that there is a lot of flexibility on almost any proposal that he will put forward with a $2.1-trillion tax cut on the table.
Q Joe, will the President assert executive privilege in connection to some of the documents the Burton committee's asked for?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no information on that. I would talk to Mr. Kennedy. I don't know.
Q Can we ask him from the podium?
MR. LOCKHART: You can ask him after the briefing.
Q I'd rather have it on air.
MR. LOCKHART: That's --
Q Is this not a topic that you will address for the camera?
MR. LOCKHART: This is a topic that I don't have any information on. I think I stand here and answer as many questions as I can, and I think as I've told you repeatedly, Mr. Kennedy is handling this for me.
Q Joe, just going back on PNTR, Charlene Barshefsky said today: "We are going to win. I say that now as a matter of conjecture." That's a very strong statement. She's not hedging her bets. Why are we hearing more optimistic comments out of the administration, including the Washington Post article?
MR. LOCKHART: She may know more than I do, but I'm telling you what I know.
Q Joe, do you have any reaction to the remarks from Senator Hatch, who says -- complains, first of all, that the administration still has not provided the committee most of the documents requested in regard to the Elian Gonzalez raid? He notes that the Attorney General is going to be appearing on Oprah, and he says that the administration specifically through DOJ, is, and I quote from him now --
MR. LOCKHART: Let me --
Q -- "more concerned with meeting the demands of the media and other PR avenues than in cooperating with congressional oversight."
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let's discuss PR for a second. My understanding, from the stories I've heard from the Hill, was when the deadline was set, about five minutes before the deadline was set, at 5:00 p.m. the committee was overjoyed when they found out that they couldn't be reached.
Let's just be serious here and let's cut out the rhetoric. The Justice Department is moving in an appropriate way to provide the appropriate documents to the committee, they'll have to make the decision on what they're going to do. But I think there are very few people in this city who believe that their postponing of hearings has anything to do with documents arriving on the Hill.
Q Joe, do you have any comment -- Governor Bush today released figures anticipating a higher-than-expected budget surplus, and saying that his budget plans can pay for Social Security, his tax cut can still save money for debt reduction.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, yes, I think it's like trying to figure out what the picture is with just one or two pieces of the puzzle. I think if Governor Bush wants to be believed and credible on these issues, he's got to come and fill in the whole puzzle. Right now, he's got a lot of conflicting promises, he's got a $2.1 trillion tax cut that I don't think anyone believes can be paid for. And there's plenty of time in this campaign. I think if he wants to be a credible voice, if he wants to be someone to be taken seriously, someone who has fiscal discipline, he's got to put all the numbers out on the table. He hasn't done that yet, so I don't think there's anyone that takes any projections he makes very seriously.
Q Regarding today's Conference on Teenagers, what would you say to conservatives who say this is a grand example of the "nanny state" -- the White House putting together a conference to advise parents on how to raise their kids?
MR. LOCKHART: I'd say that there are a lot of parents around this country who believe that the government has an appropriate, if limited, role in providing tools for helping them succeed at home, in the workplace, and there are, I'm sure, a number of conservatives who just don't get that concept, and there's probably very little we can do to convince them.
Q Do you think it's more appropriate now, in the wake of the violence that's occurred to teenagers? Do you think it's more appropriate now to have a conference than it perhaps was in years past simply because of the violence that's --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't. I think conservatives believe the government is the problem. There are some who believe that government has all the solutions. The President doesn't believe in either of those ideas. He believes that the government is an appropriate place -- appropriate clearinghouse for information -- an appropriate place to provide the tools that parents can use -- don't have to, nobody has to take note of the information that gets discussed here.
There are no government edicts or rules and regulations here. But it is something that we have found that parents around the country appreciate. As the President and the First Lady go around the country, they hear from people. There was a lot of response, positive response on the conference they held on child development, the 0-3 conference.
So I think it's not unexpected that conservatives would say this because they honestly believe -- and I think in good faith believe -- that anything government does is a problem and government is the source of all problems in this country. We respectfully disagree, as do most of the parents in this country.
Q Joe, has the President set down any guidelines himself about how forcefully the agents should act in removing protesters from Vieques?
MR. LOCKHART: That is -- any law enforcement activity would be coordinated out of the Department of Justice. I'm not aware that the President has been involved in that level of detail.
Q So he hasn't said anything to Janet Reno or to anybody else as far as you know?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Is there any second thought about using force in this instance --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to speculate on what may or may not happen.
Q Has the President talked to the Governor -- Governor Rossello about it?
MR. LOCKHART: He has had a regular dialogue with the Governor over the last seven or eight months. I don't know when the last conversation was.
Q Are they coordinating this effort?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the Department of Justice is working with local authorities on any law enforcement action that will be taken.
Q But have there been any conversations between the President and Governor Rossello about the impending action?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't known and I'm not going to get into the conversations between the two.
Q Will there come a time when the administration will provide national security briefings to Governor Bush?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, traditionally, I think after the convention, if I remember from all the times that I worked for candidates who had no chance in hell of winning the election -- (laughter) -- we were given -- I remember escorting Bud McFarlane in some godforsaken place, I think in South Dakota, out to the plane to talk to Governor Dukakis. I shouldn't have said that. (Laughter.) So I assume we'll follow whatever the tradition is.
But speaking just from memory of my failed youth, that there is some sort of system where -- once someone is actually confirmed as the party nominee, there is some effort to keep them up to date on some issues.
Q Unless you decide to hold it back if there is somebody who does have a chance of winning -- (laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think that will really apply this time, so I think we're fine.
Q -- is available to brief the Governor --
MR. LOCKHART: Exactly. (Laughter.)
Q Joe, Senator Specter released some new details in a hearing today of the Labella memo, and some of the language of that memo has now been made public, although it is still confidential. And the language that was made public today includes statements like from Labella -- the Vice President --
MR. LOCKHART: I've seen the story, and let me just say this, that you can argue about a confidential memo, whether it should be or shouldn't be, and take steps to get it unsealed. But to read a memo, and then to ask questions using lines from the memo when it's supposed to be confidential isn't the way I think the United States Senate is supposed to work. So that's the last question I'm going to take on that.
Q That's the content itself?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm not going to perpetuate Senator Specter's actions here. So I'm not going to have any further comment on that.
Q Joe, on this Executive Order today, isn't there an inherent conflict between the administration's encouragement of federal government to consider an employee's status as a parent, yet at the same time promote family-friendly workplaces where they're accommodating the employees' parent responsibilities?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. They are meant to be complementary actions to provide -- or to direct agencies to do what they can to, put quite simply, allow people to succeed at home and at work.
Q What's the U.S. policy on launch on warning, Joe? We would not suggest that as a way of reassuring the Russians about the level of threat of a national missile defense, would we?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not sure I understand the question, so let me talk to my guys and I'll come back to you.
Q The talking points on -- I raised this yesterday -- the talking points on reassuring the Russians that a national missile defense would not pose a threat, as posted by the Federation of Concerned Scientists suggests that the Russians shouldn't be concerned because a high level of alert would allow them to defeat it in any case. That would seem to perpetuate the kind of launch on warning philosophy that we want to --
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding again -- and I'm not going to talk specifically about a private document, but as far as what we have said publicly is we have made an argument that NMD does not change the strategic equation between the U.S. and the Russians. And that is a very important point as far as why we believe it does not pose a threat to the Russians.
Q Is there any connection that you see between the crackdown on religions in China and the upcoming vote? Did you get a sense that maybe opponents of the trade agreement in China are orchestrating this?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know that -- I don't know if I can give you a definitive answer on that. I don't know that there is a connection. But we have spoken out strongly against the crackdown, but we have also made the case that we believe that the best way to make our case is in a way that promotes engagement, and in the limited sense of PNTR, keeps China in a system of international rules-based, whether it be trading or something else. So, without being able to answer that question definitively, we do believe that we come out in a better place with PNTR, with China in WTO, than to disengage here.
END 2:52 P.M.