THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:45 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Let me start with a brief announcement today. On Friday, May 12th, the President will take his case to the American people for extending PNTR to China. He will travel to Ohio and to Minnesota. In Akron, Ohio, the President will meet with business and workers and community leaders interested in the impact of extending PNTR to China, and in Minnesota the President will make remarks on the benefits to American farmers of extending PNTR to China.
Q Where is that?
MR. LOCKHART: Shakopee, Minnesota, which is not far from Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Q Is he meeting again with the Governor?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think he will be there that day. I know the representative from that area, David Minge will be there and hosting the President.
Q Joe, what is the cost of the Democratic prescription drug plan?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think it's been scored yet by CBO, so I don't know the exact cost. I think it's in the same general range as the proposal the President put forward. It might be slightly higher. We're going to look at what CBO does and we're taking a look at it now on what the costs are. But I think the important thing is that we think this legislation will meet our budgetary framework of fiscal discipline, paying down the debt and investing in Medicare and Social Security, as well as provide an accessible universal and optional prescription drug benefit for Medicare.
Q Joe, is there some reason why the administration has waited this long to present language on this?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President put forward in the budget in February the proposal for prescription drugs for Medicare. We have worked very hard with the leadership of Representative Gephardt and Senator Daschle to get consensus among Democrats. I think that was reflected in the event we had today that we have of all the good ideas on how to do this synthesized into a piece of legislation that's as well ahead of where the Republicans are. And we hope now that the momentum of today's event will crystallize into some action. Speaker Hastert has said he's willing to work with Democrats, provide prescription drug benefit. This legislation offers a blueprint for how to do it.
Q Chairman Archer says that he wants bipartisan cooperation on this. How does your plan compare with the Republican Plan?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the Republicans don't really have a plan yet, they have a fact sheet. I know you've all seen it because they've handed it out to you. They haven't gone beyond that. The Democrats have been talking about this now for several years, are all ahead of where the Republicans have been. But I think today's legislation offers a blueprint for how we can move forward. The Democrats will reach out their hand in bipartisanship, and we hope the Republicans will take it.
Q Joe, when the President spoke, he called for the kind of bipartisan effort that you suggested. However, it seemed when Congressman Gephardt spoke, he started railing on all the bad things the Republicans have done on this issue. What are the prospects for actually reaching agreement, and for refraining from partisan point-scoring?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the Republicans have put forward a plan that is not workable, and that's one of the reasons why you don't see legislation, because right now it is more of a set -- an ideology. But we have seen over the last 18 months to two years a real shift in the Republican leadership and the Republican Party's view on this issue. They started out by saying, basically, not over our dead bodies. And they've moved and slowly shifted to the point now where they say they want to work with Democrats to provide a real prescription drug benefit.
So we've made a lot of progress, and it's been because of the leadership of the President and the Democratic leaders. We believe the Republican leadership when they say they want to work with us on a bipartisan basis. We have a bill now; we should get to work.
Q Just to follow up on that, what are the prospects for actually bridging the gap between the two proposals? The Republicans favor a method where essentially individuals get some kind of voucher and then try to buy insurance from different insurance companies, and you folks favor setting up one company and having --
MR. LOCKHART: Again, I think it's difficult to compare the two because you've got what is not even a proposal, just a set of ideas on a short piece of paper, as opposed to a full legislative proposal that the Democrats have put forward today. I think the Republican position has evolved on this. It's certainly our hope that what we have put down today will serve as the basis for a bipartisan agreement.
Q Joe, in the last couple weeks the Republicans have kind of made some moves to push a lot of decisions into the next administration. There's the Kosovo deadline; Colombia funding was restricted to one year. Jesse Helms said don't bother to negotiate a new arms control treaty with the Russians, that will be for the next President. What is the White House's reaction to the fact that Congress seems to be limiting the scope of what the President can do to his term of office?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me just say that I think the Republicans believe they can put off things like a prescription drug benefit, a patients' bill of rights, a rise in the minimum wage and sensible gun safety laws, then they do it at their own political risk. These are issues that average Americans are quite concerned about. They want Congress to work on it this year. They want Congress to act on it this year.
And if they've made the political calculation that somehow this can all be put off to a future Congress when they think the situation might be better for them, then that's a decision they'll have to take. But I think it is a decision that comes with some political risk.
Q Joe, how damaging is it to fund Colombia -- to only have the money for one year, instead of the two the President asked for?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, certainly, I think it's important that we make the commitment over the two years that we asked for, because I think this shouldn't be looked at in a vacuum of just the United States. There are a number of international -- countries around the world that are working with Colombia, as you know, and Colombia is providing the bulk of the resources. So I think it's important that we send the message that we're committed to this.
I think, overall, what has the potential to cause damage, though, is the kind of process that we've got through here. It can best be described as a mess. You have the House moving this -- they moved it quite quickly in a supplemental. Now you have the Senate moving it in maybe one bill, maybe three bills; it may be 2000 money, it may be 2001 money. They haven't figured any of that out. These are urgent needs for the country. We don't need to play politics. We don't need to subject it to the kind of slow walking appropriations that we've seen over the last few years.
I think we firmly believe that the Senate leadership should bring this forward in a way that we can rapidly conclude this debate and pass the supplemental.
Q Do you actually think there's a chance that they'll regroup this into a stand-alone supplemental bill?
MR. LOCKHART: It's hard to know. I think even those who are devising the strategy are not quite sure what they've got now. I mean, when you can't explain whether it's 2000 or 2001 money, you can't explain whether it's going to go on one bill, three bills or four bills, then you have to recognize that the situation has gotten out of control and it's a mess. And often the best way, when you've dug a hole, is to stop digging and to figure out a way to get it done in a way that meets the country's needs.
Q How about the Republican move to loosen the embargo on Cuba?
MR. LOCKHART: I hadn't seen anything specifically on that. I can only reiterate that we have worked actively over the last few years to try to make sure that as far as things like humanitarian or medical needs of the Cuban American people we tried to address, but did not in a way that didn't provide any benefit to the Cuban government.
The President has some flexibility as far as how we can do that. We've taken various steps over the last few years and that's something I think we should ensure that that flexibility remains.
Q Joe, the House is voting to extend the Internet tax moratorium by five years. The President said he doesn't like that, it's too long, it pushes some issues back. Would he veto a five year extension? And also, as part of that, he said that the states should solve the taxation issue by restructuring some of their tax policies. What's the federal role in sorting this all out?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me answer it in the negative first. The federal role in sorting this all out is not kicking the can down the road for another five years. There's a bit of phoniness in this debate, so let me be clear on where we stand.
We oppose -- and are for a permanent moratorium on any excess taxes, where we oppose any discriminatory taxes. But our concern is if you move, kick the can down the road for another five years, Congress states all the affected parties will find a way to put off the tough decisions that need to be made as far as how state and localities handle sales tax and their own tax issues.
So I think the federal government has a role and partnership with governors. I think the President talked about it the last time the governors were here, it was a big part of the conversation. We support a two-year extension because, obviously, our position is that we are opposed to discriminatory or access taxes. But we think if you go and extend out through five years you really run the risk of putting off some decisions that need to be made.
Q But you can't really veto that bill, can you? I mean, the high-tech community is very much for that. Can you really envision the President --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm just not going to answer a hypothetical about something that's not down here yet.
Q I have a question back on prescription drugs. Does the President have some objection to the model the Republicans want to use, where an individual Medicare recipient could go out and buy prescription drug coverage? Is he insistent that all Medicare recipients have to be in the same government-run program?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me deal with that a couple of ways. One is, I think the major problem with the ideas the Republicans put forward is, the insurance industry has indicated they have no interest in participating in it. So that's -- there are two players on this, and if one player says they're not playing, there's no game.
Secondly, I think the kind of reform you can see in Medicare, the kind of discount and volume buying has to be done as a group. I don't think that 68-year-old John Smith is going to be particularly effective going into his pharmacist and saying, let's deal, let's make a deal here. Just like private -- whether they be HMOs or other health care groups can provide cheaper prescription drugs for their beneficiaries; within Medicare, we can do the same thing. I think the problem with the Republican plan for the President, for most of the Democrats is that we just don't think it will work.
Q It's not like all insurance companies or all HMOs negotiate together with the drug companies, they all set up their own individual agreements. Why couldn't there be room for multiple plans as opposed to one government plan?
MR. LOCKHART: Because I don't know any HMOs or insurance companies who have one or two beneficiaries. They represent large groups. There is an economy of scale; otherwise they wouldn't be in the business. There isn't like the front row here has their health plan and the second row has their health plan; that's just not the way it works.
Q Well, federal employees choose from dozens of different plans.
MR. LOCKHART: Right, and each -- well, I guess there is. If we can get Terry to move, but he wasn't even listening so he doesn't even know what I said. (Laughter.)
Q Joe, on China. The Chinese government has said that they cannot guarantee that they will not sell in the future missile and nuclear technology to other countries like Pakistan and Iran. Do you think it will affect in the Congress PNTR or --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we have made our position on proliferation quite clear to the Chinese, and I think as a general point we believe we are better able to make our points and to articulate our national security concerns when we are engaged and we bring China into rules-based organizations, rather than by isolating China. So can I predict an impact? No. But should it have an impact? Not according to our judgment.
Q Is the President aware of the Washington Post story the other day that honored killings are continuing still in Pakistan?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I'm sorry, I didn't see that. I'd have to check on that for you.
Q I think Vladimir Putin just named a Prime Minister -- any reaction to this person? I guess he was on the previous government also. Do we know anything about him?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know in particular what we know about him. I think, as a general principle -- we have congratulated Mr. Putin for the democratic transition -- the President did, in writing -- on the occasion of his inauguration. But as a general principle, we are less interested in the people that they put forward, rather more interested in the policies, the general move toward economic reform, the cleaning up of corruption, our bilateral issues of arms control and nonproliferation. So, again, I think -- I don't have a great deal of detail about the newly-appointed Prime Minister, but what's important is they follow the general policy outline and agenda that Putin talked about.
Q Joe, do you know what the practical impact will be of the executive order the President signed today on AIDS drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, and is it a change in administration policy, or does it formalize the existing policy?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the practical impact is that it will promote the accessibility of HIV-AIDS drugs into sub-Saharan Africa. I think over the last months there's been some focus on the crisis that exists there. I mean, some 80 percent of the deaths of AIDS right now are in sub-Saharan Africa, and over 11 million people have already died, 44 million I think are infected.
The executive order finds the balance between protecting intellectual property rights and also promoting accessibility of the drugs in this area, and allowing the companies to deal with the public health crisis that they face.
Q Does this mean that what countries like South Africa are trying to do in sort of setting up I guess licensing agreements on their own to start producing AIDS drugs, maybe without the full permission of the companies involved --
MR. LOCKHART: What it does is it provides them flexibility within their own intellectual property construct, as long as they stay within the trips agreement within the WTO. I mean, I think the basic -- I think our intellectual property laws here are much more stringent than even within the WTO. And this allows sub-Saharan countries, a group of identified countries, flexibility for them to take steps in order to make these drugs more accessible.
Q Developing countries have been saying for years that intellectual property laws prevented them from getting badly-needed drugs at costs that they could afford. Doesn't this executive order prove that point?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think that it proves that our intellectual property laws are too stringent. I think that this executive order recognizes the truly great public health crisis that exists now in sub-Saharan Africa, and I think it creates the flexibility that the countries there need to address the problem.
Q Joe, you mentioned the patients' bill of rights. Is there going to be a meeting tomorrow with the conferees?
MR. LOCKHART: It's still on, right? Let me check for you. It was tentatively set for tomorrow, and I just haven't checked since Monday. But I'll check for you.
Q One more question on prescription drugs. If you could respond to the two main criticisms of it -- the Republicans charge that it's going to be too costly, and consumer groups are saying that the administration is buckling to the pharmaceutical industry.
MR. LOCKHART: That puts us right in the middle, so I think it's normally a pretty good place. I think you'll find that the prescription drug program that the President laid out is affordable and fits within our budget framework, it pays down the debt by 2013, invests in Medicare, Social Security and our other urgent national needs.
As far as those who say we're buckling to the pharmaceutical companies, if we have, the pharmaceutical companies have shown a peculiar way of expressing their appreciation by opposing it.
Q What's the President's view of the lawsuit the DCCC filed against Tom Delay?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, I saw a couple of things on that in the paper this morning. I don't know, I haven't talked to him about it. I'll try to get his opinion.
Q Do you know, has anyone at the White House -- as you may have seen, a former White House official is quoted as saying, or wrote a piece saying he thought it was a bad idea. Did any input come from the White House --
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q -- did DCCC check here before they did this, or was it just a --
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware. The first I saw of it was when I saw it in the newspaper.
Q Joe, how much political advice, if any, is the White House giving the Million Moms March organizers?
MR. LOCKHART: Political advice?
Q -- coordination and getting this thing together? I know they were here to meet with the President --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think this, as has been reported, this came out of some mothers and groups that wanted to find a way to make a statement on Mother's Day. We have worked with them some this week, finding an appropriate way for the President to participate in the effort, but as far as political advice, I don't think they've come looking for that here.
Q Is he going to it or is there any plan for him to participate directly in it, speaking or by remote control?
MR. LOCKHART: We're still trying to work that out. We're battling the normal things that we have here, which is -- we represent a considerable logistical and security challenge to any organization. We want to find a way to participate that doesn't sort of fundamentally change the way this group wants to put on their event.
Q Joe, with crude oil prices rising again, is anyone here beginning to worry that the problem is not taken care of and more needs to be done?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you've got -- if you look back on the price of gas at the pump, it went down six or seven weeks in a row, and went up slightly this week. So I don't know that I'm going to draw any grand conclusions from one week's report.
END 2:07 P.M. EDT