THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon. One scheduling piece of information. At 3:30 p.m. today, two senior administration officials who are expert on Africa and are attending today's meetings will be here to brief you on a background basis. Other than that, I'll take your questions.
Q Can you say anything, yourself, about the meeting this morning?
MR. LOCKHART: Just a little bit, I grabbed some of the people as they came out. As far as agenda items, they met first in a smaller group in the Oval. And then the group expanded to include a number of the entourage that have come with President Mbeki and some of the Cabinet members that have been here and working on issues closely with the government of South Africa over the last few years.
Overall, they discussed our joint cooperation in fighting both poverty and AIDS. They discussed Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, the situation in the Congo. And they also had a discussion on trade and the WTO. But I'll wait until they come out of the larger meeting and President Mbeki goes off to the State Department for lunch -- oh, he's there now? Okay. And then I expect, again, two distinguished members of the team to come down here and talk to you.
Q Joe, does the President feel that he's on the same page with Mbeki on what causes AIDS and how to address the problem?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the important thing is, the President has said, is that President Mbeki understands the scope of the problem. I think he talked, however briefly this morning, with the pool, explained that his views were not always properly or accurately reported, in his view.
We certainly will continue to work closely with not only South Africa, but a number of countries in Africa where this has reached epidemic proportion, as far as providing whatever help we can.
Q So do we think that -- our interpretation of his view is what? Do we think that he shares the same views as the President?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me put off until those who have had a chance to sit in on these meetings can come down here and talk to you. But I think he was -- put a direct question to him, and he said, particularly on the question of AZT that he had not said what had been reported.
Q Joe, since we haven't seen you in a few days, what is the official, on the record reason that the President cancelled his address to the nation last night?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't been here for a few days -- we had an address to the nation? (Laughter.) No, we had talked --
Q CBS was going to broadcast it at midnight.
Q Radio was. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, radio. (Laughter.) That's what we're talking about here, right? So if I ducked down underneath here and gave you the answer, this would be fine for radio, right? (Laughter.) Okay --
Q It's good for TV. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: It is now. No, let me try to be serious for at least one or two moments before I go back to what it is I do normally.
We had been talking to members over a course of three or four or five weeks, the subject had come up of giving an address to the nation. I think once we decided to do that, in talking to Democrats on the Hill, we realized that in the context of this debate, that speech might be counterproductive, certainly wasn't likely to produce the very retail-oriented votes that we needed to get. And we made the decision not to do it.
Ultimately, our goal here is to get 218 votes for this, to pass PNTR. And I think we made the judgment Friday afternoon,in looking at this, that this wasn't going to take us a step in that direction.
Q How did you come to that realization so late? Why didn't that thought occur to anybody before you announced that the President was going to make a speech?
MR. LOCKHART: Sometimes we make decisions and we realize after we've made them that it might not have been the wisest thing. And we, in our effort to stay on course and win the vote, we readjust. And that's what we did.
Q Well, what specifically would have been counterproductive about giving the speech?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into all of the details of this. But I will say that we made a judgment that going forward would not have moved us closer to getting the votes we needed. So we made a decision.
Q Is it fair to say the Republicans talked you into it and the Democrats talked you out of it?
MR. LOCKHART: No. There were certainly people on both sides of the aisle who, in meetings with the President, indicated they thought this would be a good idea. But, ultimately, once the decision was made, we looked at the situation on the ground up there and decided not to do it.
Q Did the number of networks that would be using the speech have any influence on the decision?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. If all of them had said they'd do it -- I can't speculate, but -- because we knew very quickly that it was just going to be the one, so -- I mean, I guess the most direct answer to that is, probably not.
Q What about the possibility of a Gephardt response? That there would be some sort of formal statement --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think there are a lot of factors that come into why we made the decision that this would be neutral-to-counterproductive. There were many of them there, and I'm just not going to go through all of them.
Q Joe, what are you doing between now and the vote?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has got some meetings today. I expect some members to come down. It's certainly our hope that he'll spend a significant amount of time tomorrow, either talking to or meeting with members. My guess is we'll find a way to publicly make the case again tomorrow. And, you know, this has come down to kind of a small universe of members who are making up their mind, and we're going to do our best to make our case to them over the next two days.
Q Joe, it's clear that a lot of members are making very specific requests for things from the White House. Do you feel that members are being unduly rapacious in what they're asking for, for their votes on this matter?
Q Good word.
MR. LOCKHART: Jake's going to tell me what "rapacious" means -- no, I know what it means.
No, in fact, I will tell you that this has been an issue that has been very much tied in with the debate on both sides on the merits. And I think there's been a good, healthy debate from those who are opposed to this. I think those who, obviously -- and in a self-serving way -- those who are for it, I think, have made a better argument, over the last two or three months.
Certainly, as members make up their mind, and have a chance to talk to the President, some will use the opportunity to talk about what particularly their constituents are interested in. But I think this has been a debate that has been largely on the merits of PNTR, the policy of working and engaging with China, trying to get them into a rules-based organization, and those who have a different view.
Q Is it accurate that the President is making deals to get votes? Is he giving things away? Is he opening the store?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that the reports of that kind of activity are grossly exaggerated.
Q Joe, the President says he's hopeful; you say he's making progress; you speak of the situation on the ground on the Hill. Are you pretty optimistic -- I mean, I -- for one thing, I'm just remembering back to CTBT, and some other votes where there was a real sense of foreboding, and almost disappointment in advance, et cetera. So to what extent do you think --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, if you ask me to compare where we are today as opposed to where we were two days before CTBT, we're obviously in a much better position. We don't have the number of votes we need for it to pass, but we also are not in a situation where we understand from the outset that one group or one party has lined up enough votes to kill it.
I think we're in kind of the same position, where opponents and proponents of this are scrambling to make their case to undecided members. We have made steady progress over the last two months, as far as talking to members. But we still have work to do. As we stand here now, we don't have all the votes we need. There are a number of people who are undecided and those people, I think, are receiving a lot of calls and a lot of attention personally from the President as he makes the case.
Q Joe, on another subject, is the White House, the President critical of Senator Judd Gregg for putting a hold on the U.N. peacekeeping funds? Is that of any concern to you folks?
MR. LOCKHART: I hadn't seen that, in particular, out of Senator Gregg's office. Obviously, we have a number of peacekeeping priorities around the world, and it's certainly our hope that Congress will move forward in an expeditious and forthright way.
Q Joe, one of the things that President Mbeki was not misquoted on, which he reiterated this morning, was the fact that the spread of AIDS in places like South Africa and other parts of Africa is due to the lack of real infrastructure to actually deal with the situation.
Doesn't that put another -- and given the fact that even the White House has admitted that there are certain national security implications of the spread of something like AIDS, that this puts the whole notion of African economic development in a new light. And President Mbeki also called for an urgent and extraordinary intervention, in order to promote the spread of technological and scientific advances in these areas of the world. Doesn't that put into a new light the need for economic development in places like --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not certain that it needed to be put in a new light. But I think what President Mbeki has done as eloquently as anyone in the region, or anywhere in the world, is draw the connection between poverty and AIDS, and the connection between the difficulty in fighting this sort of health epidemic in areas where health infrastructure is not as strong as in other parts of the world.
And I think you see the response that this administration has outlined over the last several years as far as a dramatic increase in our funds and a dramatic increase in the world's attention to this. I think you'll find -- I mean, it is no coincidence that now, when we go to the U.S.-EU summit or G-8 or at the U.N., that high on the list is the fight of AIDS, and in connection to how we're trying to work to alleviate poverty and build infrastructure.
So we have a whole series of policy initiatives, whether -- ranging from Africa trade to our direct money that is going to sub-Saharan Africa on AIDS, all of which recognizes what President Mbeki has been quite eloquent on, which is the connection between poverty and AIDS and how both of those have to be addressed in order to come up with a credible response.
Q Joe, on that subject, from what I understand, the policy, the change of policy on exports of AIDS drugs to Africa is in -- I think an interagency review. Can you just tell me what the status of that policy --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, the executive order has now been signed, so -- I mean, there may be some interagency work on implementing the -- on the policy. But we had worked hard to get this included, with Senator Feinstein's leadership, in the Africa trade bill. That was taken out at the last moment, so we've done this in an administrative way. But from a policy point of view, that step has been taken.
Q So when could we actually start seeing the South Africans pursuing some of these new --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm certain that that's part of what some of these discussions are, particularly in the broader session, where we have our Cabinet and their counterparts here having these discussions. Technically, I can't give you an exact answer. But there's no reason that that work shouldn't be done and isn't being done now.
Q That's what I'm saying. So they could actually go ahead and --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Yes, that work -- I mean, the order has been signed -- what, I think it was the beginning of last week? Or the week before? Within the last 10 days or so. And that work should be moving forward.
Q Is President Mbeki meeting with Vice President Gore separately, or as part of this larger Cabinet meeting? And is there an agenda for them?
MR. LOCKHART: I believe he's meeting separately, as he's meeting with some other government officials. As far as the particular agenda, I'd just direct you to the Vice President's Office for more information.
Q Joe, how was the President struck by this idea that President Mbeki has appointed to an advisory panel scientists who don't believe that HIV is the cause of AIDS?
MR. LOCKHART: I think President Mbeki is in the best position to understand how to address the problem in South Africa, with South Africans. I think he has suggested that some of the reporting that's been done on his views are overdone. I think the President -- the two Presidents have a chance and are -- had a chance this morning to talk directly on this, and I think he understands the scope of the problem. And we're going to work with him on how the United States and the international community can help.
Q With the President calling this a dire security threat not only to the African region, but also to this country, is he concerned that perhaps the course that President Mbeki is pursuing is not the most prudent one?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, I think they have had a chance to talk directly this morning, so rather than prejudge that conversation, we can get a better reading at 3:30 p.m.
Q The United States has AID people on the ground, has Peace Corps volunteers on the ground in South Africa. Has there been any talk about actually getting those Americans involved in drug distribution or some kind of health program?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, I point you to AID, but I know, certainly, a lot of the work that they do is health care oriented. So my guess is that there's a lot of work like that already being done. But AID and Peace Corps could give you a better sense of the actual projects that they're working on.
Q Joe, could you just explain how AIDS in Africa is a national security threat to the U.S.? I mean, I understand how it's an economic threat and how it's a national security threat to the countries over there, but how is it -- because when you hear national security, that means Americans might have to go to war over this.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, that may be how you define it, but let me define it a little more broadly, which is we believe that creating -- that a situation that creates such large potential humanitarian crisis, that also portends instability within democratically-elected governments, whether it be in the government or when you have very large incidence of AIDS within military -- that all of this could lead to political instability that ultimately has an impact on our national security.
Q I get how it does all that in Africa. But how does it -- you say that ultimately it could impact our national security. How? I don't get the --
MR. LOCKHART: Because we believe it's in our national security interest to work in promoting both democratic and economic reform throughout Africa. It's in our interest. There are -- you see now, looking at various parts of Africa, that the U.N. is involved, with the U.S. support, in a number of areas where there is instability, and we think the promotion of that has a direct relationship. And we, as a government, have to deal with -- whether it be Africa or other places -- with political instability.
Q That part I get. But you're -- so you're not defining national security as something that might jeopardize America's own -- when people think about national security -- something we might have to go to war to protect -- our safety. But you're saying that's not national security.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm saying that, ultimately, I think we're using a broader definition than that precise one. But we don't know, as far as what our interests are and what our actions will have to be in an area that is being undermined by political instability.
Q Joe, how far off the 218 votes for PNTR are you?
MR. LOCKHART: More than one and less than 100. (Laughter.) That's as specific as I'm going to get.
Q Joe, could you go back over how the administration's position changed on getting these drug prices, like AZT, down in Africa? Charlene Barshefsky has said people like the Act-Up Groups -- the AIDS Activist Groups -- really were instrumental in bringing it to the administration's attention. Remember how they hounded Gore a year ago? Would you agree with that? Can you sort of just go back over how --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I would agree that a number of stakeholders in this issue push very hard to get change. We've been working for the last several years with the pharmaceutical companies, with Congress. And, ultimately, with Congress not willing to take the steps we thought were appropriate, we took administrative action. But this is a process that's been ongoing for several years, that we've worked very hard at.
Q Joe, Republicans are moving towards getting bankruptcy reform legislation going on Capitol Hill, and possibly attaching it to the crop insurance conference report. How does the President feel about the bankruptcy legislation and would he veto the crop insurance bill if it's attached to it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it depends what's attached to it. I think, unfortunately, after some good discussions that were held over the last year or so, the Republicans got together and made some decisions as only Republicans, and not the product of some bipartisan discussion.
We have, as we have in the past, a relatively simple test of balance within this bill. We've always thought that the Senate bill was better than the House, but there were, even within the Senate bill, a number of concerns. Those continue. We're looking forward to seeing it actually -- you know, everything they've put in. But I think if -- this is certainly not a step in the right direction on a host of issues, as far as getting bankruptcy through. And I think what's important here is that Republicans start working again with Democrats to try to find a solution here.
Q Joe, could you update us on the possibility of the President going to Tokyo to attend the funeral of former Prime Minister Obuchi?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no scheduling announcements on that front or any other for today.
Q I'd like to ask on PNTR, there have been a lot of stories recently indicating that senior people here are optimistic that it's going to pass at this point. Do you share that optimism?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know who they're talking about. I know that the senior people here who are working this and who are directly responsible and understand where every member is. And I've looked at the pieces of paper that they keep scratching little notes on, and it doesn't equal 218 yet. And until it reaches 218, I don't think they'll be happy or will rest.
Q But they may be optimistic, nevertheless.
MR. LOCKHART: You don't know this group that well.
Q A non-AIDS question about South Africa. Does the President feel that South Africa is doing enough to try to maintain stability on the continent, in places like Sierra Leone, in Zimbabwe, the Congo and so forth? Is there a feeling that the South African government is doing all it can?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I will answer that in a sentence, but then it would probably be better for the group that comes in after me. But I think the government of South Africa has played an important role -- not just the government there, but President Mandela is obviously playing a key role, as we talked about last week. They have an important leadership position in southern Africa, and we expect them to continue to use their ability to try to promote the things that we're trying to promote.
Q There was a transportation bill passed that includes a freeze on CAFE standards. Is that a bill that the President could accept?
MR. LOCKHART: Have we done a SAP on that? Let me check. I just -- yes, let me check before I guess.
Q Joe, Middle East? Tomorrow, Barak was going to be here, he's now cancelled. Violence continuing on the West Bank, South Lebanon a concern. Is this another one of these points where the peace process is again imperiled?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that I'd try to put a label on it. We certainly understand his reason for wanting to stay in the region. We've called on all sides to exercise restraint here, and to take the issues to the negotiating table and not to the street. But these are very difficult issues. There are obviously those who are opposed to finding a comprehensive peace, and we think it's in the interest of all of the leaders there to stay at this and to try to work through the issues.
Q Joe, is the White House following the Peruvian elections?
MR. LOCKHART: We are, indeed.
MR. LOCKHART: Question. What's the question? Are we following -- yes, we are.
No, I think we've been pretty clear over -- since actually before the first round that these elections should be free and fair, transparent, and the advantages of the incumbency do not tilt away from a fair election. We continue to make that point and are watching closely the steps. I mean, we understand that the opposition candidate is in the process of figuring out what they will do, but we have made very clear that it's important that these elections are transparent, free and fair.
Q Yes, but, Joe, do you agree with -- I mean, one of the things the opposition has said there is because Fujimori didn't agree to the timetable of getting these monitoring systems in, computer voting monitoring systems, that it couldn't be free and fair. In other words --
MR. LOCKHART: The OAS is there and I think has played an important role, and I think they're looking at that particular issue.
Q Joe, a question that brings together the two big issues of the day -- this country proposed tough economic sanctions on South Africa to try to bring about democratic reform. How is it that when it comes to China we believe that instead of restricting trade to bring about democratic reform we should open it up?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we have to make a judgment on what we think is in our national security interest, and the judgment we've made is that engaging China, getting them into a rules-based organization is the best way to do that. I think there have been a number of voices inside and outside China that have echoed that and agree on that judgment, and I think it's, frankly, the issue that Congress faces in the middle of this week and we'll see where they are.
Q But how is that calculus different than South Africa?
MR. LOCKHART: The calculus is different based on what we believe our interests are. And our interests in this case, with a country of this size and with the make up that it has, and with what we know about it leads us to the judgment that this is the best course.
Q But that would suggest that the issue with South Africa was human rights, but the issue with China is business.
MR. LOCKHART: I would suggest that the comparison is somewhat strained here.
Q In Cuba, are you going to --
MR. LOCKHART: Even more strained. (Laughter.)
Q Well, specific to Cuba, there's an amendment that's getting grounded in the House that would lift restrictions on food and medicine to Cuba. I think it's being attached to the agricultural bill. Do you have --
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't actually -- I haven't looked at the language in that specific. But we've always been open to providing direct help to the Cuban people that does not impart some sort of benefit on the Cuban government. So we'll look at it with that same criteria.
Q Joe, I mean, it's clear that the administration would not be unhappy if the opposition wanted to rule, but given the fact that the popularity of Fujimori, who has intended to run and could possibly win -- if he does win, would he get the full backing of the United States --
MR. LOCKHART: Let me differ with your question. I don't think we have expressed a view. What we have expressed a view on is making sure that the democratic process there works. And I think we'll withhold a judgment on the election until we understand to what extent the democratic process has worked or has been thwarted.
Q But, Joe, since you brought up Cuba -- (laughter) -- if the President believes that the best way to bring about democratic reform in a country like China is to open up trade, why isn't he going to Congress and encouraging them to lift the embargo against Cuba?
MR. LOCKHART: Because he views the two countries differently.
Q But certainly there's an inconsistency --
MR. LOCKHART: I knew Knoller was going to get into this somewhere. (Laughter.)
Q But certainly there's an inconsistency there. If open trade will help bring about a more open China, why won't it do the same in Cuba?
MR. LOCKHART: Because we apply judgments to countries based on what we know about them, and what we believe is in our national interests. We've made a judgment, that many agree with -- some disagree with -- on Cuba. We've made a judgment on China that will be the subject of an important vote in Congress this week. We'll see if Congress agrees with us.
Q But if you look at the fundamental principle, why would it work in China and not in Cuba? And why shouldn't it be applied equally?
MR. LOCKHART: We can do this the rest of the afternoon. You're not getting me off this. (Laughter.) Listen, I can stay a lot longer than you can stay for questions.
Q But you're going to deny that domestic politics have anything to do with this, this is purely a matter of principle, it has nothing to do with Republican sentiment in Congress, Cuban-American rapport, absolutely nothing. Right, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Well said, Mara. Are we done? Thank you.
END 1:42 P.M. EDT