THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Okay. I've got no announcements for you. I'll go right to your questions.
Q Gasoline prices. In the midwest, in some areas, gasoline is up above $2 a gallon; gasoline prices continue to rise across the country. Is the administration resigned to the fact that gas will hover about $2 a gallon from now until the next increase, or are there plans that you have to try to lower it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the average is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.55. There are a couple of places -- I know that EPA and others, the Department of Energy, are looking at the Chicago-Milwaukee market, where there appears to be supply, but prices seem to be out of whack with the supply. So they are doing some work there in that particular market.
I understand from statements that OPEC has made -- you all know when they came with their production increase last time they had an area, sort of a target area for price where they would look at increasing production -- if it got above that, I think the price of the futures, in the futures market has gotten above that, so they will be meeting soon. I expect they will address particular production.
But we are in the busy season of the year, where prices generally go up a bit, and I think, according to the Department of Energy's independent analysis, they expect prices over the next few months to remain at a higher level and then be somewhat reduced by the end of the year, as we get out of the summer driving season.
Q Is the President concerned about this anomalous price of gasoline in the midwest?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that's one of the reasons that it's being looked into. I think there is -- particularly in the Chicago-Milwaukee area, there is a real question of whether the supply is at an acceptable level, but the prices are at an unacceptable level, and they are looking into that.
Q Joe, is the President going to have any contact with Palestinian or Israeli negotiators tomorrow when they begin --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't expect the President to be in contact this week with the negotiating teams. I expect Ambassador Ross will be heading up our effort. I do expect the President to meet with Chairman Arafat on Thursday when he's in town for his discussions.
Q Is there a message that the President would like to extend to the negotiators as they come to town, to sit down tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the message that the President has both talked publicly in many forums and privately in his discussions with the leaders is the time is short, we're at a critical moment in this process; that all of the parties need to understand the importance of working together to bridge these remaining differences, as difficult as they are, because we have an opportunity, a real opportunity here for peace.
Q Joe, can you state for the record the reason the President decided he would not go to the funeral tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: The President and his team felt that it was appropriate for the Secretary of State to represent the United States government. She has been an important player in this process, has been to Damascus. And the President -- and I think all his advisors -- believe that she was the appropriate person to lead the team.
Q Was a factor in the decision the fact that Assad was head of a nation that was deemed to be a sponsor of state terrorism by the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, that is certainly an issue we have always talked directly about when, in meetings -- I know that the Secretary of State has raised that. But, like most other nations around the world who are going to send a representative, we believe that it was appropriate to be done at the Secretary of State level.
Q What about the fact that the Geneva talks failed, Joe? Did that have anything to do with it?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think that we believe that the Secretary of State was the appropriate person to do it, and I wouldn't try to micro or micro-analyze that decision.
Q That's her job. (Laughter.)
Q Joe, how is it that the President will urgently travel to Geneva on the chance that he may be able to move this process ahead in some increment, yet he won't go to the funeral of the same person who he rushed to Geneva to meet?
MR. LOCKHART: I think you're mixing up apples and oranges. Tomorrow is a funeral for a head of state; the other is a process in which the President has played an integral role in trying to find a peaceful solution in the Middle East and the region.
Q Well, if the President has been playing an integral role, wouldn't it follow then that he would go show his support for this leader, who he has had such intimate involvement with, and thereby indicate his support for the next President to continue that work?
MR. LOCKHART: It wouldn't follow.
Q How would you explain would go to Tokyo for a former Prime Minister's memorial service, but not go to Damascus?
MR. LOCKHART: I think our strategic relationship with Japan is quite important, and we felt it was appropriate for the President to go to demonstrate our support for an important ally in Asia. On the question of the funeral tomorrow, we believed it was appropriate for the Secretary of State to attend.
Q Is the President asking the Secretary of State to raise issues of terrorism or human rights, if she gets into a meeting with Bashar, that she's trying to get?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no reason to believe that she's got a meeting.
MR. CROWLEY: She answered that question at the State Department, that this is about offering condolences.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Joe, any concerns about the certainty of guilt in death row cases, especially in Texas?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think a number of issues have been raised. I think Governor Ryan of Illinois raised some questions about some of the convictions in his own state. I think these are issues that are primarily at the state level.
I think it's something, though, that we have been looking at. There are a number of pieces of legislation -- most notably, Senator Leahy's legislation, which we've been looking at and working with Senator Leahy on. There are some provisions -- there are some ongoing discussions, but we overall I think support the concept. And I expect that we may have some more to say about that in the days to come.
Q Joe, in connection with that, the President had been asked months ago if he would support a moratorium on federal executions. In light of this new study, is the President reconsidering that maybe --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. One of the things you have to do, to understand this, is the difference between state and federal. Federal are actually quite rare; there has not been one in a long time. But there is a preponderance of -- or a higher level of -- I'm not sure what the right word is. There is a whole different process on the federal level that I think takes into account some of the things that the states are now grappling with, as far as looking at how these are done, the legal aspects, the aspects of evidence. So I don't think this has really been an issue where the federal cases have come under the same scrutiny as the state level.
Q Are you saying there's a higher bar for a federal execution --
MR. LOCKHART: There is, as far as how the process works, about how the legal aspects of it work. These are certainly much more rare than something you see at the state level. And I haven't seen, really, any criticism or critiquing of the way the federal system works. It's actually much different. We can get -- there's a detailed list of the differences which I can get for you, which I don't have at the top of my head, but it's a very different standard.
Q Is Texas executing a disproportionate number of people?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that's a question you'd have to put to legal scholars and those who look at these issues.
Q Is President Clinton satisfied with the cooperation of the Greek government to fight terrorists, and if he's potentially planning sanctions against Greece, and is the President aware of the former CIA -- James Woolsey's statement in the Greek paper -- that there are members within the Greek government who know the assassins, but are doing nothing to arrest them. Your comments, please.
MR. LOCKHART: On the third question, I don't know the answer to that. I don't know that he's aware of the paper. I think we have an ongoing effort to cooperate with the Greek government on counterterrorism. The President is satisfied with that effort, and he doesn't believe that sanctions are appropriate.
Q Does he think the Greek government is doing everything it can, we're satisfied that they have --
MR. LOCKHART: We are satisfied with our ongoing effort of cooperation on counterterrorism.
Q Joe, President Clinton meets the Indonesian President today in the Oval Office. Do you have any comment or information about that informal meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I understand the President is here on a private visit. The President wants to take the opportunity, while he was in the United States, to talk briefly with him. I expect the President will reiterate our commitment to the Democratic transition in Indonesia. He will encourage the formulation of an economic reform team and package; and also underscore our interest in the effort to reform the military in Indonesia.
Q Joe, if I could come back to gasoline prices for a second. Is the White House concerned that there may be price gouging going on in parts of the midwest? And if that is found to be the case, what remedies might you seek against it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, as I said, there is some question -- particularly in the Milwaukee-Chicago area -- because you've got a situation where there are a number of markets in the country that are going through the process of reformulated gasoline, many of which have the same supply, that don't have the same price problems that you do in that particular market.
I know that there are people that are looking at this now. I think, ultimately, if there is evidence of price gouging this would have to be referred to the FTC.
Q Joe, are you saying the government doesn't think there is a problem with supply in the Chicago-Milwaukee area and, so, therefore, you have no explanation, really, for these high prices?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no explanation, only to say that they're looking at this as we speak; in the next few days they will be there and examining this.
Q Did you say it was the EPA doing that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's the Department of Energy and EPA, because some of this has to do with reformulated gasoline. So that's what the EPA is ruling this is.
Q Would the President go so far as to say that it appears as though there is price gouging going on?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we don't try to make statements before we have all the facts we need, so that's where we are.
Q On Assad, his brother, Rifaat, has both challenged the constitutionality on the attempt to transfer power to Bashar, and said he wants to attend the funeral. Do you have comments on either of those --
MR. LOCKHART: I think those are internal matters for the Syrian government to sort through.
Q Joe, the first-ever summit talks between North and South Korea was postponed by one day. Is this a matter of concern for you?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think the North Korean participants suggest that this was a technical matter, and we expect them to proceed. And we're not concerned by the delay of the day.
Q Can you tell us where things stand in terms of announcing an implementation of the easing of some economic sanctions against North Korea?
MR. LOCKHART: We have been working on this since last September or October. We are getting near the end of that process; we expect that something will be published relatively soon in the Federal Register to indicate a final decision.
Q What is the reason for that? Why are we easing sanctions?
MR. LOCKHART: It's in the context of an overall agreement on missile moratorium. And this is, again, been something that's a result of the work done by Ambassador Kartman in Berlin last fall.
Q Joe, there is a bill in Congress likely to be considered before the end of the month, a Republican bill that would force disclosure, not only of donors to 527 organizations, but also to other organizations, such as the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union, and so forth. Does the White House support that?
MR. LOCKHART: We haven't seen the bill. There's a lot of pieces of legislation that allegedly exist on Capitol Hill right now, coming out of the Republican leadership. So we'll have to wait until we see it. It's interesting that the Republicans, as we get closer to election, now, all of a sudden, have a newfound interest in campaign finance reform. We hope that that's something genuine, and not political -- although we're not keeping our hopes very high on that front.
But they will need to come forward in a way that reforms the system and is fair to the participants in the process. I don't think they'll get a lot of support if they try to single out one group. I think one of the reasons bipartisan support on the 527s was there are groups all across the political spectrum that participated in 527, from environmental to very conservative groups.
So, again, we'll have to see what they move forward. But if they want to pass a piece of legislation that somehow singles out a group, I don't think they'll get very far with it.
Q Well, Joe this covers not just ACLU, but the NRA. Any organization at all --
Q Including 527.
Q Yes. How does that single out --
MR. LOCKHART: Right. Well, again, we'll have to see. We've had a number of efforts over the last couple of years that haven't gotten very far that have tried to single out labor unions in particular, but we'll have to see what they put forward.
Q You're not saying this one does?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm saying that we haven't seen it. I'm not sure anybody has seen it.
Q But the general idea for 527s alone, of disposing those donors, is that something the White House --
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, sure, and we've talked positively about that last week, yes.
Q And do you think that this new emphasis on 527s by the Republicans and the disclosure stuff is a way to get away from broader campaign finance reform, such as -- you know, that would deal with issue ads and --
MR. LOCKHART: I mean, who knows? I doubt that they've -- and I think all evidence indicates that they haven't done this because they think it's good policy. They feel like they have to do something because they're members -- their caucus is interested in finding some way to reform. So we will continue our effort to push for comprehensive campaign finance reform, but when there are efforts like this that come forward that we can support, we will.
Q Do you think there's any tax-exempt groups that should be excluded that are not covered now?
MR. LOCKHART: That are not covered in the 527?
Q Well, if you expand it beyond that, do you think there's any in that expansion that should not be --
MR. LOCKHART: I just don't know. I don't know enough about it to know if there is a particular group that has some right over another group. I think that's -- as a general rule, there should not be, and we shouldn't go about this organization-by-organization. But it does, again, underscore the point of why we need comprehensive campaign finance reform, and we could do this all in the context of McCain-Feingold and solve a lot of these problems.
Q Joe, what is your -- speaking of legislation, it looks like the House Republicans, say, this week don't craft a Medicare prescription drug proposal and maybe get it through a couple of committees --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me make a couple of points on that. One is, this is a very important issue, prescription drugs for seniors, getting a prescription drug benefit in Medicare. We've had a proposal that's been out -- subject to your all's review, to Republicans' review, to industry's review -- that's been out now for some months, because it is an important issue. The Republicans have a different tact on this. They want to get something through a committee before anyone sees and try to get it to the floor within a week. Well, there's a reason for that -- they don't want the scrutiny that it will take.
If you look at the paper this morning, you have Republican strategists openly saying that this isn't about getting a prescription drug benefit, it's about getting political cover for members who are worried about losing their seats. This is too important an issue to be done in a way that it's done in the dead of night or pushed through quickly, before there can be a real debate on it. We should have been having this debate over the last two months, but there's still plenty of time to have it.
We want to make sure that any bill that comes through meets the President's criteria, that it's accessible and applies to everyone. Unfortunately, what the Republicans have put forward now still is based on a private insurance model, which the private insurance companies say they have no interest in participating in. They have not laid out how they would cover people around the country who don't have the private insurance option, which we think will be most people, because of the industry stance. So I think the time is to come forward with a plan. We can work, as long as they meet the President's principles. Unfortunately, this looks like more politics than anything else.
Q If I can just follow up, though, because on this issue, and even some of the others of the President's final domestic priorities, some Republicans accuse the Democrats -- House Democrats or Senate Democrats -- of not really wanting to get some of these things done, so that they can use as issues in the election.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, that's a really interesting argument that just doesn't hold water once you look at it. The Democrats have a plan; the Republicans haven't put a plan out. And if the Republicans thought that they had an interesting idea that should go through, they would have put the plan out a while ago and had a real debate. Instead, you may see it later today; you may see it tomorrow. But you better be looking at it quickly, because it may be on the floor by the end of the week.
We have a hundred oversight hearings for every time you have a real substantive hearing under this Republican leadership. We ought to stop playing politics -- they ought to stop playing politics with this issue, and get to work on something that the American public is demanding.
Q Why is it not just the case, Joe, that they're finally putting out a plan, as you've been telling them to do for some time now?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think for something this important, the American public has a right to expect more than a plan on Tuesday, and a vote on Friday.
Q Joe, when the President spoke with Bashar yesterday -- was it yesterday? Did he get any specific assurances, or even discussions about the Golan Heights or about a resumption of --
MR. LOCKHART: This was a very brief call -- with translation, it lasted less than 10 minutes. So I think you can make some judgments on the lack of specificity in the call. I think the President just wanted to extend his personal condolences. And, again, I'm not -- I don't want to be in the business of reporting for the Syrian government where they are on some of these issues. But I think the reports that I saw about the comments from the Syrian government news agency were accurate.
Q Joe, why didn't he speak in English? He speaks English, Bashar.
MR. LOCKHART: That would be a good question to ask at the daily briefing over there. (Laughter.)
Q Among those closest to these negotiations, it's widely believed that there is a best window for opportunity to sign a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, and that that window may begin to close as early as two months from now. How concerned is the President that by the time that things get sorted out in Syria that window will have closed and that this moment of opportunity, as the White House has characterized it, may be gone, at least for the time that the President remains in office?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there's obviously a time of transition, and we are in that time. But we remain poised to work in a constructive way when the Syrians are able to turn their attention back to this process. And it's certainly our hope that that can be done sooner than later; but I think at this point it's unwise to try to speculate with any great meaning on how long this transition will take place.
Q Can you reasonably hope that you'll be able to get the process going again within these two months that remains in this window?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that we can always hope, and I think that there's a commitment on all sides throughout this process to get a comprehensive agreement, and we certainly can hope.
Q What is the status today on any compromise on inheritance tax or estate tax?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we'll have to see where it goes in the Senate. I think that the Senate will be less disposed to the House approach than the House Republicans were. The Democrats I think put forward a good alternative, which goes to the limited area where small business and small family farms are hit by estate tax, without giving away a huge windfall tax cut to the wealthiest of Americans. We'll see where we go in the Senate. There's no real hope that the approach adopted by the Republicans in the House is ever going to become law.
Q Thank you.
END 1:30 P.M. EDT