THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me give you a brief readout of the President and the King's two meetings that have concluded now. The President and the King spent about an hour in one-on-one, just the two of them and notetakers. They discussed Africa as a whole, what the U.S. role in helping Africa as far as economic reform and dealing with the many issues the countries there face. They had a serious discussion of West Sahara, and also the King spent sometime discussing with the President his vision of Morocco in the future as far as expanding human rights and democracy.
After that hour, they proceeded to an expanded meeting with roughly 10 or 11 people from each side joining, where they had a discussion of our bilateral economic issue, discussion on economic reform in Morocco, a short discussion on the Middle East peace process. And then they finished with a short discussion on our bilateral military relationship.
Q Joe, on gasoline prices, the Vice President yesterday said that there was evidence of gouging and collusion and manipulation of prices in the Midwest, particularly Chicago and Milwaukee, and that the investigation into why those prices are high should be expanded. What's the White House's thinking on this and what do you plan to do about it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the FTC is currently looking at this and they'll look at the evidence that is brought to them through what the Department of Energy, EPA are doing, and the various investigative abilities that the FTC has independently.
There was a report out yesterday that showed oil prices are up -- excuse me, oil company profits are up significantly in the first quarter, coming from one of Mr. Nader's groups. And I think, while we cannot find the answers to the question of why prices are high in Chicago, Milwaukee and the Midwest as a region, we have to keep open all options and cooperate with the FTC while they look into it.
Q Does there appear to be any justifiable reason at this point that those prices are so high?
MR. LOCKHART: We've been looking at a number of different, unique problems in the Midwest, but at this point, I don't think there's anybody who can come up with a reason for why they've gone up so quickly and so much.
Q What do you mean when you say we have to keep all options open? What are you talking -- are you hinting at some kind of federal intervention?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm saying that the FTC is taking a look at this. This is the appropriate place for this kind of investigation, and I think that everyone should cooperate fully with what the FTC is doing.
Q What are some of those unique things -- circumstances that are unique to the Midwest?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there was a question with the pipeline; there's some transportation issues. There is the way gas is reformulated in the Midwest, as opposed to some other places. But none of this adds up, as far as we can see, to the kind of dramatic price rise that we saw, over a very quick period.
Q Joe, you indicated this morning that you weren't satisfied with the answers from the companies.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, two questions were put to me this morning about advertisements run by the companies that said that somehow reformulated gasoline was the cause or taxes were the cause. As far as I know, gas taxes haven't gone up in the last seven years. So that is clearly not the cause of what's going on in Chicago and Milwaukee. And I think if the oil companies are trying to make that case, that case will be seen through quite quickly.
As far as reformulation, reformulation is going on around the country. It adds a couple pennies to a gallon of gas. It doesn't add the kind of dramatic price increase that we've seen in Chicago and Milwaukee. That's why we have to continue looking at this and try to get to the bottom of it.
Q If it is found that -- dramatic pause -- (laughter) -- if it is found that the oil companies have been engaging in collusion and/or price gouging, what remedies might the White House seek against them?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not going to prejudge what the FTC finds, nor am I going to speculate on what we're going to do should they come to that conclusion.
Q Well, what's available?
MR. LOCKHART: The FTC has remedies available to them, and if those are not sufficient, we'll have to look at what remedies -- what other areas and what other actions we can take. But I don't think at this point it makes any sense to prejudge a very important inquiry that's going on.
Q If these companies are making money, what's wrong with that?
MR. LOCKHART: There's nothing wrong with making money, but what I think the FTC will look at is just how it's happening and why there's been such a dramatic rise in one region of the country.
Q Joe, some members of the Senate have again called on the administration to do a swap out of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Does that remain a live option in this situation?
MR. LOCKHART: We have -- as we've said, our position hasn't changed on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We have done one limited case involving a Louisiana refinery, but we think that at this point that's the only one that I know that we're moving forward on. We're going to keep an open mind on a number of issues, but I don't have any announcement to make in that regard.
Q Joe, about the international trade numbers released this morning -- the deficit with Japan hit a record high. Is this sustainable and what should be done?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think overall the trade numbers were down; there were some bilateral trade relationships where they were up. Japan was one of them. I think China, Mexico were two others. Let me try to do this in an overall sense. We need to make sure we continue to pursue policies that keep our economy strong here at home and also promote both domestic demand and economic growth around the world, and that includes Japan. That's one of the reasons we believe it's important to move forward on PNTR for China, and the opening up of markets is the cornerstone of the President's trade policy and an important part of his economic policy.
Q Will the President raise the issue when he goes to Japan next month?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's a G-8 summit; I'm certain that the issue of trade will be discussed. I don't want to try to preview at this early date exactly how, where, and when.
Q Joe, did the President say anything about the victory celebration turned violent last night in Los Angeles?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't talked to him about that. I think, obviously it's an unfortunate aftermath to a very successful sporting event in Los Angeles, and it's unfortunate that the celebrations for something so positive could turn so bad so quickly.
Q Does he plan to talk to Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, anyone anytime soon?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I think the President always likes to take the chance to congratulate the professional franchises when they win championships, so I'm sure sometime in the near future he'll get a chance to extend his congratulations personally.
Q Joe, what degree of cooperation is there between the U.S. government and the Russian government on seeing or easing Milosevic out of power? There was a report in The New York Times to that effect yesterday.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I saw that report and I didn't make too much of it. Our policy toward Milosevic has not changed. We believe that Belgrade will be able to reenter Europe and be on the right side of history at a time when Milosevic is not in power. But as far as the discussions that were in that story, my checking indicated more along the line of random musings than U.S. policy.
Q Joe, just on that again, would the White House accept any agreement short of bringing Milosevic to the War Crimes Tribunal?
MR. LOCKHART: Our policy is he ought to be brought to the Hague, and we will continue to stick with that policy.
Q But you say, "ought to be brought;" would you go so far as to say, "must be brought"?
MR. LOCKHART: Our policy is that he must be brought to the Hague and face the charges that he has rightfully been indicted for.
Q And based on your checking, there is no new level of cooperation or conversation between the two governments about trying to find a mechanism to remove Milosevic --
MR. LOCKHART: Certainly not one that anyone's informed me about.
Q Did the President raise the issue with President Putin in their summit?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there was a discussion during the multiple sessions with President Putin about the Balkans, Milosevic, and what we need to do to continue to isolate him. I don't think it's any secret that we don't approach the subject from exactly the same place. But our views were made clear by the President, and continue to be made clear at all levels of government.
Q Was there any narrowing or any common ground established?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I could legitimately report.
Q Joe, the Senate is considering an amendment by Senator Dodd for when to create a binational, bipartisan commission to decide whether changes in the policy on Cuba should be studied. Does the White House have a position on this?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me check. I don't know. I was aware that Dodd was coming up for a vote in the next day or so, but I don't know.
Q It's being discussed today.
MR. LOCKHART: I'll check.
Q Joe, I know you're making an announcement about Medicare give-backs this afternoon, but if the federal budget surplus is, in effect, as much as a trillion dollars larger than you expect it to be, does that mean the President will revise his estimate of tax relief upwards, as well?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, a fairly clever way to sort of ease into that question, and I am going to wait until we do the mid-session review before I address those questions and any questions that arise from what a projected larger surplus might be.
Q Joe, the Wall Street Journal, though, this morning said that the administration is considering a new marriage penalty relief plan. And in light of having a higher budget surplus number in the mid-session, would you consider -- are you considering a more generous --
MR. LOCKHART: I think if we were considering it in the context of the mid-session review, I would want to talk about it when we were announcing the mid-session review, and not before it.
Q When is that?
MR. LOCKHART: Sometime soon.
Q Joe, on the human genome project, are you expecting any kind of --
MR. LOCKHART: -- on two questions in a row here, but go ahead.
Q -- joint ceremonies here at the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: I think on that issue, obviously both the public and the private projects on human genome have been making progress. They have been reporting that in a public way. As far as when this phase might be complete and how that will be announced, I don't really have anything for you today.
Q Joe, just to follow up on that, if a private outfit has basically done the job at the same pace and completed at the same time as a government project, why does the government get involved at all?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the government plays an important role as far as research. I don't know that you can make the argument that they've worked sort of side by side. The government and in the process of the human genome project, what they have done they have made publicly available. So, certainly there are a lot of people who are building on what the government has been able to do. And I think there's very few people out there who don't argue for a very vigorous government role in research and develop -- not just on this issue, but on all biotechnical, biomedical issues.
Q Joe, could you give us some more details on what the President hopes to accomplish in the PNTR meeting this afternoon --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think we want to -- I expect there will probably be somewhere between 10 and 15 members. These are all bipartisan groups, strong supporters of PNTR, and I think they want to have a discussion about what's the most effective way to move forward, get the votes scheduled and ensure a positive vote. I think it will be a good session. It will be the second time the President has brought down senators for this kind of discussion, and what we hope to get out of this is to secure a date for a vote.
Q Is Senator Lott coming?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Are you confident that the vote will occur before the July 4th recess?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we have any way to be confident or not confident. It's an issue that rests in the Senate leadership hands and they'll have to make their judgment on when this vote can come up.
Q Has the President made any efforts to call Senator Lott to discuss this with him personally?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. He talks to Senator Lott from time to time. I don't know whether China has been raised particularly.
Q Why is he meeting with these guys? I mean, what does he want them to do?
MR. LOCKHART: Because these are important members of the Senate on the Democratic and Republican side who have influence with the leadership.
Q What is the significance of these senators being here at the same time that the Dalai Lama will be here, within an hour or so?
MR. LOCKHART: Jake, you told me they wouldn't ask that. (Laughter.) No, listen, there is no significance as far as the timing. The timing is something that has more to do with putting schedules together than trying to signify -- I will remind you, though, that there are a lot of people with a stake in the region who have made the argument that this is good for opening up China to the kind of reforms that we would like to see, including the Dalai Lama. But I wouldn't read anything at all into the timing of the two meetings.
Q On the Moroccan talks, what's the U.S. position on the Western Saharan conflict?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we support the effort that the U.N. has undertaken for some time now to find a solution to this, and we'll continue to work through the U.N.
Q The Energy Secretary has not yet come up with any further explanation of what happened with those hard drives. He is scheduled to testify tomorrow. Does he still have the full confidence of the President?
MR. LOCKHART: He still has the full confidence of the President. The President believes that we've made a lot of progress as far as dealing with the real problems of security at the labs. This particular incident raised new questions about whether there's more that needs to be done. We're trying to get answers now. I think the Secretary has been on top of this, and I think we need to wait until the investigation is complete before we draw any further conclusions.
Q Joe, the President has had an invitation from retired Senator Jim Exon to attend the dedication ceremony of a new museum that's opening in Kearney, Nebraska -- there's an archway that stretches over Interstate 80. The dedication is on July 15th. Does the President plan to attend?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we'll be able to make that particular event. But as the President has long indicated to most of us, he wants to go to Nebraska, and in the greatest American spirit of saving the best for last, he intends -- (laughter) -- to get to Nebraska before his term ends.
Q Now, why has it taken him so long to try to get to Nebraska? Does he have something against Nebraska?
MR. LOCKHART: No, the President loves Nebraska -- (laughter) -- but I think he wanted to gather the wisdom that only seven and a half, seven and three-quarters, seven and seven-eighths years, of a presidency can bring before he goes and meets the great people of Nebraska, and I'm sure has a great time.
Q So this has nothing at all to do with the combination of a lot of Republicans and Bob Kerrey?
MR. LOCKHART: Is this like the Dalai Lama and Bill Roth coming down at the same time? (Laughter.)
Q I'm just searching for reasons why he wouldn't have visited a key state in America's heartland.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm sticking with saving the best for last.
Q Joe, back on PNTR and Lott for a second. When the House was considering this, the President had the Majority Leader over here with the Minority Leader. His comments at the time were viewed, at least by the House members, as very instructive about moving us forward, getting it done. Why not just call the Majority Leader and try to work this situation out --
MR. LOCKHART: I think we've made our views very clear, to the leadership, the majority and minority. And I think Senator Lott has said he's working on this, and we hope that he can find a way to get this done in very rapid fashion. But at this point, we think it's best to bring down supporters and try to use the energy that will be in the room here today to make the case for bringing about a quick vote.
Q Well, Senator Lott says he wants to get some of the appropriations bills done first. Is that such a bad idea?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that there's no reason in the world we can't do all of this at the same time. Senator Lott obviously is in a better position than certainly I am, standing here, to judge the schedule in the Senate, but it is certainly our hope that we can get this done quickly.
Q Can you name some of the senators who will be here today?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I expect Senators Moynihan, Rockefeller, Roth, and you'll see them as they come in. But there's a group of probably 10 to 12 bipartisan leaders in the Senate who have been very strong supporters of this and are trying to help this get this scheduled and passed.
Q Well, Joe, given that the President says -- I mean, Lott says that he wants to do the appropriations bills first, does the President think that Democrats should stop trying to add amendments to those bills and otherwise try --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen, I don't think Democrats should give up their rights to make these bills better. I mean, when you look at some of the things that have passed -- this isn't the Senate, but you look at what they did yesterday on VA- HUD as far as tobacco -- the Democrats -- there needs to be someone who stands up for the people in this country rather than the good friends of the Republican Party. So I don't think the President would ever advocate that.
I think we can get this done. It's in our interest. This is undoubtedly one of the most important votes any of these senators will ever take. And it's certainly our hope we can get this done quickly and without the long arm of partisan politics entering the fray.
Q Taiwan is calling for a summit with China. Do you see that influencing the PNTR vote, and have you talked with --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know that it will -- I mean, I think at this point, there's solid support for the vote in the Senate. It's just a matter of when it will get scheduled. This came out of the committee 16 to one, Jake? I think there was one dissenter in the Finance Committee. So I think there is solid support for this. It is now a scheduling problem. As far as the statements made there, we have long supported a resumption of cross-straits dialogue, and that is something that we view as the mechanism for the two sides to resolve their differences.
Q Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
END 1:10 P.M. EDT