THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, everyone. I have no announcements, so we'll go right to questions.
Bob first, and then we'll come back to --
Q Joe, I know you spoke this morning about it, but does the President support the easing of the sanctions against Cuba, and is this sort of a first step in what could be a broader trend?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has spoken out in the last year about the use of food as part of our overall sanctions policy -- we can hear this a couple of times -- so I think his views in general are clear. As far as what they discussed or agreed to last night, it's still a little unclear to us; we haven't seen the details.
Our understanding from some preliminary reports is, they've reached an agreement to allow some very restricted export of food, and we believe, as our overall policy, that that's something we can support if it goes directly to the benefit of the Cuban people and not the Castro government.
We still have concerns about -- institutional concerns about any restriction of the President's flexibility in applying embargoes. It's unclear that they addressed that at all in their discussions last night, so we'll have to see if that remains in, what we can do when this bill gets to conference.
Q In other words, if there were some -- as has been discussed, a restriction on future sanctions that would include -- in other words, excluding food and medicine for any future sanctions?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think we have made clear that the President's philosophy on this is well-known, but the President also needs the flexibility, as the steward of our foreign policy, to implement the policy. And we oppose anything that restricts that.
Q Joe, does the President believe that he pressed for fuel efficiency standards as arduously as he could in his first term?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we have pushed very clearly and repeatedly for increased fuel standards, alternative energy sources, tax incentives for conservation. Unfortunately, with the Republican-led Congress, we've met a brick wall. Let me just go through some of the things that they've done. They've failed to extend the authorization of the strategic petroleum reserve. They've failed to create a home heating oil reserve in the Northeast, which we think is needed.
They've failed to replenish the LIHEAP money, which is often called upon in hot summers and cold winters. They've failed to enact comprehensive electricity restructuring that we've sent to them. They've failed to enact tax incentives to support the domestic oil industry and renewable energy. They've failed to enact tax incentives to support the development of efficient cars, homes, and buildings. They've even, in the middle of a time when gas prices are high, prohibited the administration from even considering an increase in auto fuel efficiency and doing basic research on the next generation of automobiles.
There are prototypes now being made; we are within a few years of getting to the point where you can have a car that has double or triple the fuel efficiency; and the House leadership, in their wisdom, zeroed out that program, cancelling dozens of research projects around the country.
Q You were ready for this, weren't you?
MR. LOCKHART: I was awake this morning at 9:30 a.m.
Q Joe, you haven't taken the Strategic Oil Reserve off the plate, have you, in case you want to use it?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think this is something that is there for a reason. We've used, in the case of the Louisiana refinery, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in a case we thought met the criteria of moving. If you look at the Northeast Petroleum Reserve right now, we're having to go through and find and sort of jump through administrative hoops to find a way that we can do that.
I think there's a consensus among people in that area of the country that we need to do something; but Congress, because they have failed to reauthorize the petroleum reserve, we can't just go ahead and do that, and we're trying to find now to see if there's a way we can do it administratively.
Q Wasn't the President's deal with the auto makers to double or triple fuel efficiency of their fleets by this year?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we have -- there's a number of areas where this is going on. We've had -- there's CAFE standards, which Congress has put on hold over the last few years. But there's also the effort that the Vice President has very successfully led. The -- what is it Jake, the --?
MR. SIEWERT: Partnership?
MR. LOCKHART: Partnership, yes -- Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. And that we see out of Detroit the real possibility in the near future of a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. Now, the President believes that the federal government has a role in helping and working in partnership with private industry to do the basic research that gets us to that point.
This is no different, as he said yesterday, than the Human Genome Project -- the federal government working in partnership. The Republican leadership -- when they can find times from taking away their press conference, trying to find someone else to blame -- has said, no that's not right, we want to zero out these programs. And that's what they did within the last two weeks. We had a chance -- we have something like 40 or 50 active research projects going on in this country -- around the country at universities, research labs -- that are going to take us to this next generation of automobile. But they've zeroed out the money.
Q But not for the New-Generation Vehicle Project?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, that's what it was for. This vote was taken, I think, about 10 days ago. They zeroed --
Q But I thought there was also some kind of thing that goes on regardless of what Congress does?
MR. LOCKHART: No, this -- I mean --
MR. SIEWERT: This is all the research that underlies --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q But, clearly, the car companies are still working on this?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. But we believe that we don't get to the point where we can have -- take the human genome process. We believe that both the private and the government work together in order to provide innovation that addresses these problems. There is a clear program the President has laid out -- a clear energy policy for taking us into the future that makes us less dependent on foreign oil, and it's been blocked at every step by the Republican Leadership.
Q Joe, on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, it seems like they weren't allowed government financing, they weren't allowed private bank financing, and they won't accept bartering; it has to be a cash section. Is there any problem between that and White House decision?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, we haven't seen all the details. We don't have a problem with food and medicine going to the Cuban people, and this agreement reportedly puts a number of very cumbersome restrictions on doing that. Our concern on that is twofold. One is, as I said, that this doesn't aid the Castro government; but secondly, that there isn't restrictive language somewhere else in the bill that limits the President's flexibility.
Q But the administration has no specific concern with these cumbersome regulations on how they could obtain or purchase --
MR. LOCKHART: Again, the administration was not part of the negotiation between the Republican leaders on the two different sides of this, and we'll have to see exactly what those restrictions are and what the agreement is. We have not seen it yet, they haven't briefed us.
Q Are any of the ones that I mentioned, would those be acceptable to the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think I can only answer in theory, I can't answer in specifics because we haven't seen them. In theory, we don't have a problem if aid goes directly to the Cuban people for the benefit of the Cuban people to move forward on that. But we'll have to see what the restrictive conditions are.
Again, this was something that was worked out between two interested parties within the Republican -- under the auspices of the leadership to try to find a way that they could bring these two disparate views together.
Q Joe, the embargo has been around 40 years. Castro is still in office. As you know, some proponents of lifting the sanctions are saying the time has come to, step by step, begin easing them, a la North Korea. Is it time for that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President has made clear we can provide aid, whether it be food or medicine, to the people, but we don't believe it's time to provide any kind of aid that helps the Cuban government.
MR. LOCKHART: Because we disagree with the approach and philosophy they take towards governing the people of Cuba.
Q Joe, what's the administration's position if the Republicans on the Hill do not enter into negotiations based on the offer the President put forward yesterday?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, yesterday's comments, I think, were a political reaction that in some respects bordered a little bit on the absurd. I mean, Chairman Archer's comments that his own proposal for a marriage penalty only provided pennies to Americans is a little silly.
I think once they take a look at this as a way to move forward, there's a real chance they'll react more positively to it. I think as you see in some of the commentary and some of the news stories, they are anxious to avoid the label of a do-nothing Congress that's only out to help special interest and the wealthiest of Americans. And we hope that we have provided a road map here for a way forward.
The President's going to continue to push for prescription drugs. I think if there was ever any indication that the Republican leadership, particularly in the House, was concerned that their prescription drug program didn't meet the test for Americans, all you have to see is what's going in the Rules Committee; they are refusing to allow a substitute.
Now, if you have a program that you think the American public will buy into and meets their concerns, you should have nothing to worry about what the competition has. But if you have a program that was designed to meet the standards set by the drug companies, and to provide a political out, well then you would be very worried about what the competition has, and you probably would limit the ability to debate and vote on it.
Q Well, one of the Republicans' answers to the do-nothing label is saying okay, we're going to pass the marriage penalty, we're going to send it to him, and if he vetoes it, then he's the one who blocked it. Why isn't that just as true as them being -- them blocking your --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let's look at prescription drugs. If they really want to get something done, they'll allow the Democrats to put a substitute on the floor; they'll allow all of their Members to vote for it, see whether they want to be up or down on the Democrat or Republican version. I think what you're finding is up until now, you've had a number of bills that have been written with political purposes in mind, knowing where the President stands on this, and the President stood up yesterday and said, there's a better way to do this; we can break this logjam. He made an offer, and we hope we can build on that.
Q What about the marriage penalty, because that's the thing that Democrats would like to not be on the wrong side of, just like Republicans don't --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the Democrats have a proposal to repeal the marriage penalty that's, I think, more properly targeted than the Republican bill. But the President has said that in the spirit of compromise, you sometimes have to take ideas of the party opposite and find a way that you can move forward. And that's the idea. Even though we think the Democratic proposal is better, he's willing to move forward on the Republican plan if we can get prescription drugs.
Q Joe, you often say from the podium that it's important for Congress to follow the rules. Well, the Rules Committee said that the Democratic alternative doesn't meet the budget resolution; therefore, it can't be offered as a substitute. They said, if you draft one that adheres to the budget resolution, which the House has passed, you can have a substitute. What's wrong with that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it was the Republican leadership and the Republican Rules Committee that put the budget resolution down. I think there are two separate approaches for how to do prescription drugs: one, that the Republicans have put forward, that even the drug -- even the insurance companies, that would be central to it working have said it isn't going to work. And there is a proposal put forward by the Democrats that's done within the context of Medicare. And for the Republicans to say that they've got a prescription drug plan and then not allow some avenue for an alternative to be voted on, I think underlies their problems with their own program.
Q Notwithstanding any of the other issues that Congress has debated this year, is it the administration's position that if the Republicans don't enter into this negotiation on the compromise, it is de facto, a do-nothing Congress?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the voters will have the final say on that; we'll have to wait until November.
Q They certainly risk that label. Is that the label the administration will apply to it?
MR. LOCKHART: They certainly do. No, they certainly risk running it, but I think the President stood up yesterday and made a bipartisan compromise effort. We certainly hope that's not where we go.
Q Joe, why do you not seem very concerned here that if they do accept this proposal, a marriage tax cut is passed, a prescription drug benefit is added, that they'll look like a pretty good Congress and you will end up having a -- Republicans in control next year?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think as the President has said, we ought to get as much done as we can this year for the American public. There are enough things that define our differences that the voters will have plenty of information to decide whether they want to vote Democratic or Republican.
We haven't even talked about the fact that they blocked gun safety legislation; we haven't even talked today about the fact that they're blocking a patients' bill of rights. We haven't even talked about the fact that they're blocking a minimum wage hike of a dollar.
There's plenty of things at the end of the day we won't get done that define our differences; that's no reason in the world to sort of cede the rest of the year and say we shouldn't get anything done. The President thinks we can get things done.
Q Are you saying that the administration's position, that of those three issues you just mentioned -- gun safety, HMO -- those aren't going to happen? Plenty of things that are not going to get done?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying of all the things -- there are plenty of things at the end of the year that we know that we'll never get everything that's in the agenda. We certainly hope we'll get patients' bill of rights done. We're going to keep pushing for that.
We're going to keep pushing for a minimum wage, we're going to keep pushing for gun safety. We're going to keep pushing for a prescription drug benefit. We're going to keep pushing for energy alternatives and efficiency.
But what I'm telling you is, if there are 15 things there, we know that we're not going to get all 15 things done, but we want to get them all done and we will define our differences by what we can't get done, and the voters will have a chance to say something in November about it.
Q If the Republicans don't accept the prescription drug benefit, would the President veto their marriage penalty tax?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know what's going to come down here, but we've certainly, in both the House and Senate, sent up a SAP that expresses our views clearly on their proposals as free-standing legislation.
Q Some of the criticism is questioning seriousness of this offer. And given what the President in fact is saying, is that he's willing to accept a marriage penalty relief bill that's five times his original proposal, and that would be skewed toward people who need it the least. Isn't there some basis to questioning how serious an offer that would be?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think there is. I think it's some recognition that we live in a time of divided government, and prescription drugs for seniors who need it -- there is a report out now that shows I think a 17 percent hike in the cost of prescription drugs that disproportionately hurts seniors, is something that's a national priority. And if we have to give a little bit, if we have to give the marriage penalty to get that done, the President made it clear yesterday he's willing to do that.
Q At five times the cost of what you originally proposed?
Q That isn't also recognition that the marriage penalty tax cut is pretty popular among Democrats, too, just like these -- I mean, you're going to have -- if you --
MR. LOCKHART: No, listen, if the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives or the Senate, which they don't, we would put forward a program that we think is more properly targeted, that we have to deal with political realities here. And I think the President put forward a compromise that allows the Republicans to move forward on something they believe is priority in a way that they have outlined, and lets the Democrats move forward in a way on an issue that they have identified as a priority and the way they think is most proper. That is the essence of any compromise.
Q Are you discussing this with them now in their staff discussions, or haven't you gotten any more feedback from the Republican Leadership?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's -- in fact, the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow is going to take up the issue of marriage penalty and there will be an amendment offered tying it to prescription drugs. So these discussions are real and we'll see tomorrow, within the context of Senate Finance, just how we can move forward.
Q Joe, on another note, since Daley has come aboard the Gore campaign, has there been any acceleration in them wanting the President to play a more vital role in his campaign?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I don't think Secretary Daley's move to the campaign will have much of a factor. I think the Vice President looks forward to strong support from the President. That was the case before Secretary Daley's move; it's certainly the case now. The President is going to continue to go out and work for the Vice President, Democrats across the country, whether it be helping raise the resources that the DNC needs or going out and motivating Democratic constituencies.
Q The President -- is he going to Arkansas for Diane Blair's services?
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding is that the family is organizing a memorial service at the end of July, which I expect the President and the First Lady to attend, along with a number of other family, friends and colleagues. Let me just say that the President got the news last night from Jim Blair.
The First Lady, Chelsea and the President were very saddened to hear of this news. I think you all know from our frequent trips there that Diane was a dear and close personal friend of both the President, the First Lady and Chelsea. And they are very saddened with this loss, and their thoughts and prayers go out to both the family, the children and the grandchildren, and everybody who knew and loved Diane.
Q Joe, I don't know if you did this at the top -- could you give us a little preview of the press conference, and why's he doing it, and what is -- is he going to have news to announce at the beginning with the --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that there's anything specific at this point, but we're 24 hours away. There may be something. I think we had -- because of our travel and rather hectic schedule over the last couple of months, we haven't done this for a while, so we've been anxious to get one on the schedule. And I think the President will just use it as an opportunity to reiterate the point he made yesterday, which is time is running out on this Congress. We need to get to work now, and that there is a bipartisan basis -- or he believes there's a bipartisan basis to move forward with compromise.
Q Joe, has the President started looking for a successor to Secretary Daley? Do you have any deadline?
MR. LOCKHART: We have no deadline. There's -- I'm sure there's been intense speculation about who the replacement will be. And when I have news, I will announce it to you.
Q Do you have any idea and sense of how imminent a nomination may be?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
END 1:30 P.M. EDT