THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY CHIEF OF STAFF JOHN PODESTA, OMB DIRECTOR JACK LEW, DEPUTY OMB DIRECTOR SYLVIA MATHEWS, AND PRESIDENT'S DEPUTY ASSISTANT FOR HEALTH POLICY CHRIS JENNINGS
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:20 P.M. EDT
MR. DIRINGER: Good afternoon. As you all know, the President met earlier today with Democratic leaders on legislative priorities and delivered remarks. And here to say more about that, answer your questions, we have Chief of Staff John Podesta; OMB Director Jack Lew; Deputy OMB Director Sylvia Mathews; and Chris Jennings, Deputy Assistant to the President for Health Policy.
We'll start with John.
MR. PODESTA: Let me be very brief and then go right to questions, because you heard a lot from us earlier this afternoon. We did have a, I think, very constructive meeting with the Democratic leadership of both the House and Senate, as you saw during the President's event. And we discussed virtually all the things that were talked about out at the President's event earlier. And the reason the list is so long I think is because so little has gotten done so far this year in Congress.
But we still remain hopeful that we can reach agreement on the key issues that the leaders and the President talked about, from paying off the debt by 2012, protecting Social Security and Medicare, passing a patients' bill of rights, raising the minimum wage, passing strong education legislation, and putting cops on the street and teachers in the classroom.
I'm not going to go through the entire list because I want to get to your questions. But the one agreement that I would note that was made at the meeting this morning was that we would invite a bipartisan group down next week. As you know, the President is traveling tonight to New York for the Millennium Summit at the U.N., so he's not going to be here the remainder of this week. The House returns this afternoon, so early next week we're going to invite the bipartisan leadership down to see if we can work down that list and talk about the key issues like prescription drugs and the remaining agenda items.
Especially talk about how we're going to manage and handle the appropriations work that needs to be done. Eleven of the 13 bills have not yet been passed by Congress that need to be done by the end of the fiscal year on September 30th. The Director and Deputy Director of OMB have given the President a 50-page memo with problems that are contained in the current bills. Some of those have to do with money, dollars that are misspent or dollars that are not spent in the current bills. Some of them have to do with these so-called special interest riders that have been added to these bills. There's virtually a laundry list of riders that have been included in either the House or the Senate version of these bills.
So there's really a good deal of work to be done. We've been working throughout the course of August to get ready for discussions with the leadership on the appropriations vehicles. We want to meet on a bipartisan basis with leaders of the Appropriations Committee and the relevant subcommittees so that we can get the people's business done. But as I said, there is much to do and we're ready to get to it and ready to get to work.
Jack, do you want to add anything? Why don't you come on up.
I would only add -- Helen raised a question -- I have one comment about the New York Times story this morning, which is if you looked at it, the pictures of Steve and my brother were much -- they had much bigger smiles on their faces than the pictures of Steve and myself.
Q What do you think of the Bush plan for prescription drugs?
MR. PODESTA: I'll turn this over to Chris who I think has studied it more in detail than I have had a chance to do today. But it appears to us that it leaves about half of the people who currently don't have prescription drug coverage out. it doesn't cover anyone who's making more than $14,600 a year, so if you're a single person making $15,000 a year, you don't get any help under this plan.
And I think I would question whether -- where he's going to even get the dollars, the very limited protection that he's put forward, where he's going to get the dollars to pay for it, given the fact that he's already spent the entire on-budget surplus on this -- on the tax program that he's laid out, which we think is too big and risks our economic prosperity.
So we think there are a lot of questions that will have to be answered but I'm sure that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman will have an opportunity to get to it and have a real debate on it and talk about the differences between the approach that he's taken and, frankly, that we've taken in a bill that still could be passed if we can get some bipartisanship going in this Congress. But it's one of those issues that may be left until the voters have to make a decision in November but we think this plan follows the path of the plan -- this insurance model that the House voted on and is flawed in many respects and I think we'll have a good chance to debate it.
Chris, you want to add anything to that?
MR. JENNINGS: Probably not too much, other than to say that if you look at the state-based programs that they are suggesting to build on, you'd see that historically there has been very low participation rates amongst the elderly who are even eligible for these programs. So as John said, anyone over $14,600 will get no assistance; anyone under that amount would be basically held hostage to whether or not a state actually participates; and if they do, what kind of program they have. Will they erect barriers to enrollment, as we've seen in the past, will they educate the public as to whether or not they are eligible for it and they should come in and enroll.
Some people will think that it's a welfare-oriented proposal, which the elderly, historically are very, very proud people and tend to not want to go towards those types of programs.
And lastly, I would say, if you just look at the numbers, the participation rate for seniors at state-run programs is 40 percent. So even those people who are eligible for the programs even if the states run them, likely won't be able -- the majority of them probably won't be able to access them. So we think it's a flawed model to start with. I think it's important for us to study it closely, because it might be something that the Congress looks at even before they leave. That's something that would concern us, and I'd be happy to answer more specific questions beyond that.
Q The state-by-state plan seems to be the first, or an interim step toward a longer goal of subsidizing premiums, and having low-income people have their premiums fully subsidized and then scaled down and -- income ladder. What about that portion of the plan?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, of course, that's a plan, if you look at the specific paper they released, there's very few details about what that plan is, and they say it won't be until after four years and then until after some sort of body gives recommendations as to where to go. So I think, one, you're saying, yes, maybe in four years or beyond, there might be a private plan option which we know today is quite flawed.
I guess we would say why not start with the benefit today that we know works today, and not wait for the election and get something done today. It's ready to go, it would cover everyone, it would be affordable to everyone, it would be something that people with disabilities and the elderly of all income levels would not have to wait for for years and years, when they need the drug plan today.
Q Given the fact that the fiscal year expires in a couple of weeks and the appropriations bills then have to be a priority, it is hard to imagine how you fit any major legislative item, whether it's the drug coverage under Medicare or, for that matter, this whole list of items that you folks spelled out this morning, how do you -- is any of that realistic?
MR. LEW: The short period of time remaining is clear. The fact that there are five weeks left doesn't mean we can't get an awful lot done. If there were a real commitment to getting done patients' bill of rights, prescription drugs, there's no reason that can't get done in the time remaining.
There is going to be a reconciliation bill moving through Congress. It's going to have some content; it ought to have the right content. It ought to have the kinds of things that we need to get prescription drug coverage done and to get patients' bill of rights done.
In the appropriations context, it was clear, as Congress was finishing up its work before the August recess that they looked upon the appropriations process as an opportunity to get done things that they wanted to get done. The question is whether there is a commitment to getting it done and a desire to get it done in the time that we have.
I don't think the fact that there's a short number of weeks left is the limitation. The question is, is there a commitment to doing it? The thing that we've tried to make clear all year, really for the last several years, is that you have to put all of your priorities out there and know what it is you're trying to get done before you start dissipating the surplus. if you squander it, whether it's on a half a dozen tax cuts separately or one big one all at a time, you can't come back later and say, oh, I wish we had the money left for prescription drug coverage. You have to know and you have to leave the room for it and that's why it's an important issue in this Congress and in the debate in the country.
Q You often deal in this process directly with committee chairmen who write appropriations bills who are not part of the reconciliation process, who don't write the tax bills, and it's my understanding that John Porter and Arlen Specter, with whom you've dealt with before, have not been particularly partisan in dealing with the appropriations for the Labor-HHS bill, tried in July to get a bottom-line number from you and the bottom line directives on policy for their underlying bill, got no response and feel that you are -- your office is shutting them out of the process, which has led to this sense among Republicans that you guys are working toward a shutdown strategy.
MR. PODESTA: Let me start and then Jack can finish. I think the only people who are talking about a government shutdown are the Republicans. Remember, they are the people who executed the government shutdown strategy in 1995. I would have thought that, having gone through that experience, they would be the last ones to now being wanting to raise it again in September of the year 2000. I think we have made clear constantly that we have no interest in that. We're willing to stay here in work, we're willing to work right up until Election Day if we have to; hopefully, we won't have to do that, we can do our work on a timely basis. But we're prepared to provide, as we did last year -- remember, the fiscal year ended in September, and last year it wasn't until the middle of November that we finally concluded all the appropriations bills.
We're willing to provide short-term, continuing resolutions to avoid that. So I think much of that rhetoric is misplaced. If it's some strategy to work towards that end, it would seem to me misguided, and I would think they would have learned from that experience.
With regard to what happened in July, I think that we were always prepared, Jack and Sylvia were always prepared to sit down on a bipartisan basis to go through these bills, bill by bill. Those invitations really, in fact, were never forthcoming.
MR. LEW: I would only say I've heard the suggestion made on a number of occasions that they were invitations that weren't accepted. There were no invitations to bipartisan House-Senate meetings that weren't accepted. We made very clear that we were ready to meet in July on a bipartisan basis with the House and the Senate. There were all kinds of confusing signals being sent, but we know how to sit down with the people who have the authority to work through the differences and resolve things. We never got that kind of invitation.
So as John said, we're ready. We've been working through August. We're ready to go to work right away. There's no reason to let it slip. The sooner you get started the sooner you get finished. But make no mistake about it, there are a lot of issues to go through.
Even in the Labor-HHS bill, where I think they went to some efforts in July to try and make it appear that the differences had been eliminated, you don't get some of the core priorities that the President has -- school construction and class size. There's nothing in those bills that would guarantee that the dollars that are in those bills would go towards meeting the goals of school construction and hiring teachers to reduce class size. That's fundamental to us.
It's not just a question of how many dollars are in the bill; the money has to be put out in a way where there's accountability that will, at the end of the program, have what it is we're trying to use the federal dollars to achieve.
There's a lot of other issues in the bill, but that is as basic an issue as there is. So there are a lot of issues. You go through these bills -- the 11 outstanding bills -- there are dozens and dozens and dozens of issues. There's no reason to wait. We ought to just sit down and get to work.
Q So, just to clarify, are you saying that Mr. Porter and Specter did not make a good-faith effort to talk to you directly about a bottom line on the Labor-HHS bill?
MR. LEW: What I said -- and I'll repeat it -- is that we made very clear, I spoke to many of the appropriators myself, saying we would be happy to come to a meeting if it's both House and Senate and bipartisan. And we were never invited to a meeting like that. There were staff meetings that went on at a bipartisan, bicameral basis, but we don't have private conversations on these bills. When we sit down seriously to work it out, it's with all the parties.
And I'm not saying that it was not in good faith, I'm just saying people shouldn't make the suggestion that we were unavailable. We were, and are, available.
Q You protested that you want to seek a bipartisan solution, but the rhetoric we heard in the Rose Garden this morning was sharply partisan. How do you reconcile that, and why shouldn't people simply be cynical and say, yes, you would like to keep Congress in Washington until November because it will wreck their chances of being reelected as Republican majority?
MR. PODESTA: I think what was laid out in the Rose Garden was an agenda that we've had before the American public and before the Congress for a long time, starting with the State of the Union address. There are key priorities. I, frankly, don't think that the rhetoric there was sharply partisan. This is not an electoral strategy, this is a strategy of getting something done for the American public.
It's a strategy to pass a real patients' bill of rights. It's a strategy to raise the minimum wage by a dollar over two years, which has been languishing in the Congress. It's a strategy about trying to get the important priorities funded that Jack just mentioned, on education, and putting cops on the street, and having adequate dollars for research and development, and the other key priorities that we have available to us.
We'd like to sit down and work with them on a prescription drug benefit. We had some hope that that would happen as Senator Roth moved to mark-up of a real Medicare prescription drug benefit. I don't know whether today's announcements will affect his plans and how he intends to handle it. But we thought that was a move in the right direction. We said so at the time when he put before the Finance Committee a real Medicare prescription drug benefit, not an insurance-based benefit, which we don't think will work, and the insurance companies say they won't offer.
Q In the past when the Republicans tried to link tax cuts with minimum wage, the administration was opposed to it. Why is the White House now consider it progress?
MR. PODESTA: Well, we think that -- quite frankly, we think that holding a minimum wage increase hostage to anything is not appropriate, and we think that there is no reason why they can't pass a $1 an hour two-year minimum wage increase today, with nothing attached to it. But it's clear that the Republican leadership doesn't see things the same way that we do. Speaker Hastert made an effort in his letter and in his conversation with the President when they traveled together to Colombia to say, maybe we can try to resolve this, I'll drop some of my tax cuts, I'll make some concessions on that basis and I'll go for the full dollar over two-year increase.
As you know, there are others in the leadership, especially in the Senate, who want to spread that over three years. We have always found that unacceptable and said we would veto that bill. But I think it is -- it is a step in the right direction, but we've got some ground to close in that regard. We have problems with what he's put on the table with regard to the specific provisions that would amend the overtime laws, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and we want to talk more about the size. We think a tax cut is somewhat oversized. We want to talk to him about that and see how it fits in -- as Jack mentioned -- how it fits into an overall program that they intend to pursue this fall. That includes how they intend to handle the reconciliation bill.
Q Are you confident the Senate Republicans are on board with the compromise --
MR. PODESTA: Well, Speaker Hastert said that he thought that Senator Lott was on board. But we haven't -- I don't think we've heard that directly. And Congressman Delay seemed to at least be surprised by the letter. But I'll -- we're not the best able to sort out their internal conversations and I assume that they'll clarify that in the days ahead.
Q There's been a lot written about how the White House may particularly be -- may be in the driver's seat even more so this year than other years, given the political circumstances. Do you feel -- do you agree with that? Do you feel you have to compromise very much this year? You're pretty confident you're going to get most of what you want?
MR. PODESTA: Well, I would start by saying that, for seven-and-a-half years the President has really reversed the trend of the previous many years in Washington and brought fiscal discipline to bear in this town and to the federal budget, and we're not going to blow, in the next seven and a half weeks, what we spent seven and a half years building and has paid such enormous dividends to the American economy.
Having said that, I think we know what our priorities are, we think they're the right priorities for the country, we think the country agrees with us on this agenda, and I can list it again for you, but I think they're all issues in which we think the President's agenda is America's agenda.
So I think to the extent that we have strength, if you will, I think it comes from the fact that we're pursuing both the strategy that the American people respect and buy into and a set of specific initiatives and issues that they think are the right way to take the country.
We've spent a lot of time -- Joe probably gets it a little bit more than I do -- saying that the President's a lame duck, he doesn't have any power, he doesn't have any authority -- it's nice to know that at least for one week during the course of this year, people find that differently. I suppose at the end of the day, we'll see what happens.
But I think we feel confident that we've been successful in the appropriations battles in years past and we're pretty confident that we can be successful this year as well.
Q John, this is a question for you and for Chris. How would you characterize the conversations going on about a patients' bill of rights bill with Speaker Hastert and others? It seems that on that issue, there has been a serious effort from a lot of different quarters to achieve something by the time Congress adjourned. Would you agree with that premise?
MR. PODESTA: I think from the first meeting that the President had with the Speaker early this year, the Speaker noted that the House had spoken on this issue; I think 68 Republicans had voted for the Norwood-Dingell bill for the bipartisan, strong, real patients' bill of rights, as we like to say, legislation. And I think that he indicated to the President that he wanted to try to pass that during this session of Congress, wanted to pass a strong patients' bill of rights bill, that he saw where the votes were in the House. And I think through the course of this year, he's pursued that goal, I think, in good faith. And he's talked to Congressman Norwood, he's talked to the President, he's talked to us.
I think the hang-up is, to the extent there are five parties in this, the House and Senate Republicans, the House and Senate Democrats and the White House, four of the five parties seem to be moving in the direction of having a real patients' bill of rights that doesn't leave 100 million people out, that guarantees the right to see a specialist or go to the emergency room nearest to them, that has real accountability, that has a real enforcement mechanism.
The problem is that, so far, that the fifth party in that equation has prevailed. And I think that the Senate Republican leadership, led by Senator Nickles, has continued in the course of this conference to not seek a bill that everyone else could find acceptable. But we're continuing to discuss that. The Speaker has talked, I think, relatively recently at least, just as they were leaving, with Congressman Norwood who is talking to Senator Kennedy and talking to other Senate Republican leaders, Republican senators, and we would like -- you know, this is a high priority for us. We intend to push it during the course of this month and we hope that we can prevail.
The other thing that's changed, obviously, is because of the unfortunate death of Senator Coverdale. Senator Miller is there. There is now a 50/50 vote, I think, in the Senate for the Strong-Norwood-Dingell patients' bill of rights and we're going to try and the Senate Democratic leader, Senator Daschle said this morning during our meeting that they are going to press to get another vote on this. And I'm sure that the Vice President would be happy to cast the tie-breaking vote if it happened to come to that.
Q Norwood has put out a revised managed care bill. Is the White House on board with that?
MR. JENNINGS: He has been working on different alternatives throughout the summer but there is no final revised compromise proposal that he, Mr. Dingell, Senator Kennedy, Speaker Hastert has agreed to from anything that we know.
I think that it's fair to say that the Speaker is very much committed to looking at every way possible to attract more Senate Republicans to a Senate-passed bill. But he, I think, like many other people who support Norwood-Dingell don't think it's necessary to negotiate to get another alternative for the House, since the House has already passed its bill. We need to find a way to get a strong bill out of the Senate that we think will work towards getting final passage secured through the House and to the President before the Congress adjourns this year.
Q Do you find anything specifically objectionable about the Norwood compromise?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, again, I don't think he would say that there is a compromise. Everything I know. So I think it would be premature to comment on anything he's working on until there is something called a compromise, and I don't think it's something real until it's something that attracts Republicans on the Senate, and I think he would agree with that as well.
Q To follow up on what you said on the CRs, John, are you committing to granting the Congress continuing resolutions until Election Day? Are you committing that you will not shut down the government before Election Day? Because that's in your control in the sense that you can grant continuing resolutions and just keep government open and just sign them.
MS. MATHEWS: I think we've been clear. We will sign short-term CRs as long as it takes to get the job done.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 3:43 P.M. EDT