THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY CHIEF OF STAFF JOHN PODESTA TO INTERNET PRESS ORGANIZATIONS Chief of Staff's Office
11:14 A.M. EDT
MR. PODESTA: Let me start and just say a couple of things, and then take your questions. We thought this would be a good time to get everybody in here and get together and let you ask some questions. This week has been -- we've had a couple of remarkable announcements that the President has participated in. On Tuesday the Census numbers came out showing that the poverty rate had fallen to the lowest level in 20 years. The poverty rate for African Americans had fallen to the lowest level on record. We had income growth amongst all quintiles, reversing a trend we saw in the 1980s.
With very strong income growth since 1993, adjusted for inflation, American median -- families -- for Americans, income have grown by more than $6,000. The poverty rate for elderly Americans has fallen below 10 percent for the first time in history. Then on Wednesday, the President announced that our budget surplus for the year -- fiscal year 2000 would be at least $230 billion, so that we will -- by the end of this fiscal year, which ends on Saturday, we will have paid off $360 billion worth of debt over the past three years.
I think what that says is that we're clearly on the right path. We're on the right path economically and we're on the right path from the perspective of social policy in this country. And then the question is, can we maintain that, can we keep that momentum going in the waning days of this Congress?
During the course of this year, we've been speaking about a lot of different issues and a lot of different initiatives that the President put on the table in his State of the Union. We met with the bipartisan leadership early in September to try to wrap the work up, given that so precious little had been done. And yet, we exit the fiscal year with 11 of the 13 appropriations bills still unfinished, with nothing being done to raise the minimum wage, nothing being done to pass a real patient's bill of rights, nothing being done to provide a prescription drug benefit for Medicare.
So we're frustrated, but we're still hard at work, and I think the next couple of weeks will tell whether the American people will see some results of this session of Congress. We're committed to staying on the fiscal path that brought the good news that I mentioned at the beginning, and we're committed to trying to put aside partisanship and try to work with Congress to see if we can get some of these things done. But the next two weeks will tell for the American people, so we thought this was a good time to get together.
I'll open it up.
Q Can I ask you about minimum wage? Are you guys actively talking to the leadership about a bill that would tie together minimum wage and small business tax relief?
MR. PODESTA: As you know, since August we've been talking to the Speaker's office about that. They've put on the table three things. One, finally agreeing to raise the minimum wage by a dollar, which has been resisted by the Republican leadership, but they wanted to couple that with some small business tax relief and changes in the overtime laws, which we thought were unnecessary and would undermine important projections of overtime for American workers.
So we've been discussing that package through the course of the month. I think we think that the package they originally proposed is too big and they've directed it towards relief for businesses who might be impacted by a rise in the minimum wage, but in fact, a chunk of that has very little to do with that. So, we're in discussions with them. I think we can work out something with them to provide small business tax relief, that we could couple a package of tax relief that's aimed at those businesses with a dollar increase in the minimum wage, if they're willing to drop the changes in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which protects workers with regard to overtime.
Q John, what's the administration's opinion of the language worked out on Cuba sanctions, on the Cuba trade and ag approps bill?
MR. PODESTA: At least as of this morning, the only people who have seen it are the Republican members of that conference committee, so we have not actually seen the language, at least of a basically an hour ago, the last time I checked.
So we're anxious to see it, and as you know, the President has been in favor of increasing people to people contacts, and increasing ways in which we can have -- which can support the Cuban people without supporting the Cuban government. But we haven't seen the final language, so hopefully that's something that we could find some common ground on.
Q How about on the drug reimportation language that the Senate seems to be rapidly increasing its interest in?
MR. PODESTA: Well, obviously that issue has kind of taken off this week. We're interested in pursuing that. We think the Senate language that passed which permits the Federal Food and Drug Administration to insure the safety and quality of drugs is the right way to go. We are, based on the discussions between the Republican leaders in the House and the President and the letters that went back and forth between the leadership, we're optimistic that we can work something out.
But I would add two things to that. One is, there has to be adequate funding at the Food and Drug Administration to insure that the system that is set up, which would permit the importation of drugs, can be monitored so that the drugs are safe and effective. And secondly, quite frankly, this isn't a substitute for real insurance for people who need a drug benefit.
So, we haven't given up on trying to pursue a drug benefit through Medicare. We're going to continue to press the case. While this could give some modest relief on pricing for all Americans -- and we think that's a good thing, if set up right, and the safety of jobs in insured -- in the long run, what we really need is protection under Medicare for our senior citizens for their drug costs.
Q But if the bill meets your satisfaction on funding and other regulatory language, you'll accept it without a full drug benefit, through Medicare?
MR. PODESTA: The President's indicated, in his letter to the Speaker and Senator Lott that he would accept it, but as I said, it's not a substitute for a Medicare prescription drug benefit, but it would provide some modest price relief, and we think that's a good thing.
Q Is there any other common ground?
MR. PODESTA: You know, there are other Medicare issues that we're working on as well, like picking up the Vice President's suggestion of having a real Medicare lockbox that takes Medicare off budget, and uses Medicare receipts only for the Medicare program. So we'd like to see that done. There's obviously some interest in that on a bipartisan basis on the Hill, as I say.
So these things can be broken up, and we can pursue them individually, but quite frankly, it's good to see that the iron grip of the pharmaceutical industry might be finally breaking on Capitol Hill, and at least the heat is on, and the Republican leaders have now indicated their support for this reimportation provision.
Q Are there going to be H1-B visa legislation on the omnibus legislation, and would it be the --
MR. PODESTA: Well, I don't know whether it will be -- first of all, I don't know whether there will be any omnibus legislation, although everyone assumes that there will be. Secondly, I don't know whether H1-B visas will be included in that. It's possible that H1-B visas will move separately. The bill that is, I think, just about to pass the Senate, is in shape that if it went over to the House, we would still like to see some additional improvements in that bill.
We think, again, there's sort of bipartisan agreement on this. We think the fee ought to be raised, and those monies ought to be used for training workers in the United States, and with those improvements, I think that bill could be sent down here separately for the President to sign, and that will be a good thing.
We have, obviously, also been pressing hard to have Congress consider and enact the Hispanic immigration fairness package, and we're going to continue to press on that. We will press that in the context of the Commerce/State/Justice appropriations bill, rather than on the H1-B visa bill. So whether all this stuff gets lumped together at the end or not, time will tell. But I think we will be able to make progress and get an H1-B Visa cap rise done this Congress, and hopefully we'll do it with other improvements that I mentioned.
Q Without the fee hike, though, will it be an acceptable piece of legislation for the President?
MR. PODESTA: Well, I think that we would -- we are going to continue to press for the fee hike. I think, as I said, there's bipartisan agreement on that. So I think we can get that done, and I think the reason the Senate -- my understanding is the reason the Senate couldn't consider that is it's a revenue measure, it has to originate in the House. So when the bill goes back to the House, I think there's been agreement to do that by the leading supporters in the House, like Congressman Dreier and Congresswoman Lofgren.
So we ought to get that done. We ought to probably do it on the H1-B bill. There are obviously alternative structures to that. We could put it into one of the appropriations bills or something like that. But I think that there doesn't seem to be opposition to that, so I think we'll be able to get that done this year.
Q On the New Markets legislation, there seems to be trouble in the Senate with them loading up. This has been a really big priority for the President. Tell me your assessment of that, and what it will mean if we don't get this?
MR. PODESTA: Well, it remains a critical priority of ours. Obviously, it was the -- in a Congress, I think, noted for partisanship, the two exceptions were this New Markets legislation, and obviously permanent normal trade relations with China, which just did pass the Senate, and will be headed down to the White House for signature.
I think on New Markets, to go back, when the Speaker came out to Chicago and joined the President, I think we had great hope that we could get that, move it along quickly. I think we'll still get that done. It's an important priority of the President's. It will help -- I mentioned that raft of good economic news, but clearly still more needs to be done in places that have been left behind by this great economy: in urban America and rural America, on Indian reservations, and we think that the ideas that were combined and passed overwhelmingly -- there were more than 400 votes, I think, in the House for this bill -- ought to get done. So it would be a priority of ours. And again, if there is an omnibus at the end of the day, I would think this would be a big candidate for it.
I think there's also actually bipartisan support for it in the Senate, and I think Chairman Roth, in the Finance Committee, is trying to steer a package through, but this is the time of the year where those baubles and special interest ornaments seem to get added, especially in the Finance Committee, especially on tax legislation.
And I think that this bill is slowing down through the normal process of the Finance Committee and the Senate, but I think there are others ways that we can come together and see if we can get this thing wrapped up, find agreement between -- obviously, the Senate has some additional ideas that they want to -- they're not going to take the House bill lock, stock and barrel, but I think we would be happy if they did. But I don't think that we can really expect that.
But I think we can get the two bodies together with the White House and work out a very strong package which would mean an enormous amount for those communities, and we're committed to getting that done.
Q There's a broadband measure on that New Markets bill that -- it's Moynihan, I think, legislation. Would the White House support that particular measure staying on there?
MR. PODESTA: I think that there's -- you're a little beyond me, because I haven't really set any details, but my understanding is that that's a provision that our people would find acceptable. But again, this depends on what the overall package is. But I think that's something that we have supported in the committee.
Q -- today, it started out as, I think, a $17 billion bill, and now it's up -- you say --
MR. PODESTA: Thirty Eight and growing --
Q Exactly. I mean, you say you think you'll get it done, but will it get done without certain taxpayers snickering, well, everyone's thrown in their little piece of pork, and it started out as a great simple idea with the President going around the country and going to these Indian Reservations, but is it going to survive the Congressional process?
MR. PODESTA: Well, as I said, the way it ought to get it done is with a bill that is clearly aimed at the issue and the problem that moves through the Finance Committee. If it can't get done that way, then I think we have to find a way to get a package that really is -- that includes the best ideas of both parties, that's directed at this New Markets initiative, put it together, and find a vehicle to get it done. That's happened in the past, and I think we can agree to do that at the end of this session.
Q Do you think that you'll get the drug benefit on Medicare?
MR. PODESTA: The letter that the Speaker and Senator Lott sent to the White House on Monday basically said that they thought that there was no chance of doing that this year. We, I think, rejected that analysis. We still think there is time to do it. We think there's -- if there's a will to do it, there's certainly a way to do it, and we're going to keep pressing for it. We refuse to give up on it. It's an important legislative priority. It's the right thing to do, and it's the right way to use resources from the surplus that has built up, to provide people who are in serious need of getting it done. If you're asking me to handicap the question, I think it's a stretch.
But I think that we're going to keep -- if we keep it before the public, I think we have a chance of getting it done. I think, this summer, when the Republicans decided to put together their bill that was incentives to the insurance industry to provide an insurance-based benefit for senior citizens, and the insurance industry said it wouldn't work -- I think no one really thought it would work, but their campaign consultants came in and said, you've just got to be for some plan, any plan, it doesn't matter what plan, just get behind the plan, and they ramrodded that thing through the House of Representatives.
I think those members went home and they found out that the people in their districts were a little more sophisticated than maybe their consultants were, and they got pressed back pretty hard on it, I think. And so, really, it's going to take the public pressure of the American people saying we want a benefit, we want a reasonable, decent benefit that's going to be affordable and voluntary, and we want it through Medicare, to get this thing over the finish line.
With a strong opposition to the pharmaceutical industry, it is clear that we're not going to be able to break that logjam unless the public really puts the heat on those members. Now, they're facing an election here in just, I guess, five weeks, and maybe with a couple of weeks left to go in this congressional session, we can change that dynamic.
Q There's a couple privacy initiatives that seem to have an outside chance of passing this year. Does the administration support any of those? I'm talking now to the Penn Register -- adjustment of the Penn Register legislation and any other consumer --
MR. PODESTA: As you may or may not know, I went out and put out a package that the administration supports in July of this year, made a speech at the Press Club, encouraging a balanced package that enhances the privacy of American citizens, and at the same time deals with the needs of law enforcement.
A bill just passed the House Judiciary Committee. We still would like to see some improvements in that bill. I understand that Senators Hatch and Schumer and Leahy are discussing that this week. We would like to see legislation move forward on that basis that would actually give better protection and more harmonized protection to the privacy of American citizens, especially with regard to electronic communications, e-mail, et cetera; and at the same time, deal with the legitimate needs of law enforcement. And I think we could work that package out in good faith, and I think there is probably still time to do it.
So I, personally, in part because I used to be a staff person on the Senate Judiciary Committee and worked for Senator Leahy, I've spent more time talking to the senators about this than I have talking with House members. But I think they're interested in doing it. There are different views about where the balance lays, but I think the administration is committed to trying to work out a package with Congress on that --
Q It seems like they're pretty keyed up on getting something done on privacy this year, at least in the House; I assume the Senate. But I mean, even this idea of creating a privacy commission -- has the administration weighed in at all on that?
MR. PODESTA: I think we're open to that, but I think that legislation feels more stalled to me. I haven't followed it as closely. There's also legislation to give better protection of Social Security numbers, which Vice President Gore initially proposed last spring. And that bill looks like it may move forward, and hopefully we can get some progress on that.
The other major privacy initiative that obviously the administration is engaged in is doing -- working on our final rule on protecting medical privacy. And we proposed that last October after the Congress failed to enact comprehensive medical privacy rules; in the Kennedy-Kassebaum legislation they gave themselves a three-year deadline to enact comprehensive legislation. And if they fail to act, they give the President the authority to move forward with regulation at least in the context of electronic transmission of medical records. And we've made a proposal on that and we've received obviously a lot of comment on it. We're in the final throes of that, and we're committed to putting in place final rules this year.
Q What's the status of patients' bill of rights negotiations, which appear to have stalled in the last couple of weeks?
MR. PODESTA: We continue to talk and discuss the matter. I think that Senator Kennedy and Congressman Norwood, the lead House sponsor, have been talking to a variety of senators about a package that could break a filibuster over there. We've shown willingness to try to be flexible on some of the issues, but we're going to demand a real patients' bill of rights, not one that leaves out 100 million Americans, like the Senate version of the bill did, not one that doesn't guarantee the right to see a specialist, the right to go to the nearest emergency room, the right to have continuity of care, the right to participate in clinical trials, and some adequate enforcement mechanisms.
I thought one of the moments that was most disappointing in the bipartisan leadership meeting we had in early September, was when we discussed the patients' bill of rights, and it was noted that the Senate now had 50 votes in favor of a strong Norwood-Dingell-style patients' bill of rights, and Senator Nickles had 58 -- enough -- a majority isn't enough, with the Vice President to break the tie. But a majority isn't enough; we've got to break a filibuster over there, so we're trying to see whether we could put together a package that would get the necessary 60 votes to push something through.
Q Would you put --
MR. PODESTA: I think that's a kind of sad commentary on the state of where this Congress is, but it appears to be the political reality. So if we -- and again, we're talking to a number of Republican senators about whether there's a package that could meet the test that Senator Nickles obviously laid out for us.
Q When you handicapped the drug benefit, you said you thought it was a stretch; an even longer stretch on patients' bill of rights, or a shorter one?
MR. PODESTA: No. I think patients' bill of rights -- clearly, we now have more than a majority; clearly there are discussions going on. I think that there are a number of vulnerable senators who are facing tough reelection on the Republican side. I think they're pretty nervous about this issue. I think abandoning their constituents to making -- having medical decisions being made by HMO bureaucrats as opposed to doctors and nurses is something that they are having a hard time selling in their reelection campaign, so I think there is substantial energy behind this, and I think that -- I will give credit to Congressman Norwood and Ganske. They keep pressing ahead, they keep pushing their leadership, and they keep pressing even on the Senate side to break this logjam.
The one thing I will say about this is, it's clear to me that on the House side, even the House leaders, Republican leaders want to do it. Speaker Hastert made that very clear at the beginning of this year to the President, that the House had spoken, more than 60 Republican members joined a unanimous Democratic caucus over there to pass a strong bill -- the Norwood-Dingell bill, and he said, look, my chamber has spoken, we ought to -- we would like to see some accommodation on some things, but we're willing to try to work on a strong bill. And he reiterated that when he met with the President when they went down to Colombia and were coming back and had a very long conversation about what could be done for the rest of the legislative session.
But I've described it sometime as sort of like a pentagon or with five sides; the White House, the House and Senate Democrats, and the House and Senate Republicans, and four of the sides want to get it done, and one side, the Senate Republican leadership, has really dug in against it. And we're just going to have to figure out a way that we can try to break through that.
But I think there's still vast public interest in this, and I think there is a commitment to try to do everything we can to see if we can get this through. And I still think we have a reasonable chance of doing it.
Q John, what would be the adequate enforcement measures that you spoke of? What would have to be in it for it to be acceptable to them?
MR. PODESTA: Well, I think -- again, I think there is accountability, both in terms of the internal review process as well as external review process through an adequate mechanism -- to sue an HMO that's denied you an essential right under the provision.
Now, we've said we would try to be flexible about that. There are issues like, should that be in state court or federal court, et cetera. We said we've always been open to discussing that as long as ultimately, the right is real because the enforcement mechanism is real. We have not tried to draw lines in the sand and say we can't step over it, but there's got to be adequate enforcement, and we're willing to sit at a table and try to negotiate that.
Q Do you have any sense of what give you're going to have to make in order to get those 10 Republican senators?
MR. PODESTA: We're in discussions now to see where we go on that.
Q If there's an extension of the Internet tax bill -- that end up alone in the appropriations bill -- you know, accepting the Internet moratorium -- tax moratorium, would that be something the White House would support -- was five years in the House that passed?
MR. PODESTA: Yes, I think at this point, there's obviously, I think, a need to try to work out an accommodation between state and local government and their legitimate needs and not interfere with Internet commerce. But I think there's got to be a fair and balanced package. The commission met, they could not ultimately resolve that matter, so more discussions are taking place.
Obviously, the administration has strongly supported a no-discriminatory taxes on the Internet policy, and I think that at this point, we're not going to resolve these issues in the next couple of weeks, and an extension of the moratorium makes sense, I think.
Q Five-years, though?
MR. PODESTA: I think that we'll see what comes out of the Congress on that.
Q John, back on H-1B, as you are well aware, there's been this raging debate about whether or not high-tech companies in fact need these workers, or, in fact, they're just hiring less expensive ones who are younger and require them to pay less in medical benefits and other things. On what basis did the administration decide, what evidence did it look at and sift through to come down on the side of the industry that it was a real need, and that American workers, older ones or other, would not suffer inordinately under an expansion of H-1B?
MR. PODESTA: I think that -- I think that if you look at the job market and the skills need out there, I think you obviously see a very tight job market and the need to have highly qualified people, and that's why we have agreed to some increase in the number and in the quota.
But we've always coupled that with trying to redirect the fee that comes from that into job training so that we provide more U.S. workers in those job categories and in those job frames. I've talked to a lot of people from industry who are trying to hire people in that regard, and I think we've got -- Gene's analyzed it from an economic perspective -- Gene Sperling, and our National Economic Council understands that there is still a need to have more workers to fill the slots so that the economy can keep going and we can keep the productivity up of this economy that's come in large part, I think, from not just increased sales of high-technology products, but the use of those high-technology products in more traditional industries.
We've got this unbelievable ramping up of productivity that we've seen over the course of the last year in our economy that's kept inflation low, that's kept the economy powering forward; it's obviously the envy of the world. And, you know, we think we had a little something to do with that -- obviously, the federal government's fiscal house in order reversing the $290-billion deficit, creating this surplus, put downward pressure on interest rates.
We've made the right investments in science and technology and education, and that's, I think, created a virtual cycle which has given the ability of business to invest, to buy these new technology products, to raise their own productivity, and that's a powerful engine, and we want to see that continuing and moving forward.
Part of that is having the people who have the skills to keep those -- keep that innovation going, to keep those new products coming.
But that has to be balanced against the needs of people in our country to have job opportunities and the right kind of training, et cetera. I think our view is that the way to strike that balance is to, again, put more resources into higher education. That's why the President proposed making college tuition tax deductible this year. That's why we had the biggest expansion of -- in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, we had the biggest expansion of aid to students in higher education since the G.I. Bill, through the HOPE Scholarship and the lifelong learning tax credit.
So I think these are a balanced set of policies that have paid enormous dividends for the American public.
Q John, the Federal Communications Commission is looking at a deadlock situation if Susan Ness** doesn't get through the Senate or renominated. Is there any progress on that, or are you looking at a recess appointment there?
MR. PODESTA: Well, I think we're continuing to discuss that with the Senate, and I think that Senator McCain has not moved the nomination forward. I don't know whether it's ultimately blocked. We're continuous -- you know, we're frustrated in general by the slow pace of nominations on things like judges and Executive Branch nominees; but we're still in discussions with the leadership on that, so I don't think I want to say anything more about that while those discussions are ongoing.
Q If the current CR ends before the Congress and the White House finish the appropriations process, will the President sign another week-long one or would he ask for something shorter, to try to force them to get the work done?
MR. PODESTA: I think we're going to start having to make a judgment on that on almost a day-to-day basis. But I think that the President has said from the beginning of this month, when it was clear that they weren't going to be able to meet both the statutory deadline of finishing their work by the end of the fiscal year -- and something, frankly, that Speaker Hastert and Senator Lott kind of stake their reputation on, which is that they would get the appropriations business done.
We said we would sign short-term Crs, and I think the we may have to go into a week-to-week basis. I don't think we want to play games with them by making them do one every day or anything. But we're just going to have to make judgments about that.
What I would say is that we ought to get that work done and we ought to do it before the election, so the American people can make a judgment about the quality of that work. I think that it is not in our game plan to come back here after the election to finish up work that should have been done last month.
Q On the H1-B legislation, you mentioned the Latino Fairness Act be discussed in context of that. A lot of people have -- several people in the Latino community felt like the White House played some politics with it by insisting that Latino fairness legislation be part of this -- debate. I just wondered what your reaction to this --
MR. PODESTA: We weren't playing politics. It was a question of trying to do something that was right and fair. Other avenues were blocked; obviously, we found a different avenue, which is to deal with this in the context of the Congress/State/Justice appropriations bill.
But many of these people who are at issue here came to this country under extraordinary circumstances, in which their countries were at war; they've lived here for more than a decade; their children are citizens and they deserve a little fairness. And we ought to, while we're paying attention to the economy, while we're paying attention and making sure that people have good jobs or maybe paying attention to making sure that the economy keeps powering forward, we ought to pay attention to people who have been here for a very long time, who do pay taxes, whose children are here and who need a little fairness in the immigration system.
And I think it's right and appropriate to insist on it, and we're going to insist on it in a different context than this H1-B legislation. And we're going to try to get that done this year.
Q For the second time the international finance meetings have been interrupted at a major city, in Prague. They've cut the meeting short by a day. Before those meetings, The Economist Magazine said there ought to be a stronger defense from world leaders about globalization, that it can be a force for good.
Does this administration have any concern about the world opinion of globalization as an economic theory, and that it may be increasingly jeopardized by protestors and their opposition?
MR. PODESTA: Well, I think that the President, obviously, has spoken to this I think more than any world leader has. He did it when he went to Geneva. He did it in Seattle. He did it at the ILO. He did it at the WTO. And I think that he's pointed out to citizens in this country and citizens around the world that open trade, more global trade is good for the economy, it's good for development. It is important to move not only our own economy forward, but move the economies of the developing world forward.
But we have to listen to people who are concerned about it. The leaders of those governments and the leaders of those economic institutions have to be concerned about the impact on workers, on the environment and that they have important voices. And, ultimately, it's not going to be an old boys' club anymore, which is a process of working things out, finding the right balance.
That's why we've pursued, I think, a strategy of opening markets abroad, but having due respect for people's rights. That's why we've pursued the child labor agreement that was passed and the United States was the first country was to ratify.
So I think there needs to be balance and I think that what is important, though, I think that, quite frankly, is that the voices be listened to; but on the other hand, that the rule of law prevail and that people be able to carry out their work. There's nobody probably doing more important work, for example, than the World Bank and development, et cetera -- some of the issues that the protestors, themselves, say they care about, are critical. So we can't permit protest and dissent and argument to interfere with the functioning of those institutions. I think when those meetings took place, for example, in the spring in Washington, people protested, but the meeting went on. And we're going to have to find a way of dealing with it.
I think that while they're raising important concerns, I think their solutions are fundamentally misplaced and wrong. We're just going to have to have that debate and argue it out. I think in the long run, 10 years from now, I think the balance the President's laid out is going to be perceived to be the one that's just about right.
Q Does he have any concern that there is not yet a solid global consensus on this question? I think these protests could, in fact, erode support in Europe, could erode support elsewhere, and that this idea of open and free trade could move back two or three steps in the coming year if the protests continue.
MR. PODESTA: I think we just -- we need to keep fighting for our ideas. I think there is -- obviously, there is a -- and that's why I think that he's engaged with his counterparts in Europe, especially in these sessions that they've had in this Third Way movement with the progressive government leaders in Europe to say that while we ought to take these concerns under consideration, we ought to have -- our regulatory systems ought to be science-based, we ought to have -- as opposed to based on emotion, we ought to open trade benefits, not only people in the developed world, but people in the developing world as well, that economies that have embraced open trade have improved not only their overall economic performance, but they've improved the per capita income, and people at the lower levels of income, and that's why I think you see movements toward opening economies, even in places that have traditionally resisted that -- like China and in India.
Q What do you think the odds on the omnibus bill are in the end?
MR. PODESTA: You mean, one big blunder bust -- spending and tax bill? I think that if the congressional leaders set one goal for themselves at the beginning of this year, it was not to get in a room the way Speaker Gingrich did in 1998 with myself, my predecessor, Jack Lew, and so I think that they're going to try to at least break these things up into component parts to get some of the appropriations bills done maybe to move some of the tax issues separately.
But at the end of the day, I suspect that there are going to be some things that just will have to get put together and passed as one package to wrap up the work for this year.
Q John, over the next two weeks you're going to win some and lose some. Do you, in your more optimistic moments, thinking about a Democratic president and a Democratic House next January, thinking back to '93 with the honeymoon prevailing if you get Family and Medical Leave Act, if you get AmeriCorps through? Do you do any triage on what you want most seen done in two weeks, and could you say what the top three or four things, if you went into that weekend, saying we did a great job, this is what they would be?
MR. PODESTA: You know what our agenda is, and I think we're looking for opportunities to move forward on all of that. Obviously, this is a critical election. And I think in that context -- for example, Al Gore today laid out his economic vision, his economic strategy, building on the success of this administration and how to power forward with the great success that we've had.
I think that a cornerstone of that is something that I think we'll end up still achieving this year, which is: fiscal discipline, keeping that path, keeping us on the path to pay of the publicly-held debt by 2012. That's been a tough struggle, but we've kept on that path, and I think that remains an over-arching priority of ours. We'd like to see a real Social Security and Medicare lockbox enacted. There's interest in that on both sides of the aisle. I hope we can get that done -- which would, I think, do more than anything to ensure that we continue to use the surpluses that are being generated to pay down the debt and move us in the path of being debt-free by 2012.
We have critical issues on education. We want to move forward with the program to put 100,000 teachers in the classroom to lower class size. We want a commitment to school construction through both -- and modernization through both the appropriations side of the -- we put forward -- a program to provide money to states and local communities to modernize their schools, and then we have a bond proposal on the tax side to modernize and build new schoolrooms in this country.
We have a commitment to science and technology, which I think that, finally yesterday the appropriators have -- which they have rejected this summer, have decided to put some of our resources into. We want to raise the minimum wage; I think we'll get that done. We want to pass a patients' bill of rights; I've already talked about our chances of getting that done.
And, obviously, a priority of ours that we've been fighting for, for the last two years is a prescription -- is a real, affordable, voluntary prescription drug plan through Medicare. I think that that's the most difficult, that's the longer stretch, and that may have to end up being decided by this election about whether you believe in Medicare, whether you want to move forward with Medicare, whether you want to modernize Medicare in a way.
As the President is fond of saying, if medicine was practiced in 1965 the way it's practiced today, there's no question that prescriptions would have been included in Medicare. Or, whether you want to go off and try to break apart and deconstruct Medicare and have a scheme that's going to give more incentives to insurance companies.
Then, I think if you go back and you look at the debate in the early 1960s, you will see that it was kind of a mirror of what's going on right now on prescription drugs.
Q John, does it surprise you, given the public sentiment about the prescription drugs, that there is not -- you very well may not have a consensus -- bill passes in this session, given that it's an election year?
MR. PODESTA: Yes, it surprises me a little bit. I mean, I think it surprises me a little bit. It's always been our view that we weren't going to get handed anything for free in terms of our agenda that we laid out to the American public. I think there's been a lot of resistance to the ideas the President's put forward by the Republican leaders. We knew we were going to have to go fight for it in public, create public sentiment in favor of the issues I mentioned, like the patients' bill of rights or like the school construction or the teachers in the classroom initiative that I talked about.
We always banked on the fact that we had to have public support for this to try to move it through, break the grip of the special interests on this Congress. And I thought that we had a shot at doing it, and obviously, their moving on the reimportation of drugs means that there is pressure out there. And they are nervous about this in the context of the election.
Now, whether there's still enough steam in that to actually push through a prescription drug plan, the next couple of weeks will tell. I mean, I think it's tough, but I think we're going to still try to fight to do it.
Q What do you think is going to be the greatest technology-policy challenge for the next administration, no matter who is president?
MR. PODESTA: Can I have two? (Laughter.) I think that one will be dealing with climate change, and that broadly cuts across a number of fronts, from foreign policy to how we're going to create -- we still believe that you can create economic incentives to provide energy-efficient cars and appliances to really invest in renewable resources, et cetera. But I think that will be -- I still believe that the North Pole really did melt for the first time in 50 million years, notwithstanding the fact that no one can prove it.
And I think that will be a critical issue for the next administration to try to come to grips with that. And it will -- as I said, affect just numerous different issues and policies. And then I think the other thing is going to be coming to grips, both in a positive and in a negative way with results of the Human Genome Project -- both in the great promise that it has for improving health care, et cetera, and then great social policy challenges that it has on privacy and genetic discrimination, et cetera.
We've tried to point the way in that, but I think that those will be kind of critical issues.
Q Not privacy?
MR. PODESTA: I think that privacy obviously is embedded in the second answer that I gave you about dealing with our most fundamental issues. Privacy with regard to who we are, kind of our financial records, our medical records, et cetera, are things that I think can be worked out and balances can be found.
We've done important work in that area already on financial records, et cetera; I mentioned medical records that we're trying to grapple with. But I think that the political system can deal with those kinds of issues. And I think that the human genome, the issues around genetic knowledge, genetic discrimination, I think just are exponentially bigger and probably in the long run maybe tougher to handle.
THE PRESS: Thank you.