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 (9/5/00)
                              THE WHITE HOUSE

                       Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release              September 5, 2000

                             PRESS BRIEFING BY
                       CHIEF OF STAFF JOHN PODESTA,
                          OMB DIRECTOR JACK LEW,
                         DEPUTY OMB DIRECTOR SYLVIA MATHEWS,
                                      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

          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

          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

          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

          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

          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

          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

          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

          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

          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

          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

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