In year's first news conference, Clinton calls for emergency measures to deal with home heating oil crisis
Expresses 'sympathy' for Bush, McCain; says they have nothing to run on
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bill Clinton, in his first full-scale news conference of the new year, provided details Wednesday of a strategy to deal with the skyrocketing costs of home heating oil in the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic regions, saying he would release $120 million in energy assistance funds and seek hundreds of millions more.
"In the Northeast, the impact (of high fuel oil costs) has been particularly harsh, because many families still rely on home heating oil," Clinton said at the opening of the news conference.
President Clinton gave his first new conference of the year Wednesday.
The president announced he was authorizing the release of some $120 million in extra funds for a federal low income assistance program -- known as LIHEAP -- funds that, in turn, will be granted to states for distribution to needy families with income levels up to 150 percent of the poverty level.
In addition, Clinton said he would move to press domestic refineries to step up their output of home heating oil, and has called on the U.S. Coast Guard to open up seaways in the Northeast to allow expedited tanker deliveries.
The administration is preparing emergency "supplemental" funding legislation, which will be appended to the current fiscal year's budget if approved by Congress, that will add an additional $600 million to the LIHEAP program. The president's $120 million authorization announced Wednesday would effectively drain LIHEAP accounts for the year, which ends September 30.
The bill should be sent to Congress within 10 days, Clinton said.
Home heating oil prices have spiked in the Northeast in the course of the last six weeks, with prices now topping out at or above $1.80 per gallon. Many residents of the upper portion of the Eastern seaboard are finding themselves in a precarious situation, as temperatures stay low and fuel prices continue to climb.
Some have had to forego other necessities so they might keep pace with the heating costs.
The situation is somewhat unique, because states in the Northeast are among the last in the nation to rely on fuel oil consumption in the winter months. Clinton said Wednesday that he has asked Energy Secretary Bill Richardson -- who is in Boston participating in a home heating oil forum -- to investigate what "institutional barriers" were keeping business and property owners from switching to more efficient fuel sources.
Home heating oil customers, Clinton said, are "the most vulnerable" energy consumers in the country.
Clinton also said he would not rule out releasing portions of the stores in the strategic oil reserves to drive costs down.
Tongue-in-cheek concern for McCain, Bush
Clinton opted to roll up the legs of his trousers and wade a bit further into the raging river of 2000 presidential politics -- territory he toyed with Monday during a Web chat with CNN.com moderated by CNN's Wolf Blitzer. At the time, he counted himself as an observer who probably should not comment substantively on the campaign.
Wednesday, Clinton threw a bit of partisan substance into his comments, after being pressed by UPI's Helen Thomas, who asked the president to comment on the character conflict between GOP rivals Arizona Sen. John McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- each of whom has accused the other of trustworthiness akin to that of "Bill Clinton."
"Well, I have a lot of sympathy for John McCain and Gov. Bush," a relaxed Clinton quipped. "It's hard for them to know what to run on ... It's hard to run against the largest economic expansion, the lowest crime rates and the lowest welfare rolls in 30 years."
The president seemed unfazed by the criticism, saying, "You have to keep in mind, they're playing to an electorate, most of whom did not vote for me."
Clinton has more to say about the character battles in the race for the Democratic nomination. He described Vice President Al Gore, vying for the Democratic nod against former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, as "brutally honest" and truthful, saying in cabinet and other high level administration meetings Gore always said what he "thought was right."
"One of (Gore's) great strengths as vice president was that he was always brutally honest with me," the president said. "In tough times, he decided what was right and he took a clear stand."
Among those stands Clinton enumerated were administration discussions about U.S. involvement in Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti, and the 1994 financial bailout of the Mexican government.
"In all of my contacts with him, he has been candid in the extreme," Clinton said.
Character conflicts, Clinton added -- disputes over disposition and public service records -- were par for the course for a presidential campaign.
"By and large what is happening here is perfectly normal. I wouldn't get too exercised about it."
The president took his own advice when pressed by other reporters to comment further on comparisons made to his behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal by the Republican candidates, or the association of Gore to the scandal.
"Well, if I were running, I would do that," Clinton joked before reverting to a more circumspect stance on the issue.
"Look, people are really smart," he mused. "It's pretty hard to convince them that they should hold anyone responsible for anyone else's mistake, particularly a personal mistake."
Clinton mentioned Monday's CNN chat at one point specifically during the hour-long event, answering a question by longtime White House reporter Sarah McClendon about how to make the presidency less "aloof," and more accessible to average Americans.
"The Web chat I did earlier this week ... is a good way to do it," he said. "I think technology will help, using the Internet and finding ways ordinary citizens can ask you questions while you work."
Asked why he has not yet scheduled a stop in Pakistan for an upcoming trip to the Asian subcontinent -- a trip that will include visits to India and Bangladesh -- Clinton insisted he has not yet decided if he will visit the country.
"I will make a decision about whether to go based on our long-term interests," he said.
His response belied his view of the long-term interests of the United States in the region. Later in the news conference, Clinton described the potential of a war between longtime enemies India and Pakistan -- both of whom possess limited nuclear capabilities -- as a "very real danger."
"A conflict between India and Pakistan, not contained, is one of the biggest security threats to the United States," he said, adding later that the U.S. would "absolutely" be interested in moderating a solution to the Kashmir dispute if asked to do so.
"If tensions between India and Pakistan could be resolved, then in my opinion, the Indian subcontinent could be the great success story of the next 50 years."
Clinton described the ongoing tension and violence in the area as "heartbreaking to me."
He also reiterated his administration's vehement support for China's acceptance into the World Trade Organization, a move he said could well lead to improved Chinese behavior on a variety of fronts.
"I believe this agreement will change China from within," he said. "This is not a political issue, this is a national security issue."
The president also touched upon the preservation of the Social Security and Medicare programs during the news conference, and he urged Congress to find some sort of solution to the contentious issue of waiting periods for firearms buyers who choose to make their purchases at gun shows -- saying the implementation of the Brady law waiting period has saved many lives.
"There has to be a solution to this," Clinton said.
Responding to the president, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), told CNN that a package of gun enforcement provisions was being held up by Democrats in the Senate, and if Clinton would choose to "get past" the gun show issue, the legislation would likely be freed up.
"Mister President, let's get together with our respective parties and ... get this bill moving," Armey said. "It's about enforcement."