Capital Briefs: Dec. 10-15

PERINO VS. THOMAS: Ever Since George W. Bush became President in 2001 and his press secretaries started holding twice-a-day press briefings, they have almost always let White House Press Corps grande dame Helen Thomas sit in a reserved front-row seat and ask whatever she wants—no matter how virulently anti-Bush her invective gets. Last week, however, Press Secretary Dana Perino made it clear she was not going to stand there and take it. The 87-year-old Thomas had started by going on about whether the President “wants no troops out from Iraq on his watch.” When Perino pointed out that 5,700 will be home by the end of the year, Thomas asked, “Why can’t the American people have a say?” “They did when they re-elected Bush as Commander-in-Chief,” replied Perino. But Thomas wasn’t done badgering, asking, “Why should we depend on him [Bush]?” and then finally, “you mean how many more people we kill?” That was too much for Perino, who fired back: “Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front-row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. It is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, at the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.” When Perino pointed out that the administration has expressed regret for any innocent Iraqis who have been killed, Thomas said dismissively: “Oh, regret. It doesn’t bring back a life.” That was it for Perino, who snapped: “Helen, we are in a war zone, and our military works extremely hard to make sure that everyone has the opportunity for liberty and freedom and democracy, and that is exactly what they are doing. I’m going to move on.”

HUCK UP IN IOWA, MITT STILL TOPS N.H.: Although many polls nationwide last week showed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee moving to second place as the presidential favorite of Republican voters and to first place among likely attendees of Iowa’s GOP caucuses, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still clung to the front-runner’s spot in New Hampshire. A just-completed Fox News poll showed that among likely Republican primary voters in the Granite State Romney led with 29%, followed by Arizona Sen. John McCain at 21%, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani 19%. Shortly after the poll was released, McCain got an unexpected boost with the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, the state’s most-read newspaper.

NEWTSPEAK ON VEEPSTAKES: Barely two months after he took himself out of the Republican presidential race, Newt Gingrich last week signaled he would accept the vice presidential nomination on the GOP ticket if it was offered to him. Appearing on C-SPAN’s “In-Depth” program, the former Republican House speaker was asked by interviewer Brian Lamb whether he would accept an offer to be the running mate of the eventual GOP nominee. “Depending on the circumstances,” said Gingrich, who is so far neutral in the presidential race, “I’d be honored to be considered, and under some circumstances, I’d probably feel compelled to say ‘yes.’” Gingrich has told Human Events that he will maintain his neutrality on the GOP candidates all the way through the Republican National Convention.

ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND: That’s what some Capitol Hill wags were joking that the Senate Republican Conference would be renamed following the election of moderate Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander as its chairman last week. With present Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) moving up to succeed outgoing Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) as Senate GOP Whip, the No. 2 leadership position, the 67-year-old Alexander was elected to succeed Kyl in the No. 3 position. In so doing, he defeated more conservative Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.).

AMT ONSLAUGHT: The threat that an additional 25 million U.S. taxpayers will have to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) rather than the three million who now do was unrelieved last week. The Senate, on Thursday, passed a measure to patch the AMT and thus keep it from hitting more taxpayers. The House has not yet acted. “The Democratic leaders have lost their opportunity to be heroes on patching AMT,” one aide to a Republican senator told Human Events, noting that, contrary to the pay-go rules, the latest proposal included reducing the amount of revenue the AMT is expected to bring in but did not similarly reduce expenditures. “Once offsets [spending cuts] are included in a patch put forward by the majority,” the same staffer told us, “then Republicans will get on board.” Rep. Phil English (R.-Pa.), leader of the House attempt to phase out the AMT altogether, said: “Because of congressional inertia and mindless partisan brinkmanship on the part of the majority party, we are now at the stage where taxpayers will likely be experiencing delays in their refunds, uncertainty about tax status and confusion on forms.” 

APPLAUSE FOR ROMNEY’S SPEECH: There was immediate favorable reaction from many prominent conservatives to Mitt Romney’s address last week on religion in politics (See page 5.).  In the hours right after the former Massachusetts governor’s remarks at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Rush Limbaugh raved on his radio show about Romney’s strong praise of the role of religion in American history and how, in reaffirming his own Mormon faith, Romney “will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest [if elected President in ‘08].”  As for comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s address about his Roman Catholicism to Houston ministers, Pat Buchanan said that Romney’s speech “was courageous in a way John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Baptist ministers was not. Kennedy went to Houston to assure the ministers he agreed with them on virtually every issue where they differed with the Catholic agenda…. Romney did not truckle.”  Buchanan went as far as to say that if Romney wins the Republican nomination, “it will be due in large measure to his splendid and moving defense of his faith and beliefs delivered today.”  Nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker was equally effusive after Romney’s speech, writing that “Romney reintroduced Americans to their better angels with respect to religious liberty and made it impossible for anyone of conscience to coarsen the debate by demanding explanations of personal faith.”