Somehow — miraculously, some of my colleagues said — I got a chair at the White House press briefing yesterday. Since Barack Obama became President and campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs became press secretary, the daily briefings have been standing-room-only events, and sometimes mob scenes.
But I did get a chair in the James Brady Briefing Room and, at my first-ever session with Gibbs at the podium, I got two questions in.
The President’s top spokesman had been discussing the $819 economic stimulus package that passed the House (with all Republicans and eleven Democrats voting ‘no’) and is now before the Senate. Some of the criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill has been over increased funding for programs that have little or nothing to do with job creation, such as an additional $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Gibbs had dismissed the importance of such non-job-related funding, noting that such programs constituted about 7/100s of one percent of the overall package.
“If my math is right, yes,” Gibbs said, when I asked if that was the correct figure. “Shaky at best, but I did it twice on my computer calculator.”
“Okay. Would that mean that some of the more controversial items as far as Republicans [are concerned]” I asked, “such as the $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, would be on the table then for discussion?”
“Well, I think –,” Gibbs began, and then said “[Y]ou know, I don’t want to prejudge what is or isn’t on the table for the President to discuss with either leaders of the Democrat Party, as he will later today, or also with leaders of the Republican Party in any dealings that he may have with them."
But then he made it clear that elimination of the enhanced NEA funding was not likely to happen. In Gibbs’ words: “My point on this is just that we can focus on a very narrow definition of what this proposal does to help the economy, or we can focus on the vast majority of what this legislation and proposal does to get the economy moving again.”
Gibbs took a second question from me. Noting an interview just-elected Republican National Chairman Michael Steele gave over the weekend, I pointed out that he said “one should also consider in a stimulus package suspending or abolishing outright the capital gains tax for two years to free up the private sector.
“Is that something that’s ever been discussed in any of the meetings on the stimulus package?” I asked Gibbs.
“Not that I know of,” he replied, without hesitation, “I think you’ve seen — I think we know where business investment is right now, and I think you know where the capital gains tax rate is now as it — relating to where it was several years ago. And I would I guess that the economy isn’t altogether markedly more healthy.”
So there you have it: the President’s top spokesman made it clear that penciling out increased funding for the arts is not a priority for the Administration and eliminating the capital gains tax has probably not been discussed as part of economic stimulus.
I can remember vividly how the late White House Press Secretary Tony Snow would come under fire for his use of the phrase “Democrat Party” instead of “Democratic Party.” Following intense questioning as to what he meant by using a phrase considered insulting to Democrats, Snow began saying “Democratic Party.” His successor Dana Perino would correct herself immediately if she said “Democrat” and then say “Democratic.”
But when Robert Gibbs said “leaders of the Democrat Party” in response to my first question, no one raised an eyebrow. So perhaps it is all right to say that — or at least all right for a spokesman for a “Democrat President?”