WASHINGTON - These are extraordinary times in the nation's capital.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have one eye cocked toward China and another focused on President Bush's budget proposals. While saying they support the administration's handling of the international flap over the confrontation between a U.S. reconnaissance flight and Chinese fighters, they handed Mr. Bush a substantial defeat on a portion of his tax-cut plan.
Administration officials downplayed the Senate setback, saying they will gain back ground in the budget battle.
In one briefing at midweek, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had little new information for reporters. But the Wednesday meeting was particularly well-attended by reporters, some well-known, others not known at all, but all hungry for a tidbit on which to hang a story.
Hugh Sidey, the journalist who is probably most expert in all things White House, meandered into the briefing room with the familiar blue curtains that support the White House nameplate a few minutes early, found a piece of wall, and leaned against it while he waited for the meeting to start. Bill Plante of CBS News burst through the doors that open onto a walkway leading to the north White House lawn with no time to spare. Wendell Goler of Fox News and Bill Sammon of the Washington Times took seats next to each other.
Nearby, newspaper reporters mused about how Bush administration officials continue to act like the China confrontation was nothing more than a minor irritation.
“When are we going to start using the word `hostage' in this situation,” one said to several others. They asked Mr. Fleischer about that, but the presidential spokesman did not bite. This, he said, “is a very sensitive time in our relationship with the Chinese. There are times when the less said is the more productive.”
Asked whether the situation in China had preoccupied the President, his spokesman said his “schedule would show otherwise.”
Asked whether President Bush had consulted with his father, a former ambassador to China, Mr. Fleischer declined to confirm it, but said that former presidents are accustomed to receiving telephone calls from the White House from time to time.
Mr. Fleischer is much like his boss - not prone to showing off by giving reporters too much information. He understates almost everything.
Helen Thomas, who recently gave up her White House beat but who still frequents the place, arrived after the briefing was finished.
The briefing room, which has been re-created for several Hollywood films, is actually rather dingy. It is much thinner than one might think - just wide enough to accommodate six theater seats across, plus narrow aisles on both sides that are choked with television equipment. The plastic seats are dirty and in a state of disrepair, much like one would expect in a high school auditorium.
The room, on the north side of the west wing, is kept dark until just before the briefing begins, when a series of television lights are turned on.
Access to the White House grounds is easy for guest reporters, once someone on the inside puts your name on a list. After a thorough going-over by three Secret Service agents at the northwest gate, a temporary pass is generated and passage to the grounds secured.
Unlike White House tourists, who are closely watched and herded through their paces, reporters are left alone to wander around the north side of the house.
At a private briefing, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the current problem with China was probably short-term in nature, and that the U.S. simply needed to give its Asian partner enough time to sort things out. Factions in China, she said, appear to be fighting among themselves over how to handle the situation. If America is patient, it will get the result it wants - the return of the two dozen servicemen.
Like Mr. Fleischer, Dr. Rice is also very conservative with her words and her manner. It seems to be a philosophy of the Bush White House. She was preceded at the briefing by White House political strategist Karl Rove, and both came and went by themselves - no entourage. In this town, where everyone's ego is on steroids, this is strange behavior. No wonder Democrats here are confused.
Fritz Wenzel covers politics for The Blade. Email him at email@example.com.