In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Al Franken's lawyers may well have just had a very productive day, netting a good chunk of votes for their side.

Franken attorney Kevin Hamilton was questioning Duluth elections director Jeffrey Cox today, and they went through over 30 rejected absentee ballots that fit solidly into one category: Ballots where the voter and the witness signed the envelope with different dates marked down. Most counties had actually included these ballots -- though Duluth did not -- and the judges themselves have now ruled this type of vote to have been valid.

Ballot after ballot, Cox confirmed that this had been the only reason these votes were rejected, and that in his judgment there was no other defect. It was also confirmed that these ballots were going to be counted during the review process this past December, but were vetoed by the Coleman campaign under the state Supreme Court's controversial decision that gave the campaigns this power.

Since Duluth is heavily Democratic to begin with, and the general assumption is that both sides are advocating for votes that are for themselves (and were vetoing ballots believed to be for the other guy) this means Franken could very well have just gained over 30 votes, padding his official 225-vote lead to a landslide margin of...255, plus a handful of other Franken ballots that the court is prepared to count.

For his part, Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg used his cross-examination period to further go over the fact that mistakes have been made in the election, as part of the new Coleman push to have the whole result thrown out. Hamilton countered by having Cox affirm that the city is thorough in its training and procedures, and that mistakes are inevitable -- that is, demanding a perfect election is to demand the impossible.

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Quite a few readers have written in recent days with questions about the Republicans' ability to filibuster the $410 billion spending bill that's currently on the Senate floor, which is expected to come to a final vote late tonight or tomorrow morning.

Can you filibuster this spending bill? Yes -- because it's not a budget resolution, which is a non-binding document that sets general revenue levels for the next fiscal year. The $410 billion measure is what congressional types call "omnibus appropriations," meaning that it sets overall spending levels for various governmental departments from now until October, when the 2010 fiscal year begins.

So when you read about Mary Landrieu (LA), Ben Nelson (NE), and other Democratic centrist senators who are bridling at the high spending levels in President Obama's budget, it's important to remember that they're referring to the non-binding, filibuster-proof document that will likely come to a vote by mid-April.

Democrats can afford to lose as many as eight of their own senators on that vote, while still passing a budget with 50 votes and Vice President Joe Biden as the tie-breaker. The party can also use "budget reconciliation" rules that would allow for filibuster-proof passage of health care, climate change, or even student loan bills later in the year, provided that such legislation achieve a demonstrable reduction in the deficit.

The total savings can be small; for instance, last year the Democrats used reconciliation to pass a student-loan bill that saved $75 million, which is small potatoes compared with the overall budget but achieved meaningful reform for anyone attending college. No decision on reconciliation has been made yet, but it's safe to say that the debate is heating up.

A new Research 2000 poll suggests that Senator David Vitter (R-LA), the staunch social conservative who became bogged down in the D.C. Madam prostitution scandal in 2007, could potentially be vulnerable in 2010.

Vitter is still ahead in the primary and general elections, but in both cases he's scoring below 50% -- and that's before having to go through an actual campaign, where his personal and policy issues could all get dredged up.

In the Republican primary, Vitter attracts 43% of the vote, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne (used here as a stand-in for some reasonably well-known Republican) gets 32%, and porn star Stormy Daniels is at 1%. Louisiana primaries have runoffs, by the way -- so if multiple GOP challengers get in and Vitter were ahead but under 50%-plus-1, he would have to face a second round.

In general-election match-ups against two hypothetical Democratic candidates, Vitter is ahead of Rep. Charlie Melancon, a socially conservative and economically populist Dem, by 48%-41%. Against former Rep. Don Cazayoux, who has a similar political profile as Melancon, it's 48%-39%.

One of the many amusing lines from President Obama's wrap up of the health care summit at the White House. Here's something of note: Obama pointed to Rep. Jim Cooper saying we can get health care done. This is something we noted here the other day and it belies easy stereotyping of fiscal conservatives as obstinate. Here are some highlights from the Obama Q & A:

Ted Kennedy looked great and talked about the importance of the issue. Mitch McConnell asked about the Conrad-Gregg proposal on reforming Social Security. The prez kicked it back to Congress saying that Medicare and Medicaid is the 800-pound gorilla. Henry Waxman talked about the importance of trade offs and willingness to negotiate. Rep. Joanne Emerson, the kind of moderate Republican Obama will need on many issues going forward, was very complimentary about the discussions as was Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the pivotal Senate Finance Committee.

Most interesting was Dan Danner of the National Federation of Independent Business. The group was a key opponent of the Clinton plan in 1994 and while he didn't pledge to support Obama he wasn't hostile either. For Obama's part he told "bleeding hearts" they needed to take cost control into account just as fiscal conservatives needed to know they couldn't control costs just by "throwing seniors off of Medicare."

No shortage of critics on the left have whacked Obama for being too bipartisan but I don't see how a conference like this can do anything but it's hard to imagine how today's session was anything less than helpful in promoting universal health reform. It's not impossible to imagine meetings like these become a practice that's continued by future presidents.

You get the feeling that Norm Coleman's legal team really doesn't like the appearance of having spent five weeks in court to get more of their own ballots counted, in the name of enfranchising all voters, and now having to watch the Franken attorneys take a turn at bat.

In court just before, Franken lawyer Kevin Hamilton was going over some rejected absentee ballots with Jeffrey Cox, the elections director for the Democratic stronghold of Duluth. On one envelope, Hamilton asked if the ballot had been rejected by the Coleman campaign, under the state Supreme Court's controversial decision to give each campaign a veto power over individual ballot envelopes during the review this past December.

At this point, Team Coleman objected to Hamilton's attempt to establish this, based on the forms in front of him.

"I'll take that back," Hamilton said. "All we know here is that someone named Frederick Knaak signed the rejection form, correct?"

Frederick "Fritz" Knaak is one of Norm Coleman's lawyers, and actually headed up his effort during the recount proper. Apparently, Team Coleman doesn't want it to be aired out that they'd personally stopped individual ballots from being counted.

Hamilton later asked Cox if a ballot should be counted. At that point, lead Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg objected. Hamilton then pointed out that Friedberg had spent five weeks asking local election officials if ballots he'd picked out should be counted. Hamilton then continued asking the question, with just a slight modification in his phrasing to make it clear that he was asking for Cox's individual, professional judgment.

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When asked whether she could support the call for a "truth commission" to investigate the civil liberties and human rights abuses committed under George Bush, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said that she expected to be doing similar work on her panel ... and she wasn't kidding.

The Intelligence panel announced today that it would conduct a year-long inquiry into the scope and performance of the CIA's interrogation program, including "whether the CIA accurately described the detention and interrogation program to other parts of the U.S. government" and "whether the CIA implemented the program in compliance with official guidance."

This investigation has the potential to unearth much more detail about the conduct of Bush's "war on terror" than we already have, but it is likely to be conducted largely in private. (The "truth commission," by contrast, is intended to operate in the public eye.)

Unfortunately, the Intelligence panel doesn't have the best track record when it comes to bipartisan investigations. The committee's reports on pre-war use of intelligence on Iraq (a.k.a. "Phase One" and "Phase Two," which was delayed by several years) were panned by progressive analysts for succumbing to White House pressure and ignoring crucial evidence.

It's worth noting, however, that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was the chairman senior Democrat on the panel at the time of those reports, not Feinstein.

Late Update: Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-WI) statement on the inquiry is after the jump.

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Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill are pointing to a new study released today in their fight to derail the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

Produced by Dr. Anne Layne-Farrar, an economist with LECG Consulting, the study asserts that EFCA would cause the U.S. to shed 600,000 jobs in the second year after the bill's enactment, as a consequence of increased union membership. Sounds scary -- but what's scarier still is who paid for the study: the Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs, a front for the business lobby's heaviest lobbying hitters.

Its members include the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the HR Policy Association, American Hotel and Lodging Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Real Estate Roundtable. The same group paid for another ostensibly independent take-down of EFCA last month, written by University of Chicago law school professor Richard Epstein.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is at it again. In an appearance today on Bill Bennett's radio show, she gave the now-standard Republican line that the GOP has to do everything they can to stop President Obama's agenda -- and managed to slip in a line that Obama is enacting the policies of Ward Churchill:



Said Bachmann: "But what I think we're seeing is an implementation of all of the radical ideas that Bill Ayers and Ward Churchill -- the radical ideas that we've seen on some college campuses, they're now being implemented in our government, and they're taking a nefarious route when it looks at the economic recovery."

Ward Churchill, you might recall, is the radical former college professor who wrote an essay saying the victims of 9/11 had it coming. And Michele Bachmann, a member of Congress, thinks the President of the United States subscribes to Churchill's ideas and is working to enact them into law.

(Via Think Progress.)

Joe Biden addressed the AFL's Executive Committee in Miami this morning. Transcript of the event is finally out. Here are Biden's comments on the Employee Free Choice Act. Does not sound like any backing down:

So, folks, that's why there's no one thing we have to do. This is all going to be difficult, and one of the most difficult things will be to reinstitute that basic bargain. And I think the way to do that is the Employee Free Choice Act. (Applause.)



Folks, let's get it straight -- we're not asking -- we're not asking for anything we don't deserve. And we're not asking for anything that wasn't intended when the NLRB said we should be encouraging -- encouraging -- unions. We just want to level this playing field again.



Ladies and gentlemen, I think President Obama said it best when he said -- I'm quoting -- "I don't buy the argument that providing workers with collective bargaining rights somehow weakens the economy or worsens the business environment." If you've got workers who have a decent pay and benefits, they also are customers for your business. (Applause.)



So let me add to that and say that I have a simple, basic belief, one that we're going to work hard to put into action: If a union is what you want, a union you're entitled to have. (Applause.)

Thanks to the White House's excellent live streams of today's health care summit, anyone could hear the remarks of senior members of Congress and administration aides as they discussed the political realities of the issue.

And I sat up straight in my chair once Rep. Joe Barton (TX), the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, started speaking towards the end of his session. (Committee Chairman Henry Waxman [D-CA] was also in the room.) Barton began fairly predictably, remarking that "I don't consider what happened in the '90s to HillaryCare as a failure ... The Clinton administration took a bunch of real smart people behind closed doors, presented a plan to Congress, and said 'take it or leave it.'

Then he took it to an interesting place (emphasis mine):

This is a different approach. [Sen. Chuck] Grassley and [Sen. Max] Baucus working together in the Senate is great ... we can get a different result. You can't oppose the president's principles. It's in the details, though, and how you put the plan together. But this is a good step.


Caveat aside, that approach to President Obama is a long way from wanting him to fail. Here's hoping Barton won't have to apologize to Rush for his openness...

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