In it, but not of it. TPM DC

The WSJ has a great piece today on the troubled history behind the Food and Drug Administration's approval of Menaflex, a medical device intended to help heal injured knee tissue.

The FDA ended up approving the device under fast-track rules after two of its staff scientists turned down Menaflex, thanks to an "aggressive" and "adversarial" lobbying effort by its maker, ReGen Biologics, according to the Journal. And New Jersey's congressional delegation lent a hand as well:

After the FDA's second rejection of fast-track status, in September 2007, ReGen asked lawmakers from New Jersey, its home turf, for help. Supporters included Democrats Sen. Robert Menendez; Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Rep. Steve Rothman of Hackensack; and Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Messrs. Menendez, Lautenberg and Rothman signed a letter to the FDA in December 2007 asking for Dr. von Eschenbach, the FDA commissioner, to review the issue personally. Mr. Menendez talked with the commissioner by phone, his office said.

Later in the story, we hear from a ReGen lobbyist, Michael Hutton, who talked about the device company's very specific criteria for scientists who would sit on the panel evaluating Menaflex for fast-track approval:

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The slowdown in approval of President Obama's economic team, both at Treasury and the Council of Economic Advisers, is getting a lot of attention today. But let's not forget that two senior White House science adviser-designates are still going nowhere: John Holdren, named to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jane Lubchenco, named to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, remain in limbo.

The likely source of the culprit would seem to be the Senate Commerce Committee, although that panel approved the nominations last month. "I am unaware of any GOP Commerce Committee members who are raising questions," one Senate source said via email.

But other sources pointed me to Commerce -- so just in case, I reached out to all the Republicans on that committee. The next likely source of the slowdown would be GOPers on the Senate environment committee, particularly given Holdren's progressive views on climate change, but Sen. Jim Inhofe's (R-OK) office did not return a request for comment on the nominations.

Rest assured, however, that we'll stay on this story.

Late Update: A source close to the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there is, right now, no hold from Menendez on the nominees. It remains unclear when the hold evaporated -- sometime between the WaPo's original report on Tuesday and today, it seems. But either way, the nominees would have been quickly cleared if Menendez were the only original objector. So the search goes on...

The mainstream media is rifling through its Roget's this morning to find new synonyms for "embarrassment" after Senate Democrats failed to pass the $410 billion spending bill last night that would have kept the government funded between now and October.

Politico just goes with it and deems the postponed vote a "major embarrassment," while the NYT dials it back to mere "embarrassment," as does the AP. ABC News, getting creative, calls it the "omnibus breakdown."

Breaking through some of the Beltway static, however, you can see that the bill's passage next week is a fairly sure thing. The measure includes money to pay GOP congressional staffers' salaries for this year, as well as home-state earmarks that help sweeten the pot for several GOP senators, including Richard Shelby (AL) -- who ranks No. 2 among the bill's earmark recipients -- Susan Collins (ME) -- who loves her lighthouse money -- and Bob Bennett, who takes his Mormon cricket infestations very seriously.

So if the spending bill's going to pass eventually, why all the hullabaloo about the delay now? Could the Democrats have handled it better to avoid today's bad press? The answer is no ... and yes.

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GOP criticism of Michael Steele is now intensifying, with his former rival for the chairmanship now going on the record in badmouthing his performance.

"I have a very different management philosophy and style," said Katon Dawson, the South Carolina party chairman who Steele defeated by a 91-77 vote in late January, in an interview with the Politico. Dawson also had this to say about Steele's recent transfer of a million dollars each to the NRCC and NRSC: "It wouldn't have taken me four weeks to give them the money."

It should also be noted that Ada Fisher, the RNC member who has called for Steele's resignation, was a Dawson-supporter during the leadership race.

Another former Steele rival, who wished to remain nameless, complained that Steele hasn't filled key staff positions yet. No Republicans said Steele is actually in serious danger right now, but the temperature does seem to be going up.

Steele adviser Curt Anderson fired back: "They didn't win and they're not happy about it. They've been waiting for him to stumble and now they're teeing off."

And sure enough, Steele did in fact stumble. Repeatedly.

Senate Republicans Force Delay In Omnibus Bill Senate Republicans successfully blocked cloture last night on the omnibus spending bill, leaving Democrats one vote short of 60 and forcing Harry Reid to delay the it until Monday, after debate and votes on GOP amendments that are not expected to pass. Congress will have to fund the government through a stopgap bill today, in order to avoid a shutdown of parts of the government.

Obama Speaking To Police Recruits, Promoting Stimulus President Obama is speaking at 11 a.m. ET today to the Columbus Police Graduation Exercises in Ohio. The reason for this event: Before the stimulus package passed, the city was going to lay off these 25 new police recruits rather than swear them in as officers, but is instead using some of the money to pay their salaries.

Biden Also Promoting Stimulus With Trip To Police Department Joe Biden is visiting the Miami Police Department at 10:15 a.m. ET, joined by Mayor Manny Diaz and other local officials. As with Obama's trip to Columbus, the purpose of his visit is to highlight how the stimulus package has put $4 billion into local law enforcement throughout the country.

Hillary On Climate Change: "Never Waste A Good Crisis" Hillary Clinton told a young audience at the European Parliament that climate change provides great opportunities to build a new, greener economy. "Never waste a good crisis," said Hillary, adding: "Don't waste it when it can have a very positive impact on climate change and energy security."

Gibbs Explains Media Strategy In Pundit Wars In an interview with The Hill, Robert Gibbs explained why he has taken to calling out media hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santelli or Jim Cramer: "There's a certain amount of theater to it that might make it more fun, but it's important that people understand the policy." And his take on the GOP infighting over Limbaugh: "If your enemies are fighting themselves, then don't get in the way."

Anti-Burris Special Election Bill Dies In Illinois Committee The Illinois legislature has given up on a recent push for a new special election for the Senate, in order to oust Roland Burris. A state Senate committee killed the proposal in a 3-2 vote -- Democrats against, Republicans in favor -- and a spokesman for Governor Pat Quinn told the New York Times: "He assessed the political reality that there was not going to be special election legislation."

Huck Heading To South Carolina Mike Huckabee will be visiting the crucial presidential primary state of South Carolina -- the site of his narrow defeat by John McCain last year -- for a "Fair Tax" rally in April. It will be his second trip to South Carolina since the general election, after an earlier visit for his book tour.

Bunning: GOP Leaders Against Me "Are Kind Of Down The Scale" The New York Times examines the continuing standoff between Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY), and the Republican leaders who are trying to force him into retirement. Bunning is standing strong -- and ridiculing his intra-party opposition. "When you've dealt with Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Stan Musial," he said, "the people I'm dealing with now are kind of down the scale."

Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) could be in very serious trouble. Former Rep. Pat Toomey, who challenged Specter from the right in the Republican primary back in 2004, then went on to head the Club For Growth, is reportedly running again in 2010.

In this case, bad news for Specter could also be good news for Democrats -- if the ultra-conservative Toomey wins the primary, the Democratic nominee will have a very good shot at winning the seat, as opposed to Specter starting out as the favorite in any general election.

Toomey very nearly beat Specter in the 2004 primary, making it a 51%-49% race even though Specter had the full weight of the Bush White House behind him. This time could be different: There is no Republican White House; the GOP voter base is smaller and even more conservative; and most importantly, Specter has just voted for the stimulus package -- you know, that thing the right-wing activists denounce as a socialist takeover of America.

Indeed, a recent Susquehanna poll showed just how problematic things are for Specter: Among registered Republicans, 66% want someone else, and only 26% say he deserves another term.

The DLC has just announced that Al From, the long-time CEO and co-founder of the group over 20 years ago, is stepping down. He will be replaced by Bruce Reed, who recently co-authored a book on policy with Rahm Emanuel. And the organization itself will be shifting its focus from politics -- that is, elections -- to formulating and enacting policy, as well as highlighting a farm-team of elected officials across the country.

"I am immensely proud of the DLC's success," From said in the statement. "The DLC has largely achieved what we set out to do when I formed it in 1985. It has played a vital role in resuscitating the Democratic Party, and it has championed ideas that have changed our country for the better. Now is the right time for the DLC to take the next step, and Bruce Reed is the right person to lead it."

The political environment has changed dramatically since 1984, the landslide Democratic defeat that spurred centrists to come together and form their own organization. The group has had both its successes and failures over the years, to be sure. But this is now a different time, with a newly-elected president who was nominated from the more liberal end of the Democratic Party's ideological range. And that means the Democratic centrists will be shifting their own focus, too.

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%.