In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Is Barack Obama "trying to do too much"? It's been a topic on the morning talk shows and again today.

For an example, see this video from The Page by Mark Halperin.

Halperin is joined by Louis Burgdorf from MSNBC who says this question of distraction is a big deal and suggests that if Obama put other things aside it will "restore confidence in the consumer." Halperin asks Bergdorf if Obama should cancel today's stem cell event. Bergdorf says no, citing it as an important issue and noting that his stepmother has MS.

The whole conversation seemed slightly ridiculous, if you ask me. Presidents obviously do more than one thing at a time. No one asked Reagan to ignore the Cold War and focus on the recession.

Yes, a president can wander too far afield. If Obama suddenly devoted significant energy to a border dispute between Columbia and Venezuela or a revamp of the Law of the Sea Treaty that would be a distraction from the pressing matters facing the country. But to sign an executive order reversing George W. Bush on stem cells and to do an event publicizing the new order seems eminently reasonable in a country where so many are looking to embryonic stem cell research to improve their lives. And, of course, many of the things that may seem like a distraction--health care, green energy--are inextricably linked to the economic health of the country. You can disagree with Obama's policies but to talk about distraction seems like a misunderstanding of what presidents do. Send in examples you see of the "distracted" meme.

One of Michael Steele's top advisers, Curt Anderson, has a new op-ed piece in the Politico arguing that Republicans are attacking Steele for one reason: he's shaking up the party's organization, and the entrenched powers don't like it.

"Steele's election as chairman of the Republican Party was a shock to the system for many of the Republican ruling class, the old guard in Washington," Anderson writes. "Over the past week, countless anonymous sources have brought out the long knives. Indeed, over the past week, the empire has struck back."

Anderson does concede that Steele has made mistakes, but also says that Steele's detractors were waiting for his beginner's errors as a pretense to pounce.

But come on, the empire struck back? The GOP is supposed to represent old-fashioned values, but not so old-fashioned that we're a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

There's been interesting buzz about an item from Ken Silverstein of Harper's about Richard Gephardt, the former House Majority Leader and presidential candidate, whose firm is doing lobbying for the Chamber of Commerce.

When the item first appeared online last week, it seemed to suggest that the champion of organized labor might be doing something untoward. Was Gephardt betraying his union brothers and sisters to work for the man?

Lobbying disclosure forms are notoriously vague and so an item from PRWatch.org, Gephardt's firm noted Gephardt's firm, the Gepardt Group, is registered to represent the Chamber on "intellectual property," environmental and manufacturing issues.

So what's the real deal? Gephardt's office told me that it has represented NBC/Universal and U.S. Chamber as part of it work for a group called the Coalition Against Counterfiting and Piracy, dedicated to stamping out intellectual piracy. (Labor is a member of the group too.)

Gephardt's firm's work for NBC/Universal and the Chamber was on an intellectual property bill, the Prioritizing Resources and Orgainzation for Intellectual Property Act of 2008 of PRO IP bill which became law last year. And they're working on other legislation related to intellectual property. So did the Chamber pay Gephardt? Yes. Was it for something anti labor? No.

If you care about health care, you have to care about the Senate Finance Committee. It's the choke point for any health care legislation. Make it work there in a bipartisan way and you'll get health care. Fail there and kiss it goodbye--again.

One of the tragedies of the Clinton-era effort to reform health care is that Pat Moynihan, then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over health care, was eager to promote some kind of health care deal with Bob Dole, the Senate minority leader at the time, who had expressed interest in finding a deal. That's why it is so encouraging at the moment that Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is working on a health care proposal with Max Baucus, the committee's chairman.

If they can come up with something health care has a much better chance of passage. If they can't, it's hard to imagine health care passing. Such is the importanxw of the Senate Finance Committee.

So I was surprised to see last week, after the health care summit with all its bonhomie and the president's encouaging words for the Baucus-Grassley effort, this item on March 5 about the administration canceling an effort at collecting back taxes. The effort used private companies to collect back taxes and was fought heavily by the union representing Treasury workers. TIm Geithner called Grassley on Friday evening to announce that he was putting the kibosh on the program which happened to cost 60 jobs in Iowa. A source close to Grassley says he's still "very unhappy" about the cancellation although, thank goodness, Geithner, understaffed and overwhelmed, managed to make the call. Grassley would surely had been more angry if he'd read it in the papers.

Leaving aside the merits of the debt collection program, one would think that with so much at stake on health care, the administration would be going out of its way to court and soothe Grassley. Granted, Grassley is not the vindictive sort who would hold up health care because of 60 jobs in Waterloo, but a move like this can't help relations. (Some senators are more mercurial. In 1993, the Clinton administration punished Sen. Richard Shelby, then a Democrat, for not supporting it on a number of issues by moving some NASA jobs from Huntsville, AL to Houston. It was one of the factors in Shelby converting to the GOP in 1994.)

Let's hope the administration is working a charm offensive on Grassley in other ways. Grassley and Baucus are working on their bill now and hope to have some kind of mark up by June although that's not realistic, one staff member told me. So let's see where it goes from here.

For those who want to follow Grassley, I highly recommend his Twitter account. Note the entry complete with original misspellings and abbreviations: "Geithner call to tel me he's cancling 60 jobs in Wloo. No renewal of contract to collect bk taxes. Vry disapted"

Let's hope he doesn't stay dissapointed

Michael Steele now has another high-profile Republican publicly bashing him: Samuel "Joe The Plumber" Wurzelbacher.

At a meeting of conservative activists in Milwaukee, Mr. The Plumber had some tough words for the RNC chairman: "Unfortunately we have a chairman up there who wants to redefine conservatism; he wants to make it hip hop, put it in a new package and sell it."

"You can't sell principles; either you have them or you don't," he added, to applause from the audience of 800 people.

Joe The Plumber has really embraced his self-proclaimed role as the voice of the right-wing working-class voter -- quite a different audience from Steele's desire to expand the GOP into minority communities. And Joe's pronouncement that conservative principles can't be repackaged and sold -- you either have them or you don't -- is strikingly similar to Rush Limbaugh's line from CPAC that conservatism is unchanging and permanent, solidifying a definite line of anti-Steele thought.

The pool of votes in Minnesota could be poised to expand by the enormous amount of...89.

This comes after a court-ordered statewide search for a type of rejected absentee ballot known as a 3-A ballot -- an absentee ballot for a non-registered voter, in which the voter mistakenly placed the registration form inside the inner secrecy envelope, rather than immediately within the outer envelope as they were supposed to.

Out of about 1,500 envelopes searched, only 89 were found with completed registration forms, and could potentially be counted by this court. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann told TPM that the ballots represent a pretty even distribution of votes from across the state, though there are some standouts -- for example, Olmsted County had 15 of them, and Washington County had 12. Both counties' overall vote totals were heavily pro-Coleman.

It's hard to tell how this whole pool of votes will turn out -- it's possible (though not certain) that it may have a pro-Coleman geographic tilt. On the other hand, Al Franken won the absentee ballots by a decent margin, and also did very well among new voters. In either case, we're talking about only 89 ballots, drawn from throughout the state, so don't expect a big swing either way.

For environmental groups that have waited nearly a decade to see meaningful action on climate change, a key choice is facing congressional Democrats: Do they tackle a cap-and-trade climate system separately from other energy issues, or do they draft one bill that includes regulation of carbon emissions as well as a new renewable electricity standard for states?

The question sounds wonkish -- but it's likely to determine whether the cap-and-trade and renewable electricity proposals can become law this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is already on board with the one-bill approach in her chamber, as Bloomberg reports today, but that makes sense for two reasons.

First, Pelosi's nearly 80-seat margin of control in the House makes the task of passing a combined energy-environment package much easier for her than for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV); second, climate change and energy are both controlled by the same House committee, the Energy and Commerce panel chaired by the influential progressive Henry Waxman (D-CA).

As Politico notes today, Waxman is facing a possible hiccup if Charles Rangel's (D-NY) Ways and Means Committee decides to push its own carbon tax plan, but Pelosi is sure to remain confident in his ability to steer a massive dual bill to passage. In the Senate, matters are much different -- the energy committee, chaired by Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), has jurisdiction over renewable electricity, while the environment panel led by Barbara Boxer (D-CA) takes the lead on climate change.

Does that mean passing both issues in one Senate bill would be impossible?

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Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who just narrowly lost his 2004 primary challenge against Arlen Specter and is widely reported to be about to jump in again this year, is already making the rounds of the right-wing Web.

In an interview with NewsMax, Toomey discussed his disgust with the three Senate Republicans who enabled the Obama stimulus package to pass, saying that the Senate Republicans had been empowered to force a more favorable compromise with greater tax cuts: "Instead, these guys just completely sold out, and the answer is I think they will inevitably face consequences for this."

When asked if he'll be the one to challenge Specter: "I'm giving that some very serious thought, and there's a real chance I'll decide to do that. I think we really need people in the United States Senate who are willing to stand up and say, 'Enough of this, you know, crazy economic policy.'"

Toomey also made it clear that he's looking more at the Senate race now than the governorship, which he'd been publicly mulling before Specter came out for the stimulus: "I've given that some consideration as well. At this point I'm more inclined and more focused, and I think I can probably accomplish more, in the United States Senate."

If you thought there was already a war of words over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) -- the labor movement's No. 1 priority and business' bete noire on the Hill -- just wait until the bill actually gets its official introduction tomorrow.

We can expect dramatic rhetoric, and amped-up campaign donations, from interest groups on both sides as the battle comes down to a handful of swing votes in the Senate. One connected Democrat in the upper chamber, Claire McCaskill (MO), said yesterday that her party may not have the votes to break a GOP filibuster of Employee Free Choice ... but is she right on?

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As Washington slowly catches on to the simmering wave of populist anger at bailed-out banks, House Democrats are considering an admirably drastic step ahead of next year's midterm elections. Per Roll Call, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is weighing whether to issue official guidance to lawmakers on turning down donations from banks that are receiving taxpayer aid.

Roll Call also reveals that several senior Democrats are already saying no to campaign cash from bailout recipients, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA), and Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), and John Campbell (R-CA).

Senate Banking Commitee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) is also eschewing money from the political action committees (PACs) of bailed-out banks -- an even more surprising gesture given that he is up for re-election in 2010 and likely to face a well-funded GOP challenger.

The political optics of these lawmakers' decision to refuse bailout-linked donations, however, raises another question: just how much are they giving up? Is it really that meaningful, or just a good PR move? Here's the answer.

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