In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Back in January, TPM crowned its first Sleeper Bill of the Month, praising a proposal by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) that would set up an independent panel -- with subpoena power -- to probe civil liberties and human rights abuses committed during the Bush years.

The measure has yet to receive a hearing, but it's slowly amassing support from connected Democratic lawmakers, with the biggest breakthrough coming about an hour ago. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), in a speech at Georgetown University, endorsed the creation of an independent "truth and reconciliation" commission. Here's what Leahy said:

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Washington has a way of blurring the human impact of a major policy debate -- such as the one going on right now over the stimulus -- by using vague and dense terminology to describe certain programs. Take, for instance, this talk of "state stabilization funds" that were cut back by $40 billion this weekend in the deal cut by Senate centrists.

The term sounds bone-dry, but the stabilization funds are a crucial bulwark against budget deficits that are already forcing layoffs, cutbacks, and higher taxes and fees in 39 states, 21 of which have at least one GOP senator. You heard right: Senate Republicans are insisting on cutting federal aid to their own states in the name of fiscal responsibility -- while some of these state governments are actually pulling back on tax breaks in response.

"If you take a combination of the [budget] gaps for the rest of the current fiscal year, the gaps for the next fiscal year, and the gaps for 2011, [when] unemployment is still going to be high ... we estimate that the [total state budget] gap is $350 billion to $370 billion," Nick Johnson, director of the state fiscal project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), told me.

Compare that two-year deficit to the $79 billion in state stabilization funding that was included in both the House and Senate's original stimulus bills; then consider that the Senate's compromise left states with only $39 billion to close their budget gaps. Better yet, consider the plights of Maine and Arizona ...

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The White House has just announced that President Obama will be campaigning for the stimulus plan tomorrow in Fort Myers, Florida -- where he'll be introduced by Republican Governor Charlie Crist.

It's odd to think that Crist -- who hit the campaign trail in a big way for John McCain last year, and has been courted to run for the open Senate seat -- has now broken ranks in such a conspicuous manner as to publicly appear with Obama.

It's not just that, but his official statement praises Obama in language that one would normally use for a political ally: "I am eager to welcome President Obama to the Sunshine State as he continues to work hard to reignite the US economy."

Yet another poll, this time from CNN, shows that President Obama is viewed very positively in the legislative battles over the stimulus bill, while the Republican Party remains the unpopular player in this game

Obama has a 76% overall job approval and 23% disapproval. On the economy specifically, his rating is 72%-28%. Meanwhile, Congress has a very poor rating of 29%-71% -- but it quickly becomes clear that this should be not be simply laid at the feet of the majority Democrats, and is instead the GOP's fault.

The Democratic leadership in Congress has a solid rating of 60%-39%, while the Republican leaders are at 44%-55%. Furthermore, respondents said by 74%-25% that Obama is doing enough to cooperate with Republicans, while they say by a 60%-39% margin that Republicans are not doing enough to cooperate with him.

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The Franken legal team just made another shot at forcing Norm Coleman to pick the up the pace of this trial -- and missed.

Franken lawyer David Lillehaug objected to the Coleman team's procedure so far of reviewing ballots one by one, withdrawing some along the way and keeping their complaint that it should be counted for others. "The problem is the contestant has really not sat down and decided which ballots they are going to go through and which they are not," said Lillehaug. "And that is why this trial is taking so long."

Lillehaug called for Coleman to be barred from introducing ballots until he first answered the Franken camp's interrogatories and conducted a more thorough sorting process, paring the list down.

Coleman lawyer James Langdon responded they have given sufficient information on these ballots. "If they're really curious as to how many of these we're serious about, the short answer is all of them," said Langdon, though he added that something might come up during questioning of county officials that would cause them to withdraw a claim.

The judges went into a recess and just came back with their answer: The Franken camp's motion is denied. Instead, Judge Kurt Marben said the panel and the two sides will discuss later today whether there is any more expedient way of doing this.

One month ago, TPM broke the news of a new Sustainable Energy & Environment Caucus being formed in the House to push for environmentally friendly recovery proposals in the stimulus bill.

The SEEC is now stepping up its efforts to ensure that the final version of the stimulus measure keeps its promise of investment in renewable energy and mass transit -- both of them proven job creators. Led by co-chairmen Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Steve Israel (D-NY), 25 members of the SEEC have written a letter to House leaders outlining their priorities.

Amid a flurry of coverage criticizing the shortcomings of the stimulus, the SEEC letter is a healthy reminder that the recovery plan does contain incentives for the nation to wean itself from fossil-fuel addiction ... if the House and Senate can be persuaded not to remove any worthy provisions during conference talks, that is.

If you haven't read Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-PA) op-ed in today's Washington Post, it's worth checking out. Just make sure you've already digested your breakfast, because the exultant-yet-threatening tone he uses to discuss the Senate centrists' stimulus plan may trigger some nausea.

Specter admits, candidly, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) critical response to the Senate stimulus means that he and fellow centrist GOPers have pushed the envelope about as far as it can go. But his choice of words is particularly telling (emphasis mine):

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In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio on Friday, Norm Coleman was asked what his next step would be if the election trial ends with him still behind. And he didn't rule out an appeals process, which could hold up the certification of a Franken victory even longer.

"I don't know if there is a next step," Coleman said, explaining that it's a question of whether there would still be outstanding issues such as improperly-rejected absentee ballots, double-counted absentees, and other questions.

When pressed further on whether he would appeal, Coleman responded: "If those issues are resolved, there's not much to appeal."

In plain English: Get ready for some appeals.

Meanwhile, Al Franken gave his own interview to MPR. Among other things, he commented on Coleman's decision to take a temporary consulting job with the Republican Jewish Coalition: "I think it may be a more permanent job."

A new Gallup poll shows that President Obama is continuing to enjoy high approval in handling the economic stimulus debate -- and his brand is solidly beating the Congressional Republicans, too.

The numbers: Obama has a 67% approval and only 25% disapproval on how he's handled the stimulus bill, compared to Congressional Republicans' 31% approval and very high 58% disapproval. Congressional Democrats aren't as popular as Obama himself -- explaining the GOP's efforts to tie the bill to Nancy Pelosi, instead of Obama -- but they're still in the black at 48%-42%.

In addition, a 51% majority of independents say it is critically important to pass a stimulus bill, 27% say it is moderately important, and only 17% say it's not important. The numbers among the Republican base, as we might expect, are wildly different: Only 29% say it is critically important, 37% say it's important but not critically so, and 31% say it's not important.

Obama Promoting Stimulus In Indiana, Holding Press Conference In Washington President Obama is holding a town hall event at 12:05 p.m. ET in Elkhart, Indiana, promoting the compromise stimulus plan in a county suffering from 15.3% unemployment. Then at 8 p.m. ET he will hold a news conference at the White House -- his first presser since being sworn in as president.

Biden Meeting With AFL-CIO Head Sweeney Joe Biden is meeting in Washington today with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and is holding other private meetings.

GOP Finding New Life In Opposition The Washington Post reports that Republican leaders are seeking a new energy in their minority status, as the party mobilizes to oppose President Obama's economic agenda. "It's not a sign that we're back to where we need to be, but it's a sign that we're beginning to find our voice," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). "We're standing on our core principles, and the core principle that suffered the most in recent years was fiscal conservatism and economic liberty."

CQ: Moderate Republicans See No Benefit In Helping Obama CQ reports that moderate House Republicans may have a special reason to vote against the White House's stimulus plan: A fear of primary challenges from the right-wing Republican Study Committee. In addition, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) pointed out that there is a certain political freedom that comes now: "We no longer have to worry about being blamed for all of the problems of the president and his administration. Now, it's the moderate Democrats who have to worry about that."

Specter: We Can't Afford Not To Pass Stimulus In a new op-ed piece, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) explains why he has broken ranks to negotiate the new stimulus bill. "I am supporting the economic stimulus package for one simple reason," Specter says. "The country cannot afford not to take action."

WaPo: Speed And Oversight Could Be Mutually Exclusive The Washington Post reports that true efficiency in administering the stimulus plan may be close to impossible, thanks to the need for speed combined with staff cuts in the government procurement offices that occurred under both the Clinton and Bush Administration. "You can't have both," said Eileen Norcross, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, on the questions of speed and oversight. "There is no way to get around having to make a choice."

Holbrooke: Afghanistan "Much Tougher Than Iraq" Special Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke warned the Munich Security Conference that the Afghanistan War will be "much tougher than Iraq," with no easy resolutions. "There is no Dayton agreement in Afghanistan," said Holbrooke. "It's going to be a long, difficult struggle."

Feingold Asking Appointed Senators To Help Abolish Appointment Process Russ Feingold is so far not having much luck in picking up support for his proposed constitutional amendment to abolish gubernatorial appointment of Senators. Feingold is specifically looking for backing from the current crop of appointed Senators, and so far has gotten a No from both Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE), and a "maybe" from Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

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