In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a strong supporter of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, is launching a full-on battle this week to remove several provisions from the 2009 government spending bill that would open a small crack in the slammed door of relations with Havana.

Menendez fired a broadside at the Obama administration yesterday for backing a provision buried in the $410 billion spending bill, which must become law by next week in order to keep the government running. The New Jersey senator, a Cuban-American, objects to language in the bill that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba.

Menendez even suggested yesterday that he might oppose the spending bill if the Cuba provisions were not removed, saying in a floor speech that they "[put] the omnibus appropriations package in jeopardy, in spite of all the other tremendously important funding that this bill would provide.''

Polls suggest that the majority of Cuban-Americans side with the administration, rather than Menendez -- an influential poll of the community, conducted in Florida every year since 1991, found in December that 55% of Cuban-Americans supported lifting the embargo against Havana.

But regardless of where public opinion stands, Menendez's effort is no longer confined to the spending bill. The WaPo reports today that the senator has held up two Obama science nominees in an attempt to twist the arms of his fellow Dems:

Read More →

Check out this excerpt from Bobby Jindal's appearance last night on Larry King Live. Jindal was asked about Rush Limbaugh's declarations of wanting President Obama to fail. He not only couldn't bring himself to repudiate Rush's remarks, but also praised Rush as a "great leader for conservatives" -- and he said he was glad that Michael Steele had apologized for taking a shot at him:

King: All right, governor, here was Rush Limbaugh at this weekend's CPAC Conference. Watch.

Rush Limbaugh: What is so strange about being honest and saying I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation? Why would I want that to succeed?

King: Governor, do you think people are thinking about capitalism now or are they thinking about problems?

Jindal: Look, clearly, the American people are worried about paying their mortgages, keeping their jobs and paying their health care bills. I think Rush is a great leader for conservatives. I think he articulates what a lot of people are concerned about.

King: Do you want him [Obama] to fail?

Jindal: I don't want those policies to be adopted. I want my country to succeed, but I don't want policies to be adopted.

King: What if the policies work?

Jindal: Well, again...

King: What if they work?

Jindal: This is where we have a fundamental disagreement. I don't think it's going work ... to spend in excess of our revenues.

Jindal also responded to Michael Steele's recent flap about Limbaugh: "I'm glad he apologized. I think the chairman is a breath of fresh air for the party. As I said before, I think Rush is a leader for many conservatives and says things that people are concerned about."

The Service Employees International Union, SEIU, has an amusing new web ad up to make fun of the more hysterical claims from the right about Employee Free Choice Act:

That talk from the Coleman campaign about how we can't get a legitimate winner in the Senate race, and therefore we can't certify a result for Al Franken, has now gone beyond the court of public opinion -- it has officially entered the courtroom itself.

The Coleman team has previously said that the judges have to either undo the strict standards for letting in new ballots, or else undertake a review of all 290,000 absentee ballots from Election Night and start proportionately reducing the totals. In a new letter to the judges, however, Coleman lawyer James Langdon floats a new solution -- declaring the election to be unsolvable, and nullifying it entirely:

Some courts have held that when the number of illegal votes exceeds the margin between the candidates -- and it cannot be determined for which candidate those illegal votes were cast -- the most appropriate remedy is to set aside the election. In that regard, the Court may wish to review the following cases addressing situations in which the number of illegal votes is large and the margin of victory is small...

So there you have it. The Coleman legal team is now officially putting forward the idea of throwing out the election, as a serious potential legal remedy. The context so far indicates that this is part of their game of chicken with the court, to get them to undo the strict standards themselves, or perhaps go along on a proportionate deduction regime that might hurt Al Franken. But who knows where it will go from here.

NYT: Obama Offered Deal To Russians On Iran, Missile Defense The New York Times reports that the Obama Administration sent a secret letter to the Russian government last month, suggesting that the U.S. could stop development of a missile-defense system if Moscow could get Iran to back off its own nuclear-weapons development. An administration official told the Times: "It's not that the Russians get to say, 'We'll try and therefore you have to suspend.' It says the threat has to go away."

WaPo: Clinton Pessimistic On Iran Outreach The Washington Post reports that Hillary Clinton told the foreign minister for the United Arab Emirates that she had serious doubts as to whether the Obama Administration's attempts to reach out to Iran could work, and appeared to suggest the White House is being realistic about it, too. A source told the Post: "She said we are under no illusions about Iran and our eyes are wide open."

Obama's Day Ahead: Meeting With Gordon Brown President Obama will be speaking at the Department of Transportation at 9:45 a.m. ET this morning. Then at at 11:30 a.m. ET he will meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with whom he is expected to discuss the financial crisis. At 2 p.m. ET he will speak at the Department of the Interior, and at 3 p.m. ET he will receive a delegation from the Boy Scouts. At 4:30 p.m. ET, he and Vice President Biden will meet with Robert Gates.

Biden's Day Ahead: Discussing The Stimulus Vice President Biden will be joining President Obama at the Transportation Department this morning, where they will both be speaking. In the afternoon, Biden will hold a conference cal with governors, and another one with mayors, to discuss the implementation of the stimulus program. Then he will join Obama for their meeting with Robert Gates.

Primary Today For Rahm's House Seat Today is Primary Day in the special election for Rahm Emanuel's former House seat in Chicago. A total of 12 candidates are running in the Democratic primary, which is virtually tantamount to the election itself in this solid-blue district.

WaPo: Obama Budget Will Require Large Expansion In Federal Workforce The Washington Post reports that President Obama's budget, with its expansion of social programs and creation of new initiatives, will require a large increase in the size of the federal workforce. The Post cites an independent estimate that the federal labor force could grow by 100,000 people, reversing the trend since the Reagan years of shrinking it down.

The Hill: McConnell's Earmarks Make Good Target For Dems The Hill reports that Democrats are preparing a strong rebuttal to Republican attacks over earmarks: Namely, pointing to the earmarks that Republican Senators themselves have put in recent legislation, especially the $75 million from Mitch McConnell. Said a Republican aide: "This is exactly why it was important for Republicans last year to clean up our act -- because we knew we would be in this situation and it undercuts our credibility."

Pawlenty: GOP Needs To Be Relevant, Move Beyond Reagan In an interview with Bloomberg News, Tim Pawlenty said the Republican Party has to move beyond just talking about Ronald Reagan. "We need to develop new Ronald Reagans and new reference points," said Pawlenty. "It would be as if Barack Obama was going around and constantly talking about Truman or LBJ. It's just become a reference point that isn't as relevant for young people."

In the new game of chicken between Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh, the loser is...Michael Steele, who now says he never meant to diminish the voice and leadership of Limbaugh.

In an interview with the Politico, Steele said: "My intent was not to go after Rush - I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a little bit inarticulate...There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership."

This comes after Limbaugh tore into Steele for declaring on CNN that Rush isn't a leader of the Republican Party, but is an "entertainer" whose rhetoric is "incendiary" and "ugly."

"I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren't what I was thinking," said Steele. "It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently."

Scott Murphy, the Democratic candidate in the March 31 special election for Kirsten Gillibrand's former House seat has this new TV ad actively tying himself to the popular President Obama -- and lambasting his Republican opponent Jim Tedisco for having refused to take a position on the stimulus bill:

A little while earlier, Tedisco came out with this ad attacking Murphy as an ethically-bankrupt businessman:

So the Democrat has been attacking the Republicans as an Albany politician, and the Republican has been slamming the Dem as just another Wall St. millionaire. Considering the unpopularity of both of those professions, just how low could the turnout get in this race?

The Minnesota election court handed down a whole bunch of rulings this afternoon -- five of them -- addressing topics large and small.

First up for our review here is the real tough one: Their order to fine Team Coleman $7,500 in court costs for having serially hidden evidence surrounding a key witness -- and even the witness herself, for a time -- from the Franken campaign. The Franken camp had asked the court to not only strike this witness, but to dismiss the entire claim of double-counted votes connected to her.

The court's ruling delivers a stern tongue-lashing to Coleman's lawyers for having grossly violated the rules of discovery, but they also explain why they didn't go that far:

Under ordinary circumstances, the Court would be entirely within its discretion to strike the testimony of this witness and the claim to which her testimony relates. However, the Court is mindful of the special circumstances of this election contest. Minnesota has been without a Senator for two months. As the Court has previously recognized, "[c]onfidence in the integrity of our electoral processes is essential to the functioning of our participatory democracy."

The between-the-lines message is clear: If the court had dismissed this witness and the whole claim, they would have left themselves uncomfortably open to an appeal on the grounds that they were disregarding legitimate factual claims. Even if they were upheld on appeal, it would have just tied the whole case up in legal limbo for even longer.

But, they warned: "In the event this sanction fails to deter future conduct on the part of Contestants' counsel, the Court will not hesitate to impose harsher sanctions, up to and including dismissal."

Read More →

The Franken campaign just held a conference call to discuss the real milestone event today in the Senate trial: The Coleman campaign has rested their case, putting the ball in Franken's court.

Lead Franken lawyer Marc Elias said the Franken camp will conduct their case in a different manner from Coleman, who went for five weeks and mostly called local election officials.

"I think what you're likely to see out of us, starting tomorrow, is a case that will move more briskly," said Elias. "We'll move in a very targeted fashion towards bringing before the court evidence regarding the voters who we believe should have their votes counted."

For example, Elias said they'll be calling 15-20 voters tomorrow, compared to 21 total rejected voters that Coleman brought in, as well as bringing local officials to address individual ballots -- and to discuss how the system got it right, that the election officials at all levels did their jobs properly by and large, "and this is an election that the people of Minnesota can and should be proud of, and feel was conducted fairly."

Elias predicted Team Franken will go for two to three weeks, though he did caution that he can't say exactly how long it will go.

Read More →

It's worth noting that all of the major players on Obama's health care team are women. Today, the president names Kathleen Sebelius to be HHS Secretary and Nancy Ann DeParle, a friend, to be the White House health care czar. Two other pivotal players are Neera Tanden who was HIllary Clinton's top domestic policy advisor and is a counselor at HHS and is constantly in meetings at the White House. Same for Jeanne Lambrew who has been perched at HHS even though she's deputy director of the White House office. Look for more players in the coming weeks as Sebelius staffs up at HHS.

The good news here is that everyone's worked together. Tanden and Lambrew are both alumni of the Clinton White House and the Center for American Progress. Melody Barnes, the domestic policy adviser, is also a CAP alumnus.

One of the interesting things to watch in the coming weeks is how the White House woos Charles Grassley. Can they get the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee to be supportive of some of their principles. It would seem unlikely. But the presence of Bob Dole at this morning's ceremony suggests a big push in that direction. It helps that Nancy Ann DeParle is also close with Jim Cooper, the Tennessee Democratic Congressman who is one of the House's biggest budget hawks. (DeParle was the equivalent of HHS secretary in Tennessee. DeParle and Cooper are both Rhodes Scholars.) Cooper balked at the stimulus plan but he just might play ball on a health care package, say insiders.

It's going to be a very interesting spring.