In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Barack Obama's in Ottawa today. The snow's falling. People are skating on the canals. The president and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet and Obama will fly home after a few hours. It's the classic first presidential visit abroad.

But there are a couple of things to watch out for in this meeting with America's largest trading partner. The first is backtracking on the North American Free Trade Agreement. During the primaries Candidate Obama vowed to rewrite the deal. Now, uh, not so much. In an interview with Canadian TV he hinted that this wasn't the time to start getting all disruptive with settled agreements. Will organized labor let this one slide? A lot will depend on the language coming out of Obama's meeting with Harper.

Here's Thea Lee, policy director at the AFL-CIO was pretty mellow in her comments about the trip:

"We hope there will be greater fiscal cooperation in response to the economic crisis ... both in terms of scale and content," she said.

"We would like to see the labor and environment provisions in NAFTA strengthened and enforced more effectively."

Second, Afghanistan. What kind of commitments can he get out of Canada to help with the Obama surge? Canada's been in this fight from the start and their military is not huge but can Obama get more out of them? It'll be at least a bit of a harbinger of what could happen when he goes to the Europeans hat in hand.

National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones is on the trip. Hillary Clinton is in Asia. Could be some intereseting Kremlinology in who actually does the readouts to the press. Jones, by the way, won't need translation gear. Raised in France for much of his youth, he speaks fluent French.

There's been a lot of talk in recent months about bailed-out banks getting help from the taxpayers, then turning around to pour vast sums of money into lobbying Congress.

Bank of America even claimed to the New York Times last month that it was "sensitive" enough to stop lobbying on the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) -- but the bank kept its in-house lobbyists and two private firms active on the issue, according to disclosure forms filed publicly with the Clerk of the House. (We've put a call in to B of A asking for clarification on this point.)

So what can be done to ensure that public money isn't spent by businesses on watering down executive compensation caps and other measures that pose a threat to Wall Street?

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TPM alum Greg reported yesterday that Blue Dog Democrats had convinced House leaders to let the Senate go first on the Employee Free Choice Act, the labor movement's central legislative priority this year.

The conservative Blue Dogs' lack of love for the EFCA -- dubbed the "card-check" bill by GOP critics -- is no secret on Capitol Hill and even in Arkansas, where one columnist wrote yesterday that one prominent Blue Dog was reassuring local business leaders about slowing progress on the measure.

But have the Blue Dogs truly convinced House leaders to hold off on EFCA? I asked the House Education and Labor Committee, where Chairman George Miller (D-CA) has yet to even introduce this year's version of the EFCA bill, and got a short, to-the-point answer: "No decision has been made on legislative strategy for the Employee Free Choice Act."

Michael Steele is promising a drastic makeover of the Republican Party's image -- and he really means it!

"We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles," Steele told the Washington Times. "But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings."

"It will be avant garde, technically," he said of the new public relations team he's signing on. "It will come to the table with things that will surprise everyone - off the hook." He also added: "I don't do 'cutting-edge.' That's what Democrats are doing. We're going beyond cutting-edge."

This sort of sounds like a middle-aged man talking to his kids, trying his utter best to sound as if he's cool.

Reps. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) arrived in the Gaza Strip in recent hours, becoming the first U.S. governmental representatives to visit the region in more than three years, according to a joint release from their offices. (Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry [D-MA] was also visiting Gaza today as part of a broader regional swing.)

Baird and Ellison met with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, but neither they nor Kerry will meet with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007. The House Dems' trip was not officially sanctioned by the Obama administration. Hopefully, however, it will mark the beginning of a greater recognition on Capitol Hill of the humanitarian costs the Palestinians have paid amid the ongoing conflict with Israel.

When Barack Obama and Joe Biden were elected on Nov. 4, two Democratic governors were given opportunities to replace them.

When Hillary Clinton and Ken Salazar joined the cabinet, two more Democratic governors were given opportunities to make appointments.

When Judd Gregg announced he would join the cabinet, a fifth Democratic governor was given the opportunity to make a Senate appointment.

Fully five percent of the Senate was up for grabs.

The results have been an embarrassment for the Democratic party, easily the most they-can't-run-a-two-car-parade moment since the Michigan-Florida debacle. The appointments have managed to combine voters' worst impressions of the Democrats: corruption, racial pandering, and general goofiness.

There are obviously different degrees of botching it with the laughably corrupt Rod Blagjevich's appointment of the laughably likely corrupt Roland Burris being the worst. David Paterson's brief exercise in Kennedy lore didn't exactly distinguish the New York governor. In Delaware, Ruth Ann Miner appointed Ted Kaufman to take Joe Biden's seat. Kaufman is a long-time aide to the Biden's and his appointment is seen as a mere placeholder for Beau Biden, the vice president's son, to run for the seat. Appointing Beau Biden now would have been seen as too crass.

Can you fault John Lynch, New Hampshire's popular governor, for agreeing, at the request of the White House, to appoint a Republican because that's what Judd Gregg insisted upon? I wouldn't cast too many aspersions on Lynch. It was Gregg, after all, who abruptly changed his mind.

Finally, you have to say that the most seamless appointment was Bill Ritter's tapping Michael Bennet to fill Ken Salazar's seat in Colorado. I'm friends with Bennet's brother, James, the Atlantic editor, and I think he'll be a great senator and has a decent chance of holding on to the seat. You have to give Ritter the highest marks

All said, Democrats were presented with an interesting chance to put a new generation to politicians in play and they handled it in a middling way at best.

By the way, if Obama's seat goes Republican it'll be the first time in the 20th century, as best I can tell, that a president will have seen his party lose his seat while he's in office. Harding's Republicans held his Senate seat when he was elected president in 1920. Jack Kennedy's Senate seat stayed in Democratic hands. Vice presidential seats have flipped. Gerald Ford's house seat went to a Democrat in a special election after he was confirmed as Nixon's second veep. It would be pretty embarassing for the Republicans to pick up Obama's senate seat but if in the unlikely event Burris manages to stay in until 2010, can anyone doubt that's likely? That would be one more legacy of this weird season.

You could have predicted this, but members of Congress are now jostling to see how quickly they can donate political contributions from fugitive financier Allen Stanford -- accused of an $8 billion fraud by the SEC -- to charity.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) got the ball rolling yesterday, vowing to get rid of his $28,150 in Stanford donations, and The Hill reports this morning that President Obama will follow suit for the $4,600 Stanford gave him during the campaign. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) is also donating his Stanford contributions to charity.

But guess who's hanging on to the cash? Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who took slightly less than $20,000 from Stanford, and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who received about $41,000, according to local media reports.

Cornyn "believes in the presumption of innocence," his office told the local Texas TV station that inquired about Stanford. I guess that means Cornyn's also not giving back the $50,000 Stanford gave to underwrite the Texas State Society's Black Tie and Boots inaugural ball last month, when the GOP senator chaired the society.

Stanford Financial Group, the alleged fraudster's Texas company, was a "Lone Star Partner" for the ball, giving Stanford and his fellow executives access to "special ... VIP areas" during the party, according to a copy of the invitation. (Special thanks to reader B. for the tip.)

The final wall of resistance against stimulus spending has now crumbled: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, perhaps the most vocal critic of the bill outside of Capitol Hill, now says he'll spend the money that his state receives -- at least some of it, anyway.

This is definitely a change. Sanford previously said he had his staff looking at the plan, but "for a different reason" than other governors -- that is, to figure out what was wrong with it. And South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, the House Dem Whip, had been exploring ways to force Sanford's hands.

But Sanford now says his opposition "doesn't preclude taking the money," and he'll be looking over the plan to decide which parts of it will help his state.

Today: Obama's Big Trip To Canada President Obama is making his first foreign trip as president today, arriving in Ottawa at 10:30 a.m. ET. At 11:40 a.m. ET he will arrive Parliament Hill for a 12 p.m. ET meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, followed by a 2:45 p.m. ET joint press conference, and a short 4 p.m. ET meeting with opposition Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff. Then at 4:20 p.m. ET he'll meet with US Embassy employees and their families, before leaving the country at 5:15 p.m. ET and arriving back at the White House at 7 p.m. ET.

Canada Visit Focusing On Trade The big issue today for Obama's visit is expected to be free trade, as Obama assures the United States' largest trading partner that there will not be any protectionist measures coming down. Afghanistan will also be an issue, as Canada is moving to remove its combat troops from that country.

Biden At CIA Today Joe Biden will be at CIA Headquarters this afternoon, to conduct the ceremonial swearing-in of Leon Panetta as CIA Director, and to give a speech on the role the CIA plays in national security. Then this evening he will host a dinner for foreign policy experts.

Dem Lawmakers Visit Gaza, Hillary Also Pledging Help John Kerry has now visited the Gaza Strip, while Reps. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) also made their own separate trip to survey the situation and meet with aid groups -- a very rare thing for an American lawmaker to do. In addition, Hillary Clinton has announced she will attend a donors' conference in Egypt, on March 2, to help with rebuilding efforts.

Report: Sebelius Top Choice For HHS The New York Times reports that Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is currently President Obama's top choice to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Others are still under consideration, however, and it's not clear whether the beefed-up vetting process will be done by next week.

Scientists Await Action On Stem Cells The Washington Post reports that scientists are awaiting White House action to reverse the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research -- and some are disappointed that it hasn't happened already. "The word the president is 'considering' it is too vague a word for me," said Amy Comstock Rick of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

Roy Blunt Expected To Declare Senate Run Today Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who stepped down as House Republican Whip after the 2008 defeats, will reportedly announce today that he is running for the Senate seat of retiring GOP Sen. Kit Bond. He faces a potential primary against former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2008 gubernatorial primary, while Democrats have rallied around Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in what will likely be a close general election.

The Minnesota election court handed down another defeat for Norm Coleman tonight -- quite possibly a significant one -- ruling in favor of a Franken motion to forbid Coleman from bringing forward an expert witness he wanted.

The background info: Coleman has charged that the variations in how flawed absentee ballots could be accepted in some counties amounted to a violation of Equal Protection, and the only remedy is to throw out the rules entirely and count invalid ballots. To further this claim, he wanted to bring in King Banaian, an economics professor and right-wing blogger, to say that the differing numbers of ballots rejections across counties showed unequal treatment -- as opposed to simple differences in the numbers of actual ballots worthy of acceptance of rejection.

The court's very short analysis sides with Franken's motion to keep Banaian out -- and appears to go further in rejecting the whole premise of Coleman's argument:

The only question that can be decided in an election contest is which party received the highest number of legally cast votes, and therefore is entitled to receive the certificate of election. Minn. Stat. §209.12. The Court will be reviewing all ballots presented according to the uniform standard contained in Minnesota Statutes Chapter 203B. It is irrelevant whether there were irregularities between the counties in applying Minnesota Statutes §203B.12, subd. 2, prior to this election contest. The Court does not believe Banaian's testimony would assist in determining the issues properly before it.

In plain English: Seriously, stop wasting our time.

The Coleman camp has made it pretty clear that they'll be appealing the court's legal decisions against them, which could drag this out even longer. So put this one on the list.