In it, but not of it. TPM DC

A very strange thing just occurred in the Minnesota election trial, with Al Franken's lawyers trying to raise the possibility that unnamed Coleman workers may have tampered with ballots.

Yesterday, Franken attorney David Lillehaug began presenting a case that a number of ballots had been lost in Washington County during the recount, improperly giving Norm Coleman a net "gain" of ten votes. This is important because a potential remedy for this would be to default to the Election Night totals for affected precincts.

Lillehaug continued to examine county elections officer Kevin Corbid today, and had Corbid narrate a curious story from Election Night. At about 2 a.m., two men showed up who said they were from the Coleman campaign, saying they wanted to observe the process of ballots coming in. Corbid said the men stayed for several hours -- they were still there in the parking lot when he himself left the office at 5 a.m. -- and mostly stayed in the lobby.

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Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have come up with a list of about $100 billion* in programs they want slashed from the stimulus package, according to a working draft of a staff paper outlining the cuts. The linked document includes a list of $77.9B. But an aide to Sen. Nelson tells TPMDC that the latest negotiations come closer to the $100B mark.

Among the biggest cuts under discussion: $24.8 billion in state stabilization money for education, which was intended to plug existing budget holes; $15 billion in state incentive grants for education; and $1.4 billion for the National Science Foundation, which is wracked by a porn-viewership flap. Pell Grants were the biggest program to survive the debate over cuts, with $13.9 billion staying intact.

Senate Democratic leaders are likely to bring this package up for a floor vote today, aiming to achieve a filibuster-proof margin in support of these cuts before pushing to pass the entire stimulus by day's end. Hang onto your hats.

*Late Update: It's important to note that the list is a working draft. Negotiations on which programs to cut or save are moving so rapidly that the list is best viewed as a guidepost for what spending trims are being eyed by Nelson and Collins' centrist alliance, which unofficially includes upwards of a dozen senators at this point.

"They're looking at further cuts in addition to what you see on that," a Nelson spokesman told me, estimating that the current total in sliced spending is now closer to $100 billion. He declined to confirm which elements of the cut list have been removed or increased in size.

With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) aiming to pass the stimulus before tomorrow, the final list of cuts could come to a vote within the next several hours.

Later Context Update: No matter what you think of the worthiness of the programs Nelson and Collins want to slice, their political goal is clear -- getting enough support to bring the stimulus bill out of reach of a GOP filibuster.

After meeting with President Obama, Collins said she has his support for a bill in the neighborhood of $800 billion. Since the stimulus is topping out above the $900 billion mark now, that would mean that the Nelson-Collins cuts have become the best hope for getting the recovery plan over the finish line.

The Minnesota Supreme Court just finished hearing arguments in Al Franken's lawsuit to obtain an immediate certificate of election, and it has become clear that the court faces a very tough choice: Issue an election certificate now, which would have a theoretical chance of being undone later by pending litigation, and to do so against the commonly-understood meaning of state statutes -- or have Minnesota go without two seats in the Senate for months.

The justices grilled everybody involved. Justice Paul Anderson asked lead Franken lawyer Marc Elias whether the certificate is truly necessary, and whether the court has to intervene. "The Senate has plenary authority to seat whoever they want," Elias replied. "They could declare me the next Senator. But like this court, the Senate has rules."

Elias' argument is that the Senate has rules pertaining to certificates of election, as we saw in the Roland Burris case, and that Minnesota is unconstitutionally shirking its obligation to send a certificate in time for the Senate to meet.

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If you enjoyed rolling your eyes at the GOP's antic attempts to hold up Eric Holder's Senate confirmation, get ready for the Judiciary Committee hearing next week on Elena Kagan's nomination.

Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, would be the first female solicitor general. She comes to the job with stellar credentials, but that hasn't stopped conservative senators (joined by the the Christian Coalition, naturally) from signaling that they intend to fight her hard on her past support for limits on military recruiters' access to law school campuses.

In fact, GOP senators have a history of blocking Kagan -- in 1999, as Judiciary panel chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) notes her, they "pocket-filibustered" her nomination to become a federal judge under Bill Clinton by refusing to hold a committee hearing.

But any Republican itching to filibuster Kagan should give a call to Brad Berenson, who worked under Alberto Gonzales as associate White House counsel to George W. Bush. He's all for Kagan. In fact, he wrote to the Judiciary Committee last week that ...

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There's finally going to be a committee vote today on the nomination of Hilda Solis to be Secretary of Labor. It's about time. The administration had to appoint an interim secretary because this was taking so long Republicans on the Senate Health, Educaiton, Labor and Pensions Committee have been dragging their feet, alleging that her position on the board of directors of Americans Rights at Work, a pro-labor group might have amounted to lobbying. They wanted to know if Solis actually lobbied Congress which, as one ARAW-connected person told me, was absurd because if anything she was a rather passive board member.

The Republicans are really using the Solis nomination to fight the Employee Free Choice Act. Today's Los Angeles Times notes that Republicans now want Solis to avoid lobbying for the bill even after she becomes Labor Secretary which is like asking Tim Geithner to stay neutral about the stimulus package or Robert Gates to take a pass on Afghanistan funding. Of course when Elaine Chao was labor secretary under George W. Bush they had no problems with her advocating for the defeat of EFCA. See her Wall Street Journal op-ed here written during the last days of her tenure.

USA Today is reporting that more than two dozen groups have registered to lobby for their share of the stimulus pie since the economic recovery bill first came before Congress last month.

That rush to secure spending for favored projects isn't necessarily surprising, but there's a new wrinkle for lobbyists this time around: the Obama administration's insistence on keeping earmarks out of the stimulus. As noble as that sounds, USA Today explains, it may have the unintended effect of driving lobbyists underground to chase stimulus money that will be distributed through federal grants:

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President Obama talks about seeking bipartisan accord ... and he reaches out to GOP senators ... but how many Republicans are even open to the need for fixing the economy through government spending?

As The Washington Independent's Dave Weigel points out, that question seems to have been answered in a Senate vote last night. When Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) offered an alternative stimulus plan that would replace all government spending in the stimulus with a series of tax cuts, 36 Republican senators voted for it.

To emphasize the point, that means all but four GOPers were perfectly happy with scrapping the core assumption of the president's plan. Here, then, are the four Republican senators whom Obama has the best shot at working with: Susan Collins (ME), George Voinovich (OH), Arlen Specter (PA), and Olympia Snowe (ME).

Now this is welcome news. Congress gave its lickety-split approval yesterday to a bill that would extend a subtle but crucial authority to Neil Barofsky, the federal prosecutor who is serving as the inspector general investigating the Troubled Assets Relief Program, a.k.a. the financial bailout.

If you remember, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) raised a stink last week when he heard that Barofsky was delayed in getting data from bailed-out banks due to the limits of an obscure law called the Paperwork Reduction Act. The bill that Congress okayed last night, however, appears to make Grassley's concerns very moot.

It states that Barofsky's office does not need advance approval from the Justice Department to perform the following duties specified in the 1978 Inspector General Act:

(A) carry a firearm while engaged in official duties as authorized under this Act or other statute ...

(B) make an arrest without a warrant while engaged in official duties as authorized under this Act or other statute ... for any offense against the United States committed in the presence of such Inspector General, Assistant Inspector General, or agent, or for any felony cognizable under the laws of the United States if such Inspector General, Assistant Inspector General, or agent has reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing such felony; and

(C) seek and execute warrants for arrest, search of a premises, or seizure of evidence issued under the authority of the United States upon probable cause to believe that a violation has been committed

Obama's Day Ahead President Obama is speaking at 9 a.m. at the National Prayer Breakfast. At 11 a.m. he will sign an executive order establishing the President's Advisory Council on Faith, which will revamp the former Bush Administration's faith-based initiatives. At 12 p.m. he will speak at the Department of Energy. At 3 p.m. he and Joe Biden are meeting with Tim Geithner, and at 3:45 p.m. Obama and Biden will meet with Hillary Clinton. At 8 p.m. ET he will speak to the House Democrats' Issues Conference.

Biden Meeting With O'Malley, Cardin And LaHood Joe Biden is holding a public event at 10 a.m. with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Senator Ben Cardin, plus Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, to discuss the need for greater investments in infrastructure.

Today: Minnesota Supremes Hearing Case For Franken Certification The Minnesota Supreme Court will be hearing arguments in a very important lawsuit at 10 a.m. ET this morning: The Franken campaign's case that he is entitled to a certificate of election, while Norm Coleman continues to dispute the election result in court. Franken's attorneys believe they have found a state statute that requires a certification, as opposed to the conventional wisdom that one can't be issued until the court case is over, and also argue that he is also entitled to his Senate seat under the federal Constitution.

Gregg: We Need To Work Together On Economic Measures I've Recused Myself From In his interview with CNBC yesterday, Judd Gregg called for bipartisanship as Washington works to improve the economy: "I think it's necessary we work together." Note: Gregg has recused himself from voting on the stimulus package while his nomination for Secretary of Commerce is pending, which in terms of parliamentary procedure is the same as if he were voting No on every cloture motion.

Poll: Dems Start Out Ahead In Wide-Open 2010 Ohio Senate Race A new Quinnipiac poll shows Republican former Congressman Rob Portman trailing two potential Democratic candidates in the 2010 Ohio Senate race, which is an open GOP-held seat. The undecideds remain rather high, though: Portman trails Democratic Lt. Governor Lee Fisher by a 42%-27% margin, and Portman trails Dem Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner by 38%-28%.

Mitt To Headline GOP Dinner The Hill reports that Mitt Romney will be headlining the National Republican Senatorial Committee's annual fundraising dinner, keeping his name and political presence out there for any potential 2012 presidential candidacy. The dinner is scheduled for April 1.

Iowa's David Yepsen Leaving Journalism David Yepsen, the long-time top political columnist in Iowa, is leaving the Des Moines Register to become director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Southern Illinois. Yepsen has been a major presence in the coverage of past Iowa caucuses, and his departure is a sign of just how much the political journalism field is now changing.

AP Makes Copyright Infringement Claim On Obama "Hope" Poster The Associated Press is claiming copyright infringement on the iconic "Hope" poster of Barack Obama, which appears to have been modeled after a photo of Obama from 2006. The AP wants credit and compensation for the use of the photo, while poster creator Shepard Fairey believes he is protected by fair use, and his attorney is in discussions with the AP.

The Franken legal team have made it clear that they don't intend to simply play defense and prevent Norm Coleman from gaining the 226 votes he'll need to win. In fact, they're playing a very active offense to pick up as many additional votes as they can.

This afternoon, Franken attorney David Lillehaug was questioning Washington County elections official Kevin Corbid, attempting to make a case that some precincts in his county lost ballots during the recount and gave Coleman a net "gain" of ten votes. Corbid's theory has been that ballots were double-scanned by the machines on Election Night, but he admitted that ballot-loss is a possibility, and the evidence isn't complete.

At his press conference earlier this evening, Coleman lawyer Ben Ginsberg fired back. "What you've now seen today is Mr. Lillehaug's attempt to denigrate the results of the election, to call it into question," Ginsberg said, accusing Franken of running down the integrity of election officials -- apparently with no sense of self-awareness.

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