In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Congressional Democrats have just begun a public meeting to bless the already-agreed-upon details of their $789 billion stimulus bill, pushing past an awkward first step that saw House negotiators fail to show up for an earlier sitdown on the economic recovery plan.

The House discontent, as many outlets are reporting, stems from the House's $16 billion in school-building aid. As I reported this afternoon, a senior Democratic chairman was appearing with the New York City mayor to declare himself "cautiously optimistic" about the school-building money -- while senators were zeroing out that cash behind closed doors.

Democrats are bouncing back with promises to that the stimulus money given to stabilize state budgets ($39 billion in the Senate compromise, $79 billion in the House bill, now boosted to $54 billion) could also be used for school repairs. But that's unlikely to be enough for House members, and we could see targeted school-building aid put back in before the first votes on the stimulus package occur tomorrow.

Why was this less than a complete victory for Democrats?

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The Republican Party's embrace of technology, which many inside and outside the party see as essential to a political recovery, so far is working out like...well, it's not working out at all.

Yesterday the Virginia GOP came very close to taking control of the state Senate, nearly luring a Democratic Senator to switch parties and put them at a 20-20 tie, which would have been broken by the Republican Lt. Governor. Then Jeff Frederick, a state legislator and the party chairman, ruined it all by Twittering this:

Big news coming out of Senate: Apparently one dem is either switching or leaving the dem caucus. Negotiations for power sharing underway.

The Dems then read the message, quickly mobilized to talk the renegade out of it, and stopped the GOP coup before it could happen.

We usually don't cover state-level politics, but this is just too much. Really, Mr. Frederick, you don't live-blog about ongoing secret negotiations!

(Via the Not Larry Sabato blog, and National Review.)

Well, it's a new era in Washington. A little bit, at least. The administration just finished their first event for bloggers and progressive media, a conference call with, appropriately enough, Jared Bernstein, one of the more liberal leaning members of the president's economic team. He's the top economic policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and he spoke for about 45 minutes with the likes of and yours truly.

A veteran of think tanks and a trained TV pundit, Bernstein, who has written for TPM, seemed a bit cautious and not at all eager to make news. The highlights were that he praised the stimulus package while noting that it doesn't have everything the administration and others would have liked. He noted, too, that just because something was excised from the stimulus package that in now way means the administration won't come back and try it again at a later point. He wouldn't get into specifics on what they might come back to but it's in keeping with a larger point I've tried to make (but that he refrained from explicitly making): This probably isn't the last stimulus.

I asked him how much good the bill could really do while the bank bailout plan remains so sketchy. Bernstein used a medical analogy saying that the stimulus plan was designed to "get the patient's heart beating again" while the bank stabilization plan was about getting the patient's arteries cleaned out.

Another interesting point he made was that the stimulus package could probably shave a couple of points off of the unemployment rate but with the rate heading towards double digits you might well find the rate at 7.5 percent or so by the end of 2010. It's a sobering thought. We'll be coming out of this thing when the unemployment rate is what it is now. In other words, the roller coaster still has farther to go down.

But the biggest headline was probably the meeting itself. Jesse Lee, the online director at Casa Blanca, introduced Bernstein on the call and said he hoped that the progressive media call would be "the first in a newly sustained tradition." Let's hope.

We now have the first poll of the Senate seat in New Hampshire, which will be an open GOP-held seat in 2010 because of the appointment of Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary and the selection of a caretaker Republican to hold the seat for now. And it's a close race.

Public Policy Polling (D) has close results in all four trial runs. Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes leads former Congressman Charlie Bass 40%-37%, and edges edges former Senator John Sununu 46%-44%. The Republicans have statistically insignificant leads over Dem Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter: Bass leads 43%-42%, and Sununu is up 46%-45%. The margin of error is ±2.7%.

Hodes is currently the only announced candidate. You might have noticed that the two Republicans above are both ex-officeholders who were defeated. There is a reason for this: New Hampshire has swung drastically from the Republicans to the Democrats in recent years, and there simply isn't a bench of elected Republicans who already have enough statewide recognition to be included in a poll. That fact alone could lead one to believe this race leans slightly Dem.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has announced a final agreement on the stimulus bill, but House Democrats followed up by a subtle but unmistakable gesture of pullback -- they did not show up for a subsequent meeting with their Senate counterparts to bless the details of the deal.

Democrats are describing the sudden postponement of what was supposed to be a 3pm meeting as a routine move to brief House members on the deal. Yet that detail in itself is telling -- the senators seem to have gone public with a stimulus pact that had yet to be fully vetted by their counterparts.

Reid unveiled the stimulus agreement alongside the key members of his negotiating team - Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), and (in a dismaying rebirth of influence) Joe Lieberman (I-CT).

Details on what's in and out after the $789 billion bill were not forthcoming, but we did hear several telling comments from two of the three Republicans who broke ranks to work out the deal. Reid went out of his way in praising the GOPers, describing himself as at a "lack of words" to describe his "admiration and respect for the love of our country, the patriotism, the courage of these three brave senators."

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We first reported yesterday on the looming removal of executive pay caps from the stimulus bill during final negotiations between the House and Senate.

As lawmakers were entering a closed-door meeting to sign off on the final details, I asked Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) whether the executive compensation limits were indeed taken out of the measure -- and Snowe said that only one of the original three pay limit plans had survived: her bid to limit executive bonuses, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). Notably, their plan was the only executive pay cap that was scored as a money-maker for the Treasury.

The Franken legal team has worked today to score some more goals against the Coleman case, watering down a key point that Norm has tried to make.

Franken lawyer David Lillehaug reviewed one particular precinct in Coleman's argument that some absentee votes were double-counted, illegitimately benefiting Al Franken, as a result of damaged ballots being copied and certain copies not being labeled properly.

Dakota County elections manager Kevin Boyle confirmed what the county's position is on this: They believe there was no double-counting here. They say that the apparent additional duplicated ballots are from votes that weren't counted to begin with on Election Night, and were only tabulated during the recount.

Coleman needs the double-counting be a simple issue, one that can be easily calculated and then corrected by just subtracting excess votes from the spreadsheet. But if the local officials insist it didn't happen in one case or another, the burden of proof goes up significantly -- if we can't definitively cite which individual votes were double-counted, this suddenly starts to look like an effort to simply chop off Franken votes by fiat.

The Obama administration recently made the dismaying decision to defend the Bush-era Justice Department's use of the "state secrets" privilege in a lawsuit filed by alleged victims of extraordinary rendition. As TPM alum Greg reported yesterday, Sen. Russ Feingold (WI) was the first Democratic lawmaker to openly criticize the Obama DoJ's decision ... and now we have a second.

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I just came from an appearance by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to promote the $16 billion in school-repair money that Senate centrist negotiators had zeroed out of the stimulus bill last week.

Democrats were optimistic yesterday about keeping the school-building aid, particularly after President Obama referred to it directly in his Monday night news conference. But even as Miller was describing himself as "cautiously optimistic" that the money could be largely restored, the AP was reporting that only $6 billion of the construction money -- sorely important in urban areas such as New York -- would be added back to the stimulus.

Meanwhile, the Journal was reporting a school-building aid level double that size, at $12 billion. Such is the tricky state of the Capitol Hill media ... the prominence of leaks, oftentimes coming from people who stand to benefit by disseminating misinformation, make the truth hard to come by.

But one thing's for sure: that $16 billion for school repairs is getting diminished, at a time when local districts can use every penny of it.

During the Minnesota trial this morning, the Franken legal team has continued to hammer Norm Coleman for reversing his position on counting rejected absentee ballots -- so much so that he's asking for specific envelopes to be counted that he had successfully thrown out before.

Franken lawyer David Lillehaug has been cross-examining Dakota County elections manager Kevin Boyle, using the questioning as a vehicle to make this larger point. Lillehaug reviewed a Web page that the Coleman campaign has put up, posting the names and home counties of all the thousands of rejected absentee voters for whom they're now advocating:

The page declares: "Check below to see if you are one of the thousands of Minnesotans the Franken campaign is seeking to disenfranchise."

Lillehaug then had Boyle confirm that there are ten individuals on the Dakota County list alone whose ballots were deemed by Boyle's office to have been wrongly rejected and would have been counted -- except the Coleman campaign vetoed them, under the decision by the state Supreme Court that gave the campaigns a veto over improperly-rejected absentees.

"And according to this exhibit, these are the people that Norm Coleman is suggesting the Franken campaign is seeking to disenfranchise?" Lillehaug asked rhetorically.

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