In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Much of the debate over the potential effectiveness of Congress' economic stimulus bill centers on how quickly the $800-billion-plus can be spent.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office -- formerly run by Obama's new budget director, Peter Orszag -- has estimated that 64% of the House stimulus money can be disbursed within the first 18 months. Meanwhile, Orszag himself has promised to let loose 75% of it into the economy.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), who's been concerned with thae spend-out rate in general, recently asked the CBO to evaluate ways that the stimulus money could be spent quicker. The CBO's first answer? "Waiving requirements for environmental and judicial reviews" of the impact of stimulus spending projects, according to a letter released today (and downloadable here).

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Women's health advocates were dismayed this week to see the removal of family-planning aid from Congress' economic recovery bill after a push by Republicans to politicize a generally cut-and-dry issue of Medicaid waivers. (Time has some good background here.)

But the dismay may not last long. A source present at today's White House signing ceremony for the Lilly Ledbetter bill tells me that President Obama gave assurances that the family planning aid would be done soon -- perhaps as soon as next week, when the House is set to take up a spending bill that would keep the government funded until October.

Obama emphasized that the family-planning aid "makes the budget look better, it's a money saver," the source said. In fact, removing the need for Medicaid waivers for family planning saves states an estimated $700 million over 10 years.

By removing the family-planning aid from the stimulus at Obama's request, Democrats "were giving a nod to the Republicans, believing they would act in good faith," the source added. And given how many GOPers voted for the stimulus bill, sounds like the family-planning aid is back on track.

Here's another funny moment earlier today from the slow-motion comedy show that is the Minnesota Senate trial.

The Coleman team is continuing to call as witnesses some aggrieved voters to complain that their ballots were wrongly rejected. This didn't go too well last time, and the newest pair had their fun moments. One of them was college student Peter DeMuth, who sent away for an absentee ballot because he goes to school in Fargo, North Dakota -- he even drove several hours to St. Paul this morning, just so he could get his vote counted.

Upon cross-examination by Franken attorney Kevin Hamilton, DeMuth said he was contacted by the Republican Party and told about the problem. "They asked me if I knew my absentee ballot had been rejected. I said no," said DeMuth. "They asked me if I was a supporter of Norm Coleman, and I said yes, and they proceeded to ask me if I would like to go further."

Let's think about this for a moment: Over the last several days, the Coleman camp has said repeatedly that they are not cherry-picking who they're helping out, that they don't know who the people they're advocating for actually supported, and for all they know they're helping out Franken-voters.

So much for that argument. On top of that, DeMuth's story is by itself fascinating.

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Ahead of last night's vote on the $819 billion House stimulus bill, which no Republican supported, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) frequently asserted that his party's alternative stimulus plan -- consisting largely of tax cuts -- would create 6.2 million jobs.

That sounds great. After all, it's double the 3 million jobs that the president aims to create or save. But where did the Republicans get that number? By drawing some fuzzy conclusions from a 2007 paper by Dr. Christina Romer, chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.

If you look at page 3 of the GOP's document, you'll see this passage:

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Norm Coleman is not giving up on forgery as a constitutional right.

Just now in court, Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg launched into an aggressive defense in the case of Douglas Thompson, the friendly Coleman witness from two days ago who said his absentee ballot should be counted even though his girlfriend forged his signature on the application. Thus, Thompson's ballot was rejected because of a very real signature mismatch against his own signature on the ballot itself.

Friedberg didn't directly mention Thompson by name, but he described the exact same situation. "Now suppose I said to Mr. Trimble [another Coleman lawyer], 'Hey, I'm busy, could you sign an application for me, and send it in for me?' I'm gonna get the ballot, aren't I?" said Friedberg.

After some more back and forth, we got to this interesting exchange:

Friedberg: In point of fact, even though I did something I wasn't supposed to do with the application, my ballot should still count because my signature is genuine.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann: Not according to the procedures we use to determine whether the signature is genuine.

Friedberg: I don't care about your procedures.

(Franken lawyer calls an objection, is sustained.)

Friedberg: Okay, I do care...

Another important development happened today in the Minnesota Senate trial: The Coleman campaign actually dropped one of their many claims against the election result.

Coleman was previously objecting to the counting of 171 ballots during the recount in the St. Paul suburb of Maplewood, which were in addition to the Election Night totals for that precinct. The ballots were found in a machine that had broken down on Election Night, thus leading to them not being in the original totals, and they gave Al Franken a net gain of 37 votes.

The Coleman camp initially tried to raise suspicions over the chain of custody, but were never able to find evidence of actual malfeasance. And over the last couple days the Franken camp laid out cases where Coleman approved of counting other found ballots during the recount, which just so happened to come from Republican areas. In other words, two can play this game.

So Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg realized there were bigger fish to fry, and dropped this complaint. Then he moved on to the next order of business: The use of Election Night totals in a pro-Franken precinct where officials concluded that 133 ballots went missing in the recount, a decision that saved Franken from losing a net 46 votes. So don't think this is all being resolved nicely.

The Coleman campaign just had some fun with the Franken campaign, who have accused them of reversing all their positions on counting votes. The Coleman reply: So have you!

The Franken camp spent yesterday and this morning reading over the vast number of examples where the Coleman campaign argued that the requirements for properly filling out absentee ballots should be strictly construed, and that absentee voting is not a right but a privilege. By contrast, the Coleman camp is now arguing for lenient standards to bring in more ballots.

So Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg just got up for another turn, bringing up legal filings by the Franken campaign from during in the recount, a mix of direct Franken arguments or favorable quotations from prior case law:

• "The Minnesota courts have repeatedly emphasized that the overriding concern in interpretation of the election laws is the enfranchisement of voters. Consequently, all ballots cast in substantial compliance with the law must be counted."

• "As long as there is substantial compliance with the laws and no showing of fraud or bad faith, the true result of an election should not be defeated by an innocent failure to comply strictly with the statute, and mere irregularities in following statutory procedure will often be overlooked."

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With the Senate expected to approve Attorney General nominee Eric Holder on Monday, one conspicuous opening remains in President Obama's Cabinet: Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) has yet to be confirmed as Secretary of Labor.

We reported last week on GOP concerns with how Solis addressed queries on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) during her confirmation hearing. It's worth repeating that the problem is not technically a Senate "hold," as some outlets have reported.

Chamber rules prevent official holds from being placed until a committee has released a nominee to the full Senate -- and a spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi (WY), chief GOPer on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions panel, told me that Republicans are still awaiting answers to more written queries from Solis.

"Republicans are still doing our due diligence on this nomination," the Enzi spokesman said, noting that the latest round of written questions was sent to Solis on Tuesday. He declined to discuss the nature of the GOP's queries, but said that more than just the EFCA is at issue.

Late Update: TPM alum Greg reports at The Plum Line that the president will host labor leaders for a signing of executive orders tomorrow. One suspects that the Solis nomination will be much-discussed on the sidelines ...

A lot of attention has been paid lately to the idea of a "bipartisan" economic recovery bill. Clearly the House GOPers are happy to blame Dems while voting against the stimulus, but what about the Senate? Well, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) just distilled his side's notion of cooperation during a press conference on the recovery legislation:

How about the Senate? Well, there have been two committee meetings, the Appropriations Committee and the Finance Committee, in which I sit. Not a single one of our [Republican] amendments was voted up. Every one was rejected.

So essentially no changes as a result of those two markups on the bill that will come to the Senate floor next week. And if [the Ledbetter and SCHIP bills] are any indication, we'll get votes on amendments, they'll all lose, and the bill will then pass, and we end up with a totally partisan package. I don't think that's what the president had in mind when he talked about putting legislation together in a bipartisan way.


Okay ... so "bipartisanship" means not an exchange of ideas from both parties, or a chance to vote on proposals from both parties, but Democratic agreement on approving the GOP agenda? Good luck with that.

In the Minnesota election trial this afternoon, Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg continued to lay out the campaign's reasoning for why their previous decisions in the recount shouldn't be an issue here under the doctrines of estoppel and invited error: The voters of Minnesota should not be bound by Coleman's prior agreement to arrangements that were illegal to begin with.

While exploring the issue of whether some absentee ballots were improperly copied and double-counted, Friedberg asked Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann how he had come to arrive at his office's directives on how to handle this issue during the recount -- and why he asked the campaigns for approval.

"The interested parties, the parties that have a stake in the outcome of the hand recount," Gelbmann said, "if you can get an agreement from both parties that the process you're going to use is acceptable to the parties, you would assume you would not have an issue before the final outcome."

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