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He's a once-disgraced former senator straddling two worlds and with a finger on the pulse of health care debate, influential with former colleagues and close to President Obama, but not even employed by the White House.

TPMDC set out to find out what exactly is Tom Daschle's role in the health care debate.

Some question whether Daschle should be part of the process since he does health care consulting for influential groups who do health care lobbying. He's not a registered lobbyist. (He was with Alston and Bird most of this year, but just joined DLA Piper).

TPMDC spoke with lawmakers, administration aides and Senate staffers, who said Daschle has been crucial as they negotiate health care. Some said that his role is playing out exactly as they had hoped it would when Daschle was first nominated to be HHS Secretary.

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Washington, D.C. hosted the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors over the weekend. On Sunday evening the honorees joined President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the president's box at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The recipients this year were (from left to right) jazz legend Dave Brubeck, actor Robert De Niro, opera singer Grace Bumbry, comedian/director Mel Brooks, and rocker Bruce Springsteen.

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The Kennedy Center Honors are not partisan. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich arrives at the Kennedy Center with his wife Callista.

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Former Sen. Tom Daschle attended the event with his wife Linda Hall -- but without his trademark glasses.

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Glee star Matthew Morrison.

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Honoree Robert De Niro arrives with Grace Hightower.

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President Obama acknowledges the crowd. The tribute program taped on Sunday was hosted by Jon Stewart and will be aired on December 29.

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A bearded Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, walk to their table at the reception in the White House East Room.

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Film director Martin Scorsese chats with a fellow attendee at the East Room reception. Scorsese, who has collaborated frequently with one of this year's recipients, Robert DeNiro, received the honor in 2007.

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Caroline Kennedy, an early Obama backer, has been relatively removed from the media spotlight since her failed attempt to land Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat in New York.

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White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is joined by his wife Amy Rule at the East Room reception.

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President Obama gives remarks at the East Room reception. "In times of war and sacrifice, the arts -- and these artists -- remind us to sing and to laugh and to live. In times of plenty, they challenge our conscience and implore us to remember the least among us."

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President Obama moves to hug honoree Dave Brubeck, who was celebrating his 89th birthday. Apparently, the first jazz performance the president attended as a child in Hawaii was a Brubeck show. Obama has been a fan ever since.

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Secretary of State Clinton shares a laugh with honorees Springsteen, Brooks, and Brubeck.

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Clinton poses with the five honorees. Despite their high profiles, administration officials appeared humbled by the charisma of the recipients. As Obama said of Springsteen, ''I'm the president, but he's the Boss.''

Newscom/UPI/Ron Sachs

The conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill is that a restrictive abortion amendment to the Senate health care bill, authored by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) does not have the votes to pass, and that its failure presents substantial risk to the legislation's prospect for passage.

Well, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a cosponsor of the amendment, seems to agree. I asked him if he sees any way for his plan--which would prevent millions of consumers from buying insurance that covers abortion--to make it into the greater bill.

"No," Hatch said laughing, "I don't think it has the votes. That's the game."

"He did say he would vote against cloture," Hatch said. "That's very important."

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Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) is one of the first senators to publicly criticize a Medicare buy-in proposal offered by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), telling reporters today that he opposes plans that use Medicare levels of reimbursement, which he's long said would harm hospitals in North Dakota.

Conrad says he needs answers: "If you expand medicare, what kind of a risk pool is that going to be? How is that going to affect the Medicare risk pool? What's that going to do to rates, what's that going to do to medicare solvency?" he asked rhetorically. "We don't have answers to those questions."

Rockefeller didn't take too kindly to this.

"I'm really very tired of hearing about that from him," an exasperated Rockefeller told reporters. "And it's always about North Dakota, and it's never about any other part of the country. And I thought, you know, that's what we're trying to do--we're trying to do the best thing for the country as a whole."

Ouch! We'll try to get more clarity on how far Conrad's opposition stretches. The key question in all of this, after all, is whether the compromise that comes out of the negotiating sessions between liberal and conservative Democrats can garner 60 votes. A Medicare buy-in would allow some people under the age of 65 to purchase their insurance through Medicare, which would likely charge much lower premiums than the private market.

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Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), the staunch social conservative who was implicated in a prostitution scandal and admitted to a "serious sin," could be facing a challenge in the Republican primary from Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne. But before he gets in the race, Dardenne wants to conduct a poll -- which would involve forming an exploratory committee.

Dardenne told the Baton Rouge Advocate that he's considering having a poll conducted. "I've had a lot of people suggest that I do that. I'd have to raise some money. I may do that," said Dardenne. He added: "A lot of people have suggested that's a step that should be taken before making a final decision."

A number of key Senators--including Chuck Schumer (D-NY), John Kerry (D-MA), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) confirmed today that a Medicare buy-in is being discussed as an option as part of a grand compromise on a public option.

"It's an option, it's being discussed, it does have some issues that are being raised, but it remains--it's on the table," Kerry told reporters.

The idea was introduced to the discussion by Rockefeller, who told reporters that it's still unclear whether it would ultimately be a replacement for the public option.

"I think that's one of the reasons it was brought up, but you don't do everything in juxtaposition with something else always."

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Former New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R) has been convicted on two counts of wire fraud, the Albany Times-Union reports, connected to charges that he'd used his office to enrich himself through payments for non-existent consultant work.

Bruno, age 80, was acquitted on five counts in the scandal, but was convicted for receiving 11 payments from companies controlled by businessman Jared Abbruzzese.

Bruno was first elected to the state Senate in 1976, became Majority Leader in 1994, and resigned from office in July 2008. He was later indicted in January 2009.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office is criticizing the GOP's "feigned outrage" in response to comments he made on the Senate floor this morning. In his speech, Reid whacked Republicans for attempting to kill health care reform, comparing their obstructive tactics to those used to prolong slavery and stall women's suffrage and civil rights.

Instead of joining us on the right side of history, all the Republicans can come up with is this:, 'slow down, stop everything, let's start over.' If you think you've heard these same excuses before, you're right. When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down, it's too early, let's wait, things aren't bad enough.'

When women spoke up for the right to speak up, they wanted to vote, some insisted they simply, slow down, there will be a better day to do that, today isn't quite right.

When this body was on the verge of guaranteeing equal civil rights to everyone regardless of the color of their skin, some senators resorted to the same filibuster threats we hear today.


Republicans lashed out.

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The Federal Aviation Administration investigated an episode in which an AirTran flight was taxied back to the gate in Atlanta last month and found no violations of safety rules, another blow to the story of a NASA employee who says he helped thwart a dry run of Muslim hijackers on the plane.

"The FAA is charged with enforcing civil air safety violations and among those are rules that require passengers to comply with flight attendant instructions and about use of electronic devices," FAA spokesperson Kathleen Bergen tells TPMmuckraker. "We found no violations of the regulations." She said the investigation of the Nov. 17 incident was closed Friday.

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