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The Minnesota election court has just handed down another key ruling, totally denying Norm Coleman's attempt to undo his previous agreement that 933 previously-rejected absentee ballots be included in the recount -- and which favored Al Franken by a 176-vote margin.

The two campaigns had previously entered into a stipulated agreement three weeks ago, which had been formalized by the court through an order declaring the ballots were legal, and directing the Secretary of State's office to redact identifying numbers that had been placed on the ballots and their envelopes just in case they were to be removed later -- an action that had also violated the secret ballot.

But then Coleman filed a motion on Friday, asking for an injunction to stop the redaction of those identifying numbers -- a declaration that they were nullifying their agreement, on the grounds that the court's ruling for strict standards in accepting additional rejected absentee ballots had to be applied retroactively.

After some very heated arguments on Friday, the court has denied the injunction -- and declared that Coleman is stuck with the agreement that he made, that these ballots were legal:

The binding stipulation and Order of February 3, 2009 are dispositive of Contestants' motion. Both campaigns have been completely and ably represented by counsel throughout these proceedings. The stipulation was drafted by counsel and signed by sophisticated parties familiar with the subject matter. The Court presumes the parties were apprised of the risks and benefits associated with entering into this agreement.

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As President Obama takes the podium in the Capitol tonight, members of both parties are looking ahead to the next legislative challenge and wondering whether the stimulus bill -- which began with noble goals of bipartisanship but ended in an acrimonious round of finger-pointing -- will set the tone for the early days of the administration.

All signs are pointing to health care reform as the next issue topping the agenda for the White House and Congress. So will Republican senators close ranks against the popular president on health care, leaving the majority Democrats to horse-trade their way to a slim 60-vote victory?

Senior GOP senators have a clear, and perhaps surprising, answer to that question: they're ready to work with the president's party on health care.

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Today was another fun day in the never-ending disaster that is the Minnesota trial. The Coleman campaign presented this week about 100 absentee ballots that they said were wrongly rejected because local officials mistakenly believed the witnesses weren't registered voters. And then Franken lawyer David Lillehaug demolished them.

Lillehaug went over the voter registration system with state Elections Director Gary Poser, showing that many of these witnesses weren't actually registered at the time they signed those ballot envelopes.

Lillehaug went over ballot after ballot, getting Poser to say that they were properly rejected, either because of this witness issue or for another registration problem. The Star Tribune estimates it at around 100 ballots -- which would be roughly the total amount in the latest batch -- and that sounds about right.

At one point, Lillehaug asked if Coleman's people had asked how to properly read the database.

Now this isn't a surprise that so many ballots offered by a campaign would be struck down. The point here is that Lillehaug was damaging what seemed to be some of Coleman's better prospects.

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Did Allen Stanford get the Jack Abramoff treatment from Bob Ney?

Via the Sunlight Foundation, check out what Ney, the Ohio GOP congressman who went to jail for his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal, entered into the Congressional Record in September 2005:

Mr. Ney: Mr. Speaker --

Whereas, Allen R. Stanford has been recognized as the 2006 Recipient of the "Excellence in Leadership Award" by the Inter-American Economic Council ; and

Whereas, Allen R. Stanford has been acknowledged for his performance and leadership in the areas of finance and investments; and

Whereas, Allen R. Stanford should be commended for his service as the CEO of the Stanford Financial Group based in Houston, Texas.

Therefore, I join with the residents of the entire 18th Congressional District of Ohio in honoring and congratulating Allen R. Stanford for his outstanding accomplishments.

We already knew that Stanford and Ney, who sat on the House Financial Services committee, were tight. Here they're positioned right next to each other at a 2004 Washington event put on by the Stanford-backed Inter-American Economic Council.

(Looks like Ney even
got a speaking gig at that event).

And Ney's chief of staff, Wil Heaton -- who also pleaded guilty in connection with the Abramoff scheme -- went on that now-famous (kind of) 2005 junket to Antigua for lawmakers and their aides, paid for by the IAEC.

But the statement unearthed by the Sunlight Foundation suggests the relationship was even cozier. Indeed, it fits an intriguing pattern:

According to Abramoff's plea agreement, one of the "official acts" that Ney took on behalf of Abramoff was an October 2000 agreement "to insert a statement into the Congressional Record which praised the new owner of the Florida gaming company, Abramoff's business partner."

The Abramoff partner was Adam Kidan, who in 2005 pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud in connection to his venture with Abramoff. Abramoff and Kidan gave $10,000, in Ney's name, to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Just as Abramoff and Kidan sought to get a PR boost by having nice things said about them in Congress, Stanford may have also have stood to benefit from Ney's move. Stanford's ability to attract investors depended on maintaining a sterling reputation. Having his "outstanding accomplishments" praised in the Congressional Record could go a long way to polishing that reputation.

What might Ney have gotten in return? Well, he received $26,200 in campaign contributions from Stanford Financial Group employees. And, even more interestingly, the Sunlight Foundation's Paul Blumenthal notes that the majority of that sum, $14,200, came just over a month after the Congressional Record statement -- after Ney had gotten nothing from Stanford for all of 2005.

Blumenthal also notes that, during more trying times for the congressman, Stanford became a contributor to Ney's legal defense fund.

So, memo to federal investigators: if you see Bob Ney praising anyone else in the Congressional Record, it might be worth getting a little suspicious.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs briefed House Democratic press secretaries behind closed doors this afternoon, giving a preview of tonight's presidential speech on health care and the economy.

Gibbs told the aides that the president broke bread with major news anchors this afternoon, depicting himself as "Dr. Obama" (as Katie Couric put it) and the nation as a patient in need of a positive diagnosis.

So it's safe to say that tonight's speech will be optimistic -- but will it break news? What's gone under-reported in the anticipation of Thursday's White House budget release is the fact that the plan will be a broad outline. The full Obama budget isn't expected until April, as this Politico story notes near the bottom.

Jim Tedisco, the Republican candidate for Kirsten Gillibrand's former House seat, sure has an interesting rebuttal to Democrats attacking him over his refusal to say how he would have voted on the stimulus bill.

Tedisco told the New York Times that if he answered this hypothetical question, it would only open the door: "It won't just be this, it'll be, 'How would you vote on the war in Iraq?'"

Isn't he now just leaving himself wide open for questions about Iraq?

So what should we think of the fact that Norm Coleman is still attending Senate GOP policy lunches, even though he's not a Senator?

Here's what Eric Schultz, the new DSCC spokesman (and a former communications man for Franken) told us when we asked him for comment on the story: "Springing for lunch is the least they can do for using his prolonged and increasingly desperate legal battle to obstruct the Democratic agenda."

Schultz is referring here to the widespread perception that this lawsuit is only being done in order to prevent Al Franken from being seated, thanks to the unique Minnesota law that prevents certification of a victory while a legal contest is still going, and which has made it a lot harder for Dems to reach 60 votes on cloture motions.

Norm Coleman appeared yesterday on the Armstrong Williams radio show, and the Minnesota GOP has posted this interesting excerpt of Norm responding to Williams' question regarding how Minnesotans feel about their current lack of full representation.

"Those of us who have had the honor to serve as public servants, public officials, we serve with the consent of the governed," Coleman said. "You're not gonna get that consent if the governed -- if the citizens -- don't think the guy who got the most votes is the guy that got elected, the guy that sits in the office."

He later added: "But people in Minnesota understand that you've gotta get it right."

Where were you eight years ago, Norm, when we really needed you?

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) just told reporters that he asked Roland Burris (in a very polite manner) to resign. And Burris said no.

"If I were in your shoes, I would consider resigning," Durbin said, reciting what he told Burris.

Durbin said he also asked Burris whether he would be running for a full term in 2010, and Burris said he hasn't made up his mind. Durbin then recalled telling Burris that it would be very difficult to win either the primary or general elections.

"What I've done is, I made my recommendation to Senator Burris," Durbin said. "And he's told me clearly that he will not resign."

Durbin added that he doesn't have much persuasive power with Burris -- he previously advised Burris during the Blagojevich scandal to not seek or accept the appointment, and Burris did that, anyway.

In what could be the first instance of a congressional committee citing reporting by TMZ (or maybe not!), Democrats on the House Financial Services committee, led by Rep. Barney Frank, have sent a letter to the CEO of Northern Trust bank, demanding that the bank re-pay taxpayers for a lavish spending spree -- featuring a Sheryl Crow concert and gifts of Tiffany's trinkets -- surrounding a recent golf tournament it sponsored for clients.

The splurge, which took $1.5 billion in bailout money last fall, was first reported earlier today by, the entertainment site.

TMZ offered a rundown of the trip's highlights:

- Wednesday, Northern Trust hosted a fancy dinner at the Ritz followed by a performance by the group Chicago.

- Thursday, Northern Trust rented a private hangar at the Santa Monica Airport for dinner, followed by a performance by Earth, Wind & Fire.

- Saturday, Northern Trust had the entire House of Blues in West Hollywood shut down for its private party. We got the menu -- guests dined on seared salmon and petite Angus filet. Dinner was followed by a performance by none other than Sheryl Crow.

There was also a fabulous cocktail party at the Loews. And how's this for a nice touch: Female guests at the Chicago concert all got trinkets from ... TIFFANY AND CO.

In the letter, Frank and his colleagues wrote that the spending "demonstrates extraordinary levels of irresponsibility and arrogance," and called on Northern Trust CEO Frederick Waddell to return the money to taxpayers.

In response to the TMZ report, a spokesman for the Chicago-based bank told the Chicago Tribune that the bank had committed to sponsor the golf tournament over a year before it got bailout money. He continued: "The reason Northern Trust sponsors the Open is it's an integral part of its marketing program. It's about client relationships and showing appreciation for clients."

The full letter from the Financial Services committee Democrats follows after the jump ...

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