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Norm Coleman visited the Senate a couple of weeks ago to huddle with Republicans -- now Al Franken is in the Senate, ducking into the Democrats' weekly luncheon just behind Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the campaigns chief who helped steer Franken's run last year.

Franken signaled that he may answer some questions after the lunch, so we'll keep you posted.

Late Update: I couldn't nab Franken on his way out the door, but Politico did. The Democratic soon-to-be-senator told the newspaper that he would not attempt to be seated until the three-judge panel in Minnesota rules in his favor, which he predicts will happen.

His Minnesota colleague, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), told me that Franken gave fellow Dems an update on "what was happening -- he discussed the recount, he explained how the process would work up to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and he predicted he'd be the next senator."

Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY), who is in a public-standoff against a national party establishment that wants him to retire in 2010, has actually had an internal poll conducted for his re-election right.

But Bunning won't give any details, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports.

"Let's say I did the polling," Bunning said, which invited a follow-up question as to what the numbers were.

"That means it's none of your g--d--- business," Bunning replied with a laugh. "If you paid the 20-grand for the poll, you can get some information out of it."

A new survey of Delaware from Public Policy Polling (D) should cause some level of concern for Democrats. In a possible match-up for Joe Biden's former Senate seat in 2010, Republican Congressman Mike Castle is currently ahead of Biden's son Beau, who was elected state attorney general in 2006.

The numbers: Castle 44%, Beau Biden 36%, outside the ±3.5% margin of error, though with high undecideds.

Among Democrats, who make up 51% of the sample, Beau leads by 54%-22%. Republicans, at only 29% of the sample, solidly back Castle by 75%-15%. And among others, at 20% of the sample, Castle has a lead of 53%-20%.

From the pollster's analysis: "Mike Castle has served in statewide office now for almost 30 years and that higher level of familiarity with Delaware voters gives him an advantage over Beau Biden. Biden's numbers would surely improve as he became more well known to voters in a statewide campaign but I'm sure the Democrats would nonetheless be quite happy for Congressman Castle to stay where he is."

Rep. Paul Ryan (WI), the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today to address the mounting criticism of his party as lacking an alternative approach to the financial crisis.

After host Joe Scarborough noted that MSNBC analyst Mike Barnicle's wife works for Bank of America -- and jokingly asked the congressman to "wind them down ... more slowly than other banks" -- Barnicle asked Ryan whether minimum capital requirements for banks should be lowered beyond their existing levels.

In response, the GOP congressman acknowledged that capital requirements have been "too liberal" during the past decade, echoing the warnings of economists who have criticized global regulators for overly relaxing the level of capital that banks are permitted to hold.

But what does Ryan think is the best way to bounce back from overly liberal capital requirements? Imposing more liberal accounting rules by suspending mark-to-market accounting practices that require rational valuation of toxic assets. The congressman's full remarks are after the jump.

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Allen Stanford may have been accused of orchestrating an $8 billion Ponzi scheme. But maybe things aren't all doom and gloom for his firm.

It looks like Stanford Financial is still hiring -- even in these tough economic times!

The company's Antiguan assets have been seized, but if you want to work in client services, IT, or security(!) on the island, you can still send in your resume.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the firm doesn't seem to have any openings for accountants, or lawyers.

Way back in November, when Norm Coleman was calling upon Al Franken to concede the Senate race, one of the reasons he cited was the expense. "It's up to him whether such a step is worth the tax dollars it will take to conduct," Norm said at the time, saying that he would have stepped aside if he had been in Franken's position.

But take a look at this number: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has told Time that a new election, for which Coleman is increasingly angling, would cost $3.5-5 million -- and the state is already trying to fix a multi-billion dollar budget deficit. "It's pure fantasy, pure baloney," said Ritchie.

Also consider that at the time Coleman was saying the state had to be spared the expense of a recount, Ritchie estimated that it would cost nearly $90,000. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann just told TPM that the recount proper ultimately came in above estimates, at $120,000. This puts us in the low single-digits as a percentage of the cost of a new election.

Also, the state has to pay more after the recount proper, as a result of Coleman's lawsuit to overturn Franken's margin. In the time time since Coleman brought the election contest, the Secretary of State's office has put in another $55,000. And Gelbmann is sure that local election officials throughout the state and the courts have cumulatively had to put in far more than the total $175,000 that his own office has paid during the two periods.

Still, this doesn't sound like much compared to that price tag on a new election.

The Houston Chronicle has a takeout on Ben Barnes, the storied Texas power-broker who's been thrust back into the limelight through his work as Allen Stanford's Washington lobbyist.

Barnes -- who didn't return our call when we wanted to talk about this several weeks ago -- reveals one intriguing nugget about what he was up to on Stanford's behalf.

Reports the paper:

[O]ver the past year, [Stanford] was interested in having business taxed at the U.S. Virgin Islands tax rate rather than the U.S. rate, Barnes said. Stanford wanted legislation to promote investment in the Caribbean.

"This was not Allen Stanford's legislation. This was the U.S. Virgin Islands idea because they wanted more people to come down there, earn money there," Barnes said.

No such measure was approved either by Congress or the U.S. Treasury, he said.


It's unclear exactly what this means. Which businesses would this change have applied to? Stanford had assets in the Virgin Islands, but the major part of his business was based in Antigua.

But -- along with Stanford's opposition to efforts to crack down on offshore tax havens -- it's another small piece of evidence that goes to answer the question of what Stanford hoped to get out of his assiduous attention to American lawmakers.

Late Update: We overlooked this, but it seems that Stanford was in the process of moving his operation to the Virgin Islands. In February 2008, he announced plans to break ground on construction of the ominously titled "Stanford Financial Group global management complex," which would "serve as the head office for Stanford's operations in the Caribbean."

Lester Byrd, the Antiguan prime minister with whom Stanford had been worryingly close -- it was through Byrd that Stanford obtained his knighthood -- left office in 2004, and the Texan had chillier relations with his successor.

The Journal reports today on a Democratic math problem that we noted yesterday: the president's party simply lacks the votes to break a GOP filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the No. 1 priority of the labor movement that's headed for its official introduction later this afternoon.

The Journal states that six senators who previously supported EFCA are now up in the air on the bill, although only four fence-sitters are named -- the exact same four we reported yesterday, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Mark Pryor (D-AR).

The uncertainty surrounding their votes means that we're unlikely to see EFCA come up in the Senate until May or June, giving labor unions more time to lock up support and Minnesota's Al Franken more time to win his court case and get seated in the Senate.

Late Update: Here comes more proof of the Dems' uncertainty on EFCA ... Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), who had previously voted to break a GOP filibuster of the bill, told HuffPo today that he's opposed to Employee Free Choice in its current format.

Late Late Update: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) offered a rosier prediction to reporters after today's party luncheon, predicting that "frankly, [the votes are] there" to break a GOP filibuster of EFCA. As Reid put it:

Now, remember, these are procedural votes. These are not votes on the substance of the bill. There may be somebody who simply -- they don't believe it's right to hold up legislation like this. And so I think getting 60 votes on the procedural aspects of it, I think, it certainly doable. And then we'll look and see if we can get enough votes to pass it. I, certainly, think we can.

The Hill reports that Michael Steele has gone into damage-control mode -- canceling interviews, possibly getting to work on actually hiring staffers, and holding a conference call to apologize to RNC members for his recent gaffes:

Following a series of misstatements that have resulted in criticism from both inside and outside the GOP, Steele canceled a number of interviews scheduled for this week, including one with The Hill, ostensibly to focus on hiring several senior staffers.

As part of his damage-control efforts, Steele participated in a Friday conference call with members of the RNC, where he apologized and sought to reassure them that he would refocus on the task at hand, according to several people who participated in the call.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner paid a visit to House Democrats last night for a wide-ranging talk that didn't include any requests for more financial bailout money, but did come with a plea for patience as the Obama administration attempts to stabilize the economy.

"We're doing more in weeks than other countries do in years," Geithner told Democrats, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD). In a post-meeting interview with ABC, Cummings was addressed the critics that have been decidedly unenthused* with Geithner's performance thus far:

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