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As he signed a $410 billion spending bill that Republicans hammered for its thousands of earmarks, President Obama unveiled new proposals to shed sunlight on the practice that's known as either "pork" or "congressionally directed spending" -- depending on whether you're talking to its critics or its defenders.

Earmarks have undoubtedly been misused and abused over the years, both by disgraced lawmakers (see Cunningham, Randy "Duke") and lobbyists (see Abramoff, Jack). The process' inherent risk of influence-peddling makes it no easy task to defend earmarks -- and sure enough, Obama's attempt to defend the practice fell flat with its chief Senate critics, Russ Feingold (D-WI) and John McCain (R-AZ).

Feingold and McCain's unmoved reactions to the presidential earmark fueled some critical media coverage, with the Politico headlining its story "Obama goes soft on pork".

Did Obama offer little more than a band-aid on the growth of earmarks?

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South Carolina Republican chairman Katon Dawson has moved to quash a report that he's behind an effort to kick out Michael Steele, sending this statement to Jim Geraghty:

I support Michael Steele. Our Committee elected him knowing that he can lead us during this critical time for our Party. The people behind this anonymous rumor are clearly intent on dividing the Republican National Committee and our Party at a time when we need to be united.


It may well be true that Dawson isn't behind any attempt to boot Steele. On the other hand, he hasn't done a particularly sterling job of supporting him, either, recently telling the Politico that he would be doing things differently -- that it wouldn't have taken him as long to transfer some money to the House and Senate campaign committees. And Geraghty has heard conflicting accounts from GOP insiders -- that Dawson either doesn't seem inclined to challenge Steele, or that he's likely to do it.

But again, it is absolutely true that saying you'd be doing a better job is not necessarily the same as actively plotting against somebody.

We don't usually write about state-level legislative wrangling, but in this case, we think you'll agree that there's good reason.

Before the election, we wrote a lot about the Republican effort to make it harder for poor and minority voters to cast ballots. In several states, the GOP took advantage of restrictive voter ID laws, passed in recent years, to try to force election officials to purge voters from the rolls.

A well-organized campaign by voting rights groups and Democrats helped mitigate the damage. But that doesn't seem to have deterrred the GOP...

In fact, Texas Republicans have doubled down on the strategy, "pushing a bill to require voters to show a photo ID -- a requirement that, studies show, would hit poor and minority voters, who vote disproportionately Democratic, particularly hard. As usual, the stated rationale for the bill is to protect against voter fraud -- and as usual, Republicans have produced no actual evidence that such fraud is occurring.

Similar laws exist in Indiana and Florida, Republican election officials in both states sought to use those laws to make it harder to vote.

The bill passed the GOP-controlled Texas Senate today, on a party-line vote, reports the Dallas Morning News -- but not before some noteworthy developments during Senate hearings.

First, in an sign of how the movement for this bill ties in to broader GOP efforts to make voting harder, Republicans wheeled out arch voter suppression guru and
TPMmuckraker fave Hans Von Spakovsky to testify about the dangers of voter fraud.

Then, the hearing, run by Republicans, ended up dragging on from Tuesday morning all the way until this morning. Some citizens who had been called by Democrats to testify did not get to speak until 6am this morning.

Reported the DMN:

One woman who waited all night sobbed during her testimony, saying she had no idea she would have to wait more than 20 hours to speak.


The bill is expected to face a much tougher time in the closely divided House. And Democrats have said they plan to challenge the bill's legality in court, under the Voting Rights Act.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Senate Rules committee, chaired by Chuck Schumer, released an MIT study finding that up to 7 million voters were prevented or discouraged from casting votes in the November election, thanks largely to barriers to voter registration.

As Republicans understand, making voting harder can make a difference in a close election. And the terms of battle for 2010 and 2012 are already being drawn...

The Franken legal team is postponing the resting of their case -- which lead attorney Marc Elias had announced yesterday evening would be happening today -- due to logistical difficulties in bringing in some witnesses.

Franken lawyer Kevin Hamilton told the judges that he has another absentee voter whose ballots has been rejected, ready to come in tomorrow. And he's been trying to line up testimony by the Clay County auditor.

"We would be prepared to provisionally rest at some point tomorrow," Hamilton said, "once we get that remaining testimony in, and allow the case to move forward."

On the one hand, a couple loose ends have introduced a slight delay into the process. But on the other hand, this is still way ahead of when anyone would have predicted the Franken camp resting their case.

Also, the court has just handed down a ruling to allow the counting of 14 ballots from a petition brought by a group of Franken-voters. There were 61 people involved in the original petition, for which the court initially granted permission to 24 a month ago, then rescinded permission on three a little over a week ago, and is now adding in 14 after additional evidence was submitted -- a total of 35 Franken-voters in this action who have been granted permission for now to have their ballots opened and counted at a later date.

The Obama administration has ordered a wide-ranging review of the signing statements that his predecessor frequently used to sidestep congressional edicts -- but that's not stopping the president from issuing one of his own.

After Obama signed the $410 spending bill that keeps the government funded until October, the White House released a statement outlining its take on the constitutionality of several of the bill's provisions.

Perhaps the most notable portion of the statement gives Obama room to reallocate money as he sees fit without abiding by the spending bill's requirement to first get approval from Congress:

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If I was a gambling man, I would bet that Michael Steele is going to make it.

I realize that he's not popular, that a lot of people in the Republican Party would like to see him go and as Josh Marshall pointed out he doesn't have a single, solid constituency like the conservative Christian activists or state party chairs united behind him.

But look at Roland Burris. I point to him not because of race, although surely the forcible removal of the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee would have racial overtones. Burris is arguably much less popular among his peers than Steele is with the Republican National Committee members who elected him RNC Chairman in January. Burris seems like a goner just a few weeks ago. Now, he's a Senate regular and his ouster seems unlikely in the extreme.

Still it's worth examining just what the party rules say about removing a chairman if it comes to that. If you look at Rule 5 of the RNC rules it says explicitly: "The chairman or co- chairman may be removed from office only by a two- thirds (2/3) vote of the entire Republican National Committee." The ballot has to be open under Roberts Rules of Order which is the playbook for RNC rules--which is kind of amusing given the opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. That is a pretty high bar.

And the vote could only come--as best I can tell; I have a call into the RNC-- at one of the two semiannual meetings of the RNC. Thus, you couldn't have a phone coup d'etat or the Executive Committee of the RNC lead the fight.

Can Steele hold a third of RNC members? My bet is yes although the fact that it's even a question is pretty amazing.

By the way, the shortest chairmanship of the RNC ever was C. Wesley Roberts of Kansas who served four months as chair in 1953. According to Wikipedia, Alvin Scott of The Kansas City Star won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for local reporting for a series of articles that drove Roberts to resign. Roberts was accused of collecting a $10,000 commission on the sale of a hospital to the State of Kansas which the state already owned. His son, interestingly, is U.S. Senator Pat Roberts.

Remember Ted Haggard, the politically powerful megachurch pastor from Colorado who's career came crashing down in a male-prostitution scandal in late 2006? Haggard has since moved on -- he's no longer a preacher, but is instead working as an insurance salesman -- and seems to be adjusting to an undesired place in pop culture.

Time Out New York reports that Haggard attended the performance of a play called The Beautiful City, all about evangelical culture in Colorado. And an important plot point in the play is...the downfall of Ted Haggard.

Haggard kept a low profile, with the cast not knowing he was there, although the crew knew about it. Artistic director Steven Cosson said: "And they would come back and say, 'Oh, he laughed at this line. He smiled at that. He's sticking around for the second act.'"

Haggard and his wife were also accompanied to the show by a friend of theirs: Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, who made the HBO documentary The Trials of Ted Haggard, plus Alexandra's husband.

Haggard didn't bask in any limelight, though. He, his wife and the Pelosis were the first to leave the theater after the play was over, and Pelosi was overheard saying, "I didn't understand the point."

In better days, Allen Stanford was, by most accounts, a loqacious and charming figure, wooing clients, lawmakers, and foreign dignitaries alike with the sheer power of his personality.

Now, not so much.

In court documents filed today, Stanford took the fifth, declining to testify in the SEC's complaint against him, in which he is accused of orchestrating an $8 billion Ponzi scheme.

His former college roommate and Number 2 at Stanford Financial Group, Jim Davis, is likewise staying mum, it was reported last week.

Three House Democratic committee chairmen -- Henry Waxman (CA) at Energy & Commerce, Charles Rangel (NY) at Ways & Means, and George Miller (CA) at Education & Labor -- have just sent a letter to President Obama vowing to work together on health care reform legislation that can become law this year.

The letter is notable for its emphasis on a uniform, coordinated timetable to ensure that turf battles over committee jurisdiction do not slow down the debate over health reform. The still-unwritten climate change bill, by contrast, is already the subject of some jockeying for position by Rangel and Waxman.

Also, the House chairmen's letter contains stronger indications of a coordinated effort than a similar missive sent to Obama by the Senate's key chairmen on health care, Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA).

The senators declared their "continuing commitment to enacting comprehensive health care reform this year," while their House counterparts committed specifically to "work from a harmonized approach [in their committees] to ensure success." There was some initial concern on the Hill that Baucus and Kennedy would butt heads as both committees moved forward with health care, but the Boston Globe reported this week that the two are working well together.

You can read the House chairmen's full letter after the jump.

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Bernard Madoff is set this week to plead guilty to orchestrating a massive Ponzi scheme. But could we be in line for more guilty pleas before this is all over?

The Daily Beast reports:

[T]he [Madoff] investigation ... has broadened to include a number of suspected co-conspirators, according to federal officials involved in the case.


The Daily Beast story -- written by Lucinda Franks, whose byline identifies her as a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who was formerly on the staff of the New York Times -- also reports that, according to sources, "several members of Madoff's inner circle transferred assets to their wives, transactions thought to be laundered through an English bank."

There are said to be three groups of possible co-conspirators, who could potentially be charged either criminally by the Justice Department, or civilly by the SEC.

In the first group are employees of Madoff's firm who concocted false trades and sent out phony statements to thousands of unsuspecting clients.

The second group is comprised of principals in feeder funds such as Cohmad Securities Corp. and Fairfield Greenwich Group, which funneled investor dollars to Madoff and received large fees for steering this business. If they were aware of Madoff's fraud, they could face criminal charges; if they were not, they could be hit with civil charges for a lack of due diligence.

The third group is the target of an investigation that's still in its early stages into money laundering through British banks, in which US and British authorities are cooperating. This group consists of solicitors, accountants, and others in London who may have assisted Madoff in transferring funds from client accounts to a Madoff entity that lists Ruth Madoff, brother Peter Madoff, and sons Mark and Andrew Madoff among its board members.


It's not clear from any of this that any specific members of Madoff's family, or his inner circle, are in immediate legal jeopardy.

But the Wall Street Journal appears to be thinking along similar lines (sub req). It notes:
Prosecutors alleged Tuesday that Mr. Madoff hired numerous employees with "little or no prior pertinent training or experience in the securities industry" and caused them to "communicate with clients and generate false and fraudulent documents."


Its report doesn't go as far as the Daily Beast's. The Journal says it's still unclear whether prosecutors believe these people knew they were involved in a fraudulent scheme, and doesn't explicitly say that the investigation has broadened beyond Madoff himself.

But it's noticeable that the paper does take the time to lay out what's known about the possible involvement in the scheme of five of Madoff's relatives and associates -- including his wife Ruth, who has hired her own lawyer, and his brother Peter, who was the chief compliance officer for Madoff's firm.

With Madoff's guilty plea soon to be safely in the bag, are these reports an indication of where prosecutors are going next?

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