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We reported on Wednesday that the Obama administration's new executive pay limits -- which have huge loopholes built in -- weren't stopping Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) from pushing to add her own, stronger CEO pay caps to the stimulus bill.

And very quietly, by unanimous voice vote, McCaskill's plan was added to the stimulus last night. The Senate also added Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd's (D-CT) similar executive pay constraints to the bill. So it seems that GOPers may talk about not wanting government in control of private business; but when push comes to shove, even they can no longer defend the excesses of Wall Street.

A new Gallup poll explains why Democrats are now so eager to connect the anti-stimulus bill Republicans to Rush Limbaugh, and to set up Rush as the new Leader of the Opposition: Independents hate him, he can galvanize Democrats...and Republican voters actually do like him.

Limbaugh's favorable-unfavorable numbers among Republicans stand at 60%-23%. Among independents, though, he's at just 25%-45%. And Democrats definitely have it in for him at 6%-63%. Multiplying out the partisan subsets in this poll, we get an overall top-line result of 28% favorability for Limbaugh across the country, compared to 45% unfavorable.

So if Limbaugh does become a national issue, the data shows he could be a net plus for the Dems -- though the obvious caveat exists that swing voters could have more important things to worry about than some radio loudmouth.

A funny dynamic right now in the Minnesota election trial is how both campaigns have lists of rejected absentee ballots that they're trying to get reconsidered for admission -- and both of them have set out to demonstrate how the other guy's catalog is complete garbage.

Earlier this morning in the Minnesota trial, Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg went through some of Franken's current list with Anoka County elections manager Rachel Smith, having her affirm that there were various problems within the Anoka section: The ballots had arrived late, were missing voter signatures, or witness signatures, etc. Franken's team hasn't had the chance to cross-examine Smith yet, so we'll see how they do on these votes.

It's to be expected that the vast majority of re-reviewed ballots from both sides will have some serious problems -- and Coleman's certainly have -- as most of them were rejected at least a second time by local officials during a separate review this past December. The issue here is more about what might happen if any leniency ends up being brought to the process, such as forgiving an error if it's determined to have been an election official's fault, not the voter's.

Coleman's list started out at 654, and has now expanded to 4,797 with the court's permission. Franken's team started at 771 ballots, and they have a pending request to expand their group after Coleman got to do it. And of course, both sides' lists so far have come from their own geographic strongholds, as well. So this will take a while.

Last month, Theresa Hatt died at 52, after a brief struggle with cancer.

Hatt, who lived in Portland, Maine, and worked for the city of Scarborough, had had several credit cards in her name. So, shortly after her death, Hatt's son, Paul Kelleher, began the sad task of calling his mother's creditors, to inform them of her passing.

The calls were uneventful, if depressing, until Kelleher got to Bank of America. Here is how he says his conversation with a representative of the company's estates unit went:

Paul Kelleher: Yes, I'm calling to inform you that my mom died on the 24th of January.

Bank of America Estates representative: I'm sorry. Oh, it looks like she never even missed a payment. That's too bad. Well, how are you planning to take care of her balance?

PK: I'm not going to. She has no estate to speak of, but you should feel free to just go through the standard probate procedure. I'm certainly not legally obligated to pay for her.

BOA: You mean you're not going to help her out?

PK: I wouldn't be helping her out -- she's dead. I'd be helping you out.

BOA: Oh, that's really not the way to look at it. I know that if it were my mother, I'd pay it. That's why we're in the banking crisis we're in: banks having to write off defaulted loans.


"I lost it there," Kelleher, a mild-mannered 30-year-old who lives in Brookline, Mass., where he works remotely for a Washington DC-based non-profit, told TPMMuckraker. When pressed, he said, the estates rep backed off that last claim, but only a little, continuing to suggest that cases like his mothers had played a role in the financial crisis.

The rep's apparent intention, as Kelleher described it, was to mislead him into believing that he was obligated -- at first legally, then, failing that, morally -- to cover his mother's debt (which, in any case, was not large: she had had a $1000 limit on her card). Of course, Kelleher was sophisticated enough to know that's not true. But how many other less savvy callers in similar situations, he wondered, might respond to the rep's breezy "how are you planning to take care of her balance?," with a confused "I guess I'll mail in a check"?

And what bothered Kelleher as much as the estate rep's insensitivity, not to mention her apparent effort to deceive, was the impression he got that she wasn't winging it.

"It seemed rote," Kelleher said. "It was too naturally delivered to have been a misstatement."

That impression was strengthened when Kelleher eventually spoke with the rep's supervisor, Eric Davis. Kelleher said that when he recounted his conversation with the rep, Davis apologized -- for what, exactly, it was unclear -- but told him: "That's not how she meant it."

From his conversation with Davis, said Kelleher, "it sounded like [the rep's approach] was encouraged."

How strongly encouraged, we wondered? And how common was this particular rep's approach? So we tracked down a former rep for Bank of America's collections unit. And according to the former rep, Kelleher's interlocutor was doing just what she was told .

The former rep, who worked until quite recently at B of A's Belfast, Maine-based collections unit, described for TPMmuckraker a system in which staffers responsible for making collections were routinely encouraged to mislead customers or those calling on their behalf, and were financially incentivized to do all they could to get payments.

Kelleher's reported conversation, the former rep said, "sounds like how I would have attempted to collect" in such a situation. "I would have asked: 'How do you plan on paying for this?'"

The rep said that employees were encouraged to walk right up to the line of actively deceiving a caller about the consequences of non-payment. "As long as you don't get caught [lying]," the former rep added, "there's no really no punishment." The former rep did not work in the estates unit, but confirmed, based on direct knowledge of B of A's practices, that it operates similarly to the former rep's own unit.

The former rep said that employees responsible for collections receive "feedback" about their phone performance from managers who monitor the calls. (When you hear "this call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes", the "quality assurance" oftentimes isn't quality of service from the customer's perspective -- it's quality of performance from the rep, who's being trained to be as effective as possible at extracting money from callers.)

The former rep added that if a manager had listened to the performance of Kelleher's rep, he would likely tell her: "Good job!" By contrast, if he had heard the rep failing to make any serious effort to convince Kelleher to pay his mother's debt, he would have told her "that was not a good 'listening score,'" -- the term gets at the precision with which a rep's phone performance is monitored -- and would have encouraged her to take a tougher approach.

There are also more direct ways to ensure that collections agents play hardball. "We were obligated to collect 45 percent of the debt that rolled in to us," said the former rep, adding that that figure fluctuated. Employees who consistently failed to meet that baseline might be fired. "People lost their jobs all the time for non-performance."

And there were bonuses of us as much as $5000 a month for reps who successfully brought in a certain percentage of "collectible money", said the former rep, using the industry's cold-blooded jargon.

What's the larger point here? Well, here's one: When the automakers were asking Washington for a bailout recently, there was a lot of talk about insisting on conditions -- like requiring that they build more fuel-efficient cars -- that would be in the national interest. Bank of America and its competitors have already taken billions in taxpayer dollars. So it seems logical to insist on a similar set of public interest conditions -- and the industry's range of deceptive and rapacious lending practices would be a natural place to start.

Neither Eric Davis, the B of A supervisor, nor B of A's public relations office immediately responded to a request for comment.

Late Update: A Bank of America spokeswoman declined to comment on "allegations by former associates."

Despite a rousing, psych-you-up speech from President Obama last night, the Senate is still facing the same core dilemma on the economic recovery bill.

Call it the Goldilocks problem. The 15 centrist senators still in talks on slicing about $100 billion from the bill have yet to hit on a package of spending cuts that's not too hot, not too cold, but just right to get the stimulus to 60 votes.

If they don't figure it out by day's end, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will do what I suspected he'd ultimately have to -- move to cut off debate on the bill entirely, setting up a Sunday vote that will test all this talk of resistance from centrists on both sides.

One thing that bears repeating throughout today's Senate drama: This debate over trimming the stimulus is spending little time on what it means to cut as much as $13 billion in state education aid and $5.5 billion in surface transportation funding. The process is just moving too fast.

"It's very hard to get your case made in a fully substantive way," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), one of the dozen-plus negotiators, admitted last night. (He had just finished asserting that "substance matters here, what's in the package matters a lot.")

So by all means, call your senator and holler if you saw something on the list of potential cuts that concerns you.

Remember the case of Kathie Olsen, the Bush political appointee who's now safely ensconced in a suspiciously junior position at the same agency where she was once the No. 2?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) thinks she's uncovered a similar situation at the Pentagon's Office of Detainee Affairs, where former Bushies are still involved in politically sensitive debates over the Guantanamo Bay prison. Feinstein wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday seeking an inquiry into whether two political appointees "have been improperly converted to career positions within the Department of Defense." From her letter:

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Obama To Stimulus Critics: Spending "Is The Whole Point" President Obama spoke last night to the House Democrats, where he rallied support for the stimulus bill -- and hammered the opposition. "They say this isn't a stimulus bill. It's a spending bill," said Obama. "Well, that's the whole point." A full transcript is available here.

Obama's Day Ahead: Discussing The Economy, And Gitmo President Obama and Paul Volcker are holding an 11:15 a.m. event at the White, to introduce members of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. At 3:30 p.m., Obama will be holding a closed meeting at the White House with family members of the victims of 9/11 and the USS Cole bombing, in order to discuss his decision to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay -- a decision that has been strongly objected to by some of the people he'll be meeting today.

Biden Speaking To House Dems, Then Heading To Germany Joe Biden will be speaking today to the House Democratic Issues Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. He will then travel to Germany, where he will be representing the United States at the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy.

Reid Wants To Hold Stimulus Vote Today The Washington Post reports that Harry Reid hopes to hold a vote on final passage of the stimulus bill today, after yesterday's negotiations with a small handful of Senate Republicans dragged on. If today's effort fails, Reid will call for a Sunday session.

Hillary Going To Asia For First Overseas Trip As Secretary Hillary Clinton is set to go to Asia for her first overseas trip the Secretary of State, visiting Japan, South Korea, China and Indonesia. She is scheduled to embark on her trip on February 15.

Steele Shakes Up RNC, Asks For Resignations The Hill reports that Michael Steele is undertaking a top-to-bottom review of the Republican National Committee's staff, asking all top staffers to submit their resignations. Some of them could be rehired, but the ironically named "state victory directors" won't be coming back.

Poll: GOPer Ahead In Virginia-Gov. Race, But It's Still Wide Open A new Rasmussen poll shows Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell leading all three Democrats in the open race for governor, though the undecided numbers remain high: McDonnell leads state Senator Creigh Deeds 39%-30%, is ahead of former state Delegate Brian Moran 39%-36%, and leads Terry McAuliffe 42%-35%.

Obama Takes First Ride On Air Force One President Obama took his first ride as the sitting president on Air Force One last night, as he traveled to the House Dems' retreat in Williamsburg. Said Obama to the reporters: "Hey guys, what do you think of my -- this spiffy ride here?"

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs quipped yesterday that Congress' stimulus debate was in the "bottom of the fifth" inning. So it's looking like a long seventh-inning stretch this evening as Senate centrists continue hashing out a package of cuts to the $900-billion-plus package.

Democratic leaders understandably would prefer the focus to be on what's in the package rather than what's in line for cuts. But to use another familiar metaphor, Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have grabbed the wheel of the economic recovery plan with their still-evolving proposal to trim as much as $100 billion from education, mass transit, and other areas. Talking to reporters in the ornate Senate reception room this evening, Collins described the group of centrist senators as pretty far from an agreement.

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Norm Coleman may have just made a little bit of progress in his election lawsuit, with the potential to gain back three votes that had been lost during the recount. Now if he can get those in, he'll just have to work on making up the remaining 222 votes in Al Franken's lead.

This all goes back to the duplication process for absentee ballots that have been damaged, a standard process performed at the precincts on Election Night. At a precinct in the Republican stronghold of Anoka County, three labelled duplicates were found for which the labelled originals could not be located. The decision made at the time was to assume that the originals weren't properly labelled and were elsewhere in the count, so the duplicates shouldn't be included.

The problem with this: Throwing out these three duplicates, sans the originals, meant that Norm had lost exactly three votes in this precinct during the recount, compared to the Election Night totals.

While she was on the stand today, Anoka County elections manager Rachel Smith said she was looking yesterday through envelopes containing stacks of ballots...and found the originals, which are now back at her office. Normally there would be serious chain of custody problems for ballots that are found at this stage, but the match-up with the Election Night totals could give Coleman an opening to get these votes in.

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