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One of the biggest flashpoints in the coming congressional health care debate will be how much money can be saved by reforming the nation's presently broken system. The White House budget included $634 billion over 10 years for health reform, paid for by in part by trimming the system's existing payments to insurance companies, doctors, and drug-makers.

Not surprisingly, the same industries in line for a fiscal whacking to help fund the health care bill are hoping that Congress gets a little more creative with its attempts to pay for the measure.

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Newly-appointed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is flexing some of her political muscle back home in her upstate House district, cutting this ad for Democratic candidate Scott Murphy:



"I hope you'll join me in voting for Scott Murphy," says Gillibrand. "We need him in Congress."

On paper, the Republicans started out with some advantages to pick up this marginal seat, given the lead they have in voter-registration -- though on the other hand, the GOP brand is in pretty bad shape, and the district voted narrowly for Barack Obama last year. If Murphy wins, expect Gillibrand's supporters to say that her image, as a local woman done good, provided at least some significant help.

Meanwhile, Republican candidate Jim Tedisco has announced that he wants the NRCC out of his campaign, after a recent poll said that Murphy has nearly erased Tedisco's initial lead, with a drastic turnaround among independent voters. He'll manage it himself, and seek to refocus the race in a positive direction.

In a move that represents both a formality and a historic gesture, the Obama administration has announced that it's withdrawing the designation of "enemy combatant" for Guantanamo detainees. The Bush administration had drawn widespread criticism for its use of that designation, which allowed it to deny detainees rights they otherwise would have been entitled to.

In a press release, the Justice Department said it was submitting a new standard to hold detainees at Gitmo. Rather than relying on the president's authority as commander-in-chief, the department explained, the new standard "draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress."

It also said that the governent is conducting a review of detainee detention policy which could lead to "further refinements."

President Obama has already announced this intention to close Gitmo within the year. In a sense, today's announcement is an equally important step in winding down the "War On Terror" concept that the Bush administration announced, and shifting to an approach that sees the fight against terrorism as an effort to be conducted within the bounds of international and domestic law.

In other words: change we can believe in.

Just to add to what my colleague, Elana Schor had earlier on Chris Hill: At his press briefing today, Robert Gibbs stood behind Chris Hill as the President's choice to be the next Ambassador to Iraq. So for the moment at least, there's no backing down to the McCain-Graham assault on Hill as being unready for Iraq. Hill is one of the most accomplished career diplomats at State but his assignments have all been European and Asian. He speaks Polish and Serbo-Croatian, according to the State Department web site.

But here's something interesting. McCain and Graham had no problem voting for Hill to be come George W. Bush's Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs even thought his previous experience was overwhelmingly European with one tour in Seoul. In general the country's supported the idea that senior State Department officials can move around the world and not have to prove their credentials each time they're assigned to a new region. McCain and Graham are imposing a new standard that seems odd. It's not wildly irrational to want an Iraq ambassador with Mideast experience but it's a bar that I've never heard Senators ask of any other career diplomat before. Perhaps TPM readers can think of other examples where Graham and McCain had no qualms about supporting a nominee for a key diplomatic post who had no previous experience in the region?

Tony Perkins, the president of the religious-right activist group the Family Research Council, has just announced that he will not challenge Senator David Vitter (R-LA) in the 2010 Republican primary.

Not only that, but he's endorsing Vitter: "I am grateful for those who've encouraged me to consider returning to elected office, but this is not the right time. Along those lines, I would like members of the State Central Committee to know that I support Senator David Vitter's bid for reelection in 2010."

Perkins is also a former Louisiana state Representative, and he ran for Senate in 2002, winning 10% of the vote in the all-party primary that the state used at the time. Had he run, Perkins might have posed a real threat to Vitter's renomination -- after all, one of them is a top-level social-conservative activist, and the other is a social-conservative politician whose career got bogged down in the D.C. Madam prostitution scandal in 2007.

Of course, there was a serious risk in any potential candidacy: That he might run against Vitter, lose the primary, and have only succeeded in softening up the incumbent against a Democratic challenger.

The Democratic National Committee is now going after South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, perhaps the most prominent anti-stimulus Republican in the country, with this new TV ad set to begin airing Monday in the Columbia media market:



The ad accuses Sanford, a vocal conservative, of playing politics in his refusal of stimulus money. "South Carolina is facing tough times - but Governor Sanford is playing politics instead of doing what's right," the announcer says. "Turning down millions in Recovery Act funds, putting politics ahead of health care, jobs and schools."

We mentioned earlier this morning that the AP got a little ahead of itself in reporting that Chris Hill's chances of getting confirmed as ambassador to Baghdad were "dimming" thanks to opposition from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has just released a statement declaring in no uncertain terms that Hill's right on track:

Chris Hill is a strong, skilled and effective negotiator and an accomplished career foreign service officer who demonstrated his significant expertise in some of the most protracted and complex diplomatic challenges in the world, including those in North Korea and Bosnia. Hill is precisely the kind of diplomat America needs in the Middle East and Iraq, where a long-term resolution must be achieved politically and diplomatically, not militarily. I look forward to confirming him as quickly as possible.


Late Update: A potent takedown of Hill's conservative critics is just out from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who asserts that Hill's effectiveness during the North Korea nuclear talks was "hamstrung by in-fighting among senior members of the Bush administration":

I have every confidence that Ambassador Hill is the right person to represent the United States in Baghdad. By nominating Ambassador Hill to serve in Bagdad, President Obama has chosen one of our very best to help bring lasting peace to Iraq. I look forward to his confirmation hearings, and am confident that those of my colleagues who may not yet be familiar with his service to the nation will be as impressed by his skill and dedication as I have been.

Some of my colleagues, frustrated by North Korea's dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons, have implied that Ambassador Hill is somehow responsible for the fact that North Korea exploded a nuclear device on President Bush's watch. But the responsibility for that lies first and foremost with North Korea and second with President Bush and his senior advisers, who did not empower Ambassador Hill to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang until after the North had withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, exported nuclear technology to Syria, and tested a nuclear bomb. In fact, had Ambassador Hill not been hamstrung by in-fighting among senior members of the Bush Administration, President Obama might not have inherited such a dangerous problem on the Korean Peninsula.

There are limits to what any one person can do in the realm of foreign affairs, but individual talent still matters. Hill has it in abundance.

Closing arguments were conducted this morning in the Minnesota election trial, with the political world now awaiting the decision and any potential appeals. Having examined the Franken campaign's closing arguments, let's now take a look at the closer from lead Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg.

In many ways, Friedberg's closing argument felt like it was a preemptive appeal -- that the current rules point to a Coleman loss, and Friedberg was asking this court, or perhaps a future appeals court, to reverse key orders that had gone against Coleman during or before the trial.

At one point, Friedberg said how he's always hopeful that when he argues as a defense attorney, before juries that have become convinced of the prosecution's case, "I might get them to step back, clear their minds, open their minds, and let me try to convince them to the contrary."

But he also admitted, in a flattering tone of voice, "It's more difficult to do that with judges, because basically you know more about the law than I do."

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Yesterday we noted a report by the New York Times about Rep. Maxine Waters' ties to OneUnited, a bank that got bailout money after Waters set up a meeting between Treasury Department officials and the heads of minority-owned banks, including OneUnited's CEO.

Now Waters is pushing back.

In a statement on her website, Waters asserts that the stories "revealed one thing: I am indeed an advocate for minority banks. Despite my public and consistent advocacy, news reports suggest that somehow I have acted improperly."

The full statement follows after the jump...

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We reported yesterday on the abrupt resolution of the Senate holds that had snagged John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, President Obama's nominees to lead the White House science office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, respectively.

Now that the nominees have been affirmatively sent to the Senate floor, their path to confirmation looks clear -- although the names and party affiliations of the senators holding them up remains murky. We're going to keep sniffing around to try to unmask the anonymous objectors.

But in the meantime, after the jump you can check out a letter on the nominations that was sent to the Senate today by 20 leading environmental groups (h/t Politico).

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