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This just makes me cringe. In an interview this afternoon with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a CNN reporter practically snickered at the idea of spending $75 million on smoking cessation programs as part of an economic stimulus bill. The anchor introduced the segment this way:

HARRIS: You know, just about every line of the huge stimulus bill contains millions for what most Democrats are calling job creation and many Republicans are calling waste, arguments based on differing political philosophies perhaps. But who could argue that spending millions to help people quit smoking will create jobs?


No one is arguing that. But as Harkin tried to explain, small investments in preventative care measures, such as smoking cessation, have a hugely beneficial effect on overall health care costs. And he was mocked for attempting it:

GRIFFIN: Senator, it just seems like this is not the bill. We're trying to get the economy moving, we're trying to get people back to work, and I'm having a hard time understanding how $75 million to tell people to stop smoking is going to put anybody back to work.

HARKIN: Well, first of all, I would tell you, we put -- we put over $5 billion in this bill on prevention so that we can get ahead of the curve and start cutting health care costs.

GRIFFIN: Senator, I've got to be skeptical, because what I think I'm hearing from you is, yes, we want to get people off of smoking, but here you go, Joe, you're out of work, but, by golly, at least you're not smoking.


Did this approach come straight from Rep. John Boehner's (R-OH) cigarette-adorned mouth?

When I talked with Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Pete DeFazio recently about the fate of mass transit in the stimulus bill, one sentiment came through loud and clear. Nadler put it more subtly: "There are some people in the administration who are not enamored of infrastructure," he said.

Hmmm, could these unnamed infrastructure foes have a name that rhymes with Marry Plummers? DeFazio was less shy about his discomfort with the centrist brand of economics espoused by some Clinton vets in the new administration.

DeFazio deemed it "very unfortunate" that former Clinton economic adviser Larry Summers has claimed a similar hold on Obama's ear. "Harvard had it right," the progressive Democrat quipped -- referring to the Ivy League university's jettisoning of Summers from its presidency in the wake of a scandal over his remarks on women's intellectual abilities.

Since the House Democrats released a stimulus bill that devoted only about 5% of its $825 billion price tag to fixing the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure, we've been looking at whether mass transit in particular could ultimately claim a bigger piece of the pie.

Leaving aside President Obama's initial prediction that his economic recovery plan would be the "largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s," expanding mass transit is a just-plain-good idea. It creates jobs, and it helps wean the nation off a decades-long obsession with emissions-generating car travel.

So now that the House has added $3 billion in mass transit money to its stimulus bill -- bringing the total investment up to the level envisioned by transportation committee chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) -- we're back on the right path, right?

Well, not completely. I talked to the two Democrats who led the charge to restore the $3 billion, Reps. Jerrold Nadler (NY) and Pete DeFazio (OR), and they weren't celebrating yet.

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The RNC just finished their second round of balloting, with barely any changes as measured against the first round:

• Duncan 48 (-4)

• Steele 48 (+2)

• Dawson 29 (+1)

• Anuzis 24 (+2)

• Blackwell 19 (-1)

The only candidate for whom this round was unambiguously bad was Duncan -- he's the incumbent and he lost four votes, with only 29% of the total vote. And now he's tied with Steele.

If there's going to be major movement here, one of the lesser candidates will have to drop out, or at least see their supporters effectively drop them out of the race by going to other contenders.

Norm Coleman's legal team this morning appears to be accomplishing what they haven't done much of for the last week: Doing something right.

The Coleman campaign has called Ramsey County (St. Paul) elections direct Joe Mansky to the stand, and they're going over the training processes and overall procedures that go into accepting or rejecting absentee ballots. And the discussion has brought them to examining individual ballots that have still been rejected and kept out of the count.

Mansky was shown several examples where he said errors by elections officials in preparing the ballot -- such as placing a sticker on top of the instructions or even blocking out portions that the voter was supposed to fill out -- should effectively release the voter from the obligation to fill those out to the letter.

Mansky confirmed that some votes now exist out there that have not been counted and should not have been rejected -- the central point of Coleman's current quest to reopen the question of improperly-rejected absentees.

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The Republican National Committee's winter meeting has just announced the vote totals from the first round of balloting in the heated race for RNC chairman. No candidate has received the 85-vote majority needed to win just yet, but so far it's a tight race between incumbent chairman Mike Duncan and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele:

• Duncan 52

• Steele 46

• South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson 28

• Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis 22

• Former Ohio Sec. of State Ken Blackwell 20

Overall this is not a good result for Duncan -- he is an incumbent who only received 31% of the vote in the first round of voting, and a viable non-Duncan candidate is trailing just narrowly behind. This is also a bit of an embarrassment for right-wing bloggers and movement conservative activists, who had actively been supporting Blackwell.

The RNC has now gone out to lunch -- and presumably a lot of deal-making -- before we go into the second round later.

Another day, another earnest report finding that the Treasury has messed up the bailout.

A new GAO report on issues of "transparency and accountability" in the TARP program finds that Treasury lacks "a clearly articulated vision" for TARP and "has made limited progress in ... communicating an overall strategy" for it.

From a summary of findings:

Treasury has continued to develop a system for detecting noncompliance with key requirements of the program but has not yet finalized its plans. Further, Treasury has made limited progress in formatting articulating and communicating an overall strategy for TARP, continuing to respond to institution- and industry-specific needs by, for example, making further capital purchases and offering loans to the automobile industry. In addition, it has not yet developed a strategic approach to explain how its various programs work together to fulfill TARP's purposes or how it will use the remaining TARP funds. While GAO does not question the need for swift responses in the current economic environment, the lack of a clearly articulated vision has complicated Treasury's ability to effectively communicate to Congress, the financial markets, and the public on the benefits of TARP and has limited its ability to identify personnel needs.
Several previous reports, some from TARP's Congressional Oversight Panel have had similar findings.

So it's not like we didn't know any of this. But it's worth being reminded, as often as possible, just what a mess of this program the federal government has made so far.

Bloomberg has a few more details about the developing investigation, conducted by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, into the bonuses awarded last month by Merrill Lynch.

It reports, sourced to "a person familiar with the matter," that Cuomo may demand the return of the bonuses -- estimated at as much as $4 billion, and apparently awarded on an accelerated schedule just before the firm came under the control of Bank of America at the start of 2009.

Bloomberg adds that Cuomo is also probing what Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Ken Lewis knew about the bonuses, and about Merrill's huge losses in the fourth quarter, which appear to have ben revealed B of A around the time the bonuses were awarded.

More broadly, Bloomberg reports, the investigation is focused on "whether the companies' shareholders had all necessary information about Merrill's finances and whether federal bail-out loans to Bank of America were used properly."

John Thain, Merrill's former CEO, was ousted as a Bank of America exec shortly after news of the bonuses, and the losses, became public. According to reports, Cuomo has already subponaed Thain.

President Obama yesterday called Wall Street's awarding of billions of dollars in bonuses "outrageous." Congress is considering adding "claw back" provisions to the next round of bailout money, which would allow the Treasury to get back money it invested in banks that was then spent in ways that departed from the purpose of the government's investment.

We've got our own contact in to Cuomo's office, and will let you know what else we find out...

Late Update: Looks like Bloomberg's report may have overstated the case a bit.

Fridays are often slow news days in the capital, and today is no exception. Aside from some talk of a third Republican in the Obama Cabinet and the RNC chairman's race, few major storylines are unspooling at the moment -- part of the reason for that is the House GOP's departure for their annual retreat in the mountain town of Hot Springs, Virginia.

But in another sense, the relative quiet of a slow news Friday is a Washington cultural tradition.

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Americans United For Change, the labor-backed political group that is currently campaigning for President Obama's stimulus package, has a new round of radio ads tying the GOP to Barack Obama's most vocal critic at this point: Rush Limbaugh, who is taking on the role of the true Leader of the Opposition in the current media environment.

The radio ads are running in the Cleveland, Reno and Philadelphia media markets, targeting the Republican Senators from those states. Here's the one for Pennsylvania:



"Every Republican voted with Limbaugh, and against creating 4 million new American jobs," the announcer says, referring to the House Republicans' unanimous vote against the stimulus package.

The announcer goes on to say: "Will our Senator, Arlen Specter, side with Rush Limbaugh too" --interrupted by Limbaugh's "I hope he fails!" interjection -- "or will he reject the partisanship and failed economic policies of the past, and stand up for the people of Pennsylvania?"

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