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A breakthrough of bipartisan comity? A joining of hands? A ray of hope?

The Politico reports that a number of Republicans are attending a meeting today about surveillance issues -- the first time that Republicans have attended such a meeting. Ever since House and Senate Democrats began talks last week to work out a compromise between the houses two versions, Republicans have boycotted the discussions. That can only mean progress, right?

Wrong. Sen. Kit Bond's (R-MO) spokeswoman sends word that Bond, the ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee is only attending the meeting to hear from the director of national intelligence about the "degradation of intelligence" since the Protect America Act expired almost two weeks ago -- "not to renegotiate the bipartisan terrorist surveillance compromise."

So it's still the Senate bill (with retroactive immunity) or nothing.

Meanwhile, the Politico also notes that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said this morning that he's "very hopeful" that the House could take up surveillance legislation next week. Whether that signals progress in the ongoing discussions between Democrats -- Senate intelligence committee Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) advocates granting the telecoms retroactive immunity, while the other chairmen taking part are opposed -- is still to be seen.

Two weeks ago, the House passed a contempt resolution against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers. The two refused to comply with subpoenas issued by the House Judiciary Committee as part of the investigation of the U.S. attorney firings.

Today, after House lawyers dotted their i's and crossed their t's, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) finally followed up by referring the contempt resolution to the U.S. attorney for D.C.

What will happen next is not much of a mystery. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has already said that the Justice Department would not act on such a referral and convene a grand jury, as required by federal law. That's because Miers and Bolten didn't comply with the subpoenas because the President said they couldn't -- it would violate executive privilege.

In a letter to Mukasey, Pelosi anticipated that answer, but argued that "there is no authority by which persons may wholly ignore a subpoena and fail to appear as directed because a President unilaterally instructs them to do so."

She concluded: "I strongly urge you to reconsider your position and to ensure that our nation is operating under the rule of law and not at presidential whim."

If Mukasey, through D.C.'s U.S. attorney, rebuffs the referral as expected, the House has a backup plan. The House also passed a resolution that would allow the House Judiciary Committee to pursue a lawsuit against the White House over the subpoena. If a judge agreed to hear the case, it might lead to a decision as to whether the President's sweeping invocation of privilege is Constitutional.

Yesterday, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson made his second appearance before the Senate environmental committee for a budget hearing. And once again, he put on a masterfully uninformative performance (unfortunately, no video is available).

The issue, remember, is that Johnson, despite the unanimous recommendations of his staff, blocked California's attempt to institute strict greenhouse gas limits on cars and trucks. But when asked by committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) if he remembered a key meeting in May of 2007, when staff briefed him on the decision, he said he did not -- and shot back "Do you remember what you were doing on Tuesday May the 1st of 2007?"

"If I saw my calendar, yes I would," Boxer responded.

And what discussions did he have with the White House about this issue? Asked by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) for any information about such contacts, Johnson gave the same answer again and again: "I have routine contacts with various officials on a wide range of issues. . . . I value the ability to have candid discussions that are part of good government." As Johnson's last hearing showed, questioning the man is a bit like boxing an iceberg.

Rebuffed, Boxer said "I don't know what you're hiding... It's as if you're taking the Fifth Amendment."

All this moved Sen. Whitehouse to bestow the highest honor for an administration witness: a comparison to Alberto Gonzales. As he put it in a statement:

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For the past week, a group called Defense of Democracies, an off-shoot of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has run a national TV ad campaign designed to put the squeeze on House Democrats. Since the Dems' refusal to go ahead and submit to granting the telecoms retroactive immunity had "crippled" the nation's intelligence, the ad argues, citizens ought to call lawmakers and tell them to do the right thing. The ad targeted 15 Dems in particular.

Given the size of the buy -- Newsweek puts it at $2 million -- there was a natural suspicion that the telecoms might have played a role in putting up the money. When I asked the question of the group's spokesman, he laughed, but then told me he didn't know who had funded the group.

Newsweek reports that Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA) -- who was up until Monday a member of the board of advisors of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies -- had similar questions and wrote in his letter resigning from the board that "since the only real dispute involves retroactive immunity, I assume the Foundation's ads are funded by telecommunication companies or others seeking immunity."

But Clifford May, the group's president (and the former communications director of the RNC, it's worth noting), says that the money "had come from individual donors" and that "he had not received 'one dime' from the telecom companies—though he did not rule out receiving money from them in the future to finance further ads."

Newsweek also cites "sources at both Verizon and AT&T as saying that their companies weren't involved in FDD's campaign. Of course, given that the telecoms seem unable to comprehend who their real friends are, maybe this shouldn't be such a surprise.

Who those "individual donors" are, the group's not saying -- and isn't required to say by law. Whether they are just "patriotic Americans," as the group's spokesman put it to me, or conservative donors who, like the House GOP, see a political point ripe for exploitation, is an open question.

As expected, President Bush used today's press conference to bang that drum on the surveillance bill. It's "dangerous" that the House Democrats aren't giving in.

Despite the speedbump of CBS' Bill Plante asking the unusually blunt question of whether Americans, left with no recourse for challenging the legality of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, should just "suck it up" (Bush disapproved of putting it that way "in public"), Bush recovered to hit all the talking points.

Here's the video:

As in prior appearances, the omissions and distortions came some fast and furious. "You can't expect the telecoms to participate if they feel like they're going to be sued" (of course, they wouldn't be sued for complying with an unambiguously lawful program); the administration's warrantless wiretapping program "was legal" (yes, by the Bush/Cheney/Addington view of the Constitution); it's "important" for the American people to "understand that no renewal of the ... the Protect America Act is dangerous for the security of the country" (House Republicans and the administration led an effort to prevent a second extension of the Protect America Act); etc.

A rush transcript is below.

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The Boston Globe offers a great refresher on John McCain's involvement in the Keating Five scandal. William K. Black, a senior federal savings and loan regulator at the time of the Keating Five scandal, remains "very upset that what they did caused such damage" ($3 billion to the federal government) and Dennis DeConcini, the former Democratic senator from Arizona and another Keating Five player says that McCain got a "free ride." Black also asserts that McCain pressured federal regulators to ease off of Lincoln because his wife had invested money with its chair, Charles Keating, and because Keating contributed money to McCain's campaign and loaned him his house in the Bahamas. (Boston Globe)

Amidst rumors that disgruntled members of the minority party have threatened to bring ethics charges against key House Democrats under a proposed new ethics panel, Democrats in the House have postponed a vote on the Office of Congressional Ethics. A new Republican counterproposal has also caused delay. The Republican plan would allow for outside groups to file complaints, require monthly reports to the public, and alter the proposed composition of the panel to include four former lawmakers. (Politico)

Crucial federal regulatory agencies are hamstrung by unfilled seats - the Consumer Product Safety Commission does not have enough members to meet, the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission can't achieve a quorum, the Council of Economic Advisers has a single member, the National Labor Relations Board can fill only two of its five seats, and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has three of of its five positions filled. President Bush blames these regulatory failings on the Senate, but an expert on federal nominations at New York University believes that it is " a real tribute to the problems of the Bush administration." (Politico)

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You can understand their exasperation. The administration and Congressional Republicans have done everything in their power to protect the telecoms. They used every legislative tactic at the ready, made every speech or public pronouncement possible, and even engaged in occasional theatrics to drive the point home: Congress will not be passing, and the President will not be signing, any surveillance bill into law that does not give the telecoms retroactive immunity for having helped the administration break the law.

And despite all that, the telecoms still seem not to understand which side their bread is buttered on. "GOP leadership aides are grumbling that their party isn’t getting more political money from the telecommunications industry," Roll Call reports (sub. req.):

“It’s quite discouraging,” said one GOP leadership aide, referring to the disparity in giving from the telecommunications industry in light of the FISA debate, but also the broader lack of support for Republicans from the business community in general.

“These companies just won’t do anything,” the aide said. “Even when you have the Democrats working against their bottom line.”...

[A Republican lobbyist said] “There’s no question that from time to time staff, and maybe some Members, say to fellow travelers: ‘Are you giving us some air cover? Are you helping us help you?’”

The news is not all bad. The telecoms still give more money to Republicans than to Democrats, Roll Call reports; "Of the four major phone companies, only Sprint is now favoring Democrats overall." The other three, AT&T, Verizon and Qwest, still know their bread and butter, but are favoring Republicans "by slimmer margins than in years past." The reason is clear: with the Dems in power, of course, the telecoms need to spread the wealth.

But the House Republican campaign committee, Roll Call points out, is $29 million poorer than its Democratic counterpart. How are the Republicans supposed to return to power if they can't even convince companies whom they're working to protect from billions of dollars in lawsuits to pony up?

Perhaps, as one GOP leadership aide puts it, the telecoms will find religion again when they realize “these guys are not good for business.”

Today on Fox News:

It's similar to a question that the White House has also often asked.

When we last left Common Sense Issues, they were still calling millions of people in key primary states, giving them the lowdown on how John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney fell short on key conservative issues (and how Mike Huckabee passed with flying colors). But even after their robo-voiced push polls spread the word about McCain's support for "medical experiments on unborn babies" or his role in passing "the most restrictive assault on free speech ever passed in America," Huckabee was beaten in state after state after Super Tuesday.

The group stopped making calls after Huckabee's defeat in Virginia. All in all, state totals provided by the group add up to more than 11.5 million phone calls during the primary in the 11 states. The group also ran a couple TV ads against Mitt Romney and a radio ad in Virginia.

With Huckabee virtually eliminated from contention, it's time for the group's next act. They've started up a site called, where they've posted an "open letter" to John McCain, from "Common Sense Conservative American Citizens Wanting to Trust You."

In the letter, the group lays out eight issues that it says it needs McCain's "assurance" on. They range from a pledge that he would support amendments outlawing abortion and gay marriage, to signing "the No New Taxes pledge," to a promise that he'd support gutting the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law "to protect citizens’ free speech." And then there's the kicker: he must publicly offer to have Mike Huckabee as his running mate.

Patrick Davis, the group's executive director, said that the letter did not amount to a commitment that Common Sense Issues itself would work on McCain's behalf. Rather, the letter was written on behalf of "conservatives around the country" who are looking for "John McCain to convince them that he can be trusted on conservative issues." Without such assurances, Davis says, conservatives might just stay home this November.

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With the parade of administration officials who've testified about waterboarding in the past several weeks -- that it was once legal, but is not anymore (though it could be found legal again); that it may "feel like" torture, but that doesn't mean it is torture; that as the U.S. practices it, it bears no relation to the technique used by the Spanish Inquisition (it's more in line with the Khmer Rouge way of doing things) -- you can be excused for feeling more than a little confused.

And you may have despaired of ever seeing a clear, unequivocal exchange on the topic with a government official. Like this one from today's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, with Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency:

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked, "General, do you believe that waterboarding is consistent with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions?"

After pausing a moment to think, Maples replied, "No, sir, I don’t."

"Do you think it’s humane?" Levin asked.

"No, sir, I think it would go beyond that bound."

Later, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), apparently uncomfortable with the deceptive simplicity of that exchange, added some much needed context, pointing out that CIA interrogators had waterboarded detainees "only three times," and that they had done so before the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Geneva Conventions must apply.