TPM News

The Senate labor committee has postponed its vote on Hilda Solis' nomination to become Labor Secretary, with no clear date set to reconsider her confirmation.

Solis has been put through the wringer by Republicans aiming to slow up the Employee Free Choice Act, a core priority of the labor movement. But today's sudden postponement had a lot more to do with a USA Today inquiry that prompted Solis' husband to pay $6,400 yesterday in order to settle long-outstanding California tax liens.

Asked how much of the labor committee's move was attributable to the USA Today report, one GOP source said simply: "100%."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters today that "we're not going to penalize [Solis] for her husband's mistakes," but Republicans are unlikely to leave the matter at that. After the jump is the full Solis statement from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Enzi (WY), the labor committee's chairman and senior Republican.

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Looks like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) reads TPMDC ... he's now threatening to hold up progress on the stimulus bill today until Democratic leaders allow a vote on 15 of his amendments limiting funding in the bill.

And at the top of Coburn's list is the $2 billion in funding for a "near-zero emissions" coal plant -- money that could go straight to FutureGen, the Illinois-based "clean coal" project that the Obama administration had said it would keep out of the stimulus.

Coburn's office has rustled up yet another reason to put the brakes on the FutureGen cash: impeached former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists to restart the cash flow to the project since the Bush administration canceled FutureGen funding one year ago.

It's unclear as of now whether Coburn's threat will win him a vote on the FutureGen amendment, but we'll keep you posted.

The working draft of proposed spending cuts to the Senate stimulus bill, obtained by TPMDC, offers a valuable guide to the agencies and programs that are in line for a trim by the time the legislative process is concluded.

The list is constantly changing -- and as an aide to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) told me, now comes closer to $100 billion in cuts. Senate Democratic leaders suggested during a press briefing this afternoon that they were open to making targeted cuts, although Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) opened his remarks by saying that every $100 billion "we lop off" the bill represents jobs left un-created and un-filled.

Among the areas being eyed for cuts by the centrists, here are the most notable and/or controversial:

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A very strange thing just occurred in the Minnesota election trial, with Al Franken's lawyers trying to raise the possibility that unnamed Coleman workers may have tampered with ballots.

Yesterday, Franken attorney David Lillehaug began presenting a case that a number of ballots had been lost in Washington County during the recount, improperly giving Norm Coleman a net "gain" of ten votes. This is important because a potential remedy for this would be to default to the Election Night totals for affected precincts.

Lillehaug continued to examine county elections officer Kevin Corbid today, and had Corbid narrate a curious story from Election Night. At about 2 a.m., two men showed up who said they were from the Coleman campaign, saying they wanted to observe the process of ballots coming in. Corbid said the men stayed for several hours -- they were still there in the parking lot when he himself left the office at 5 a.m. -- and mostly stayed in the lobby.

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Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have come up with a list of about $100 billion* in programs they want slashed from the stimulus package, according to a working draft of a staff paper outlining the cuts. The linked document includes a list of $77.9B. But an aide to Sen. Nelson tells TPMDC that the latest negotiations come closer to the $100B mark.

Among the biggest cuts under discussion: $24.8 billion in state stabilization money for education, which was intended to plug existing budget holes; $15 billion in state incentive grants for education; and $1.4 billion for the National Science Foundation, which is wracked by a porn-viewership flap. Pell Grants were the biggest program to survive the debate over cuts, with $13.9 billion staying intact.

Senate Democratic leaders are likely to bring this package up for a floor vote today, aiming to achieve a filibuster-proof margin in support of these cuts before pushing to pass the entire stimulus by day's end. Hang onto your hats.

*Late Update: It's important to note that the list is a working draft. Negotiations on which programs to cut or save are moving so rapidly that the list is best viewed as a guidepost for what spending trims are being eyed by Nelson and Collins' centrist alliance, which unofficially includes upwards of a dozen senators at this point.

"They're looking at further cuts in addition to what you see on that," a Nelson spokesman told me, estimating that the current total in sliced spending is now closer to $100 billion. He declined to confirm which elements of the cut list have been removed or increased in size.

With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) aiming to pass the stimulus before tomorrow, the final list of cuts could come to a vote within the next several hours.

Later Context Update: No matter what you think of the worthiness of the programs Nelson and Collins want to slice, their political goal is clear -- getting enough support to bring the stimulus bill out of reach of a GOP filibuster.

After meeting with President Obama, Collins said she has his support for a bill in the neighborhood of $800 billion. Since the stimulus is topping out above the $900 billion mark now, that would mean that the Nelson-Collins cuts have become the best hope for getting the recovery plan over the finish line.

Remember that weird moment during yesterday's Madoff hearings, when the SEC's top lawyer, Andy Vollmer, declined to answer questions, and kinda sorta implied he was asserting executive privilege, before backing off that claim when pressed by lawmakers? The moment that provoked Rep. Gary Ackerman's blunt assessment: "We thought the enemy was Mr. Madoff. I think it's you"?

One staffer described the Vollmer moment to TPMmuckraker as a "bombshell" within the agency's headquarters.

And it looks like the SEC is a little embarrassed about it -- and about the general evasiveness of other agency brass in their testimony yesterday.

Check out this letter, which the SEC's new chair, Mary Schapiro, sent to the committee last night.

Schapiro tells lawmakers that the hearing "cannot have been satisfactory for you." She admits that there needs to be a full accounting of what went wrong, and offers to meet with the lawmakers, at their earliest convenience, to "determine a course forward that will meet all of our interests."

As for the Vollmer issue itself, an agency spokesman confirmed that he wasn't claiming the privilege, but couldn't offer any further explanation, saying he'd get back to us.

Remember that saying about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar?

Yesterday we wrote that the House Financial Services committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Frank, had invited the CEOs of eight big banks -- including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citi, and JP Morgan -- to testify. But, we noted, the committee wouldn't say whether any of the CEOs had accepted the invitation -- leaving the possibility that they might just say no. Any thought given to issuing subpoenas, we wondered.

It looks like that won't be necessary. Steve Adamske, a spokesman for the committee, confirmed to TPMmuckraker that all eight CEOs would indeed testify. Adamske said that subpoenas weren't necessary, since the political optics of not showing up would be too harmful for the banks. He said committee staff is working with the banks to schedule the CEOs' appearances.

So it looks like we'll get to hear straight from the horses' mouths about what the banks have been doing with the bailout funds. Sometimes asking nicely gets results.

We already knew, that, after it got wind of Merrill Lynch's massive fourth-quarter losses back in December, Bank of America had thought about pulling out of its deal to buy the troubled investment bank -- before being talked into it by the federal government.

But today, the Wall Street Journal adds some fascinating detail (sub. req.) about the level of hardball that the government played in making sure the deal went through.

Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chief Ben Bernanke reportedly warned B of A CEO Ken Lewis that if his firm pulled out, Merrill would collapse. They added that such a move, in the Journal's words "could undercut confidence in Bank of America, both in the markets and among government officials."

But that was just the start. Two days later, on a conference call, Bernanke told B of A that if it abandoned the Merrill deal, and came back to the Feds in the future seeking more bailout money, the government would consider removing the firm's executives and directors.

The threats, of course, seem to have worked, since Bank of America went ahead with the deal -- getting an additional $20 billion in bailout money to help digest Merrill.

Bernanke and Paulson may have been right to take such a hard line. But the episode suggests the level of control of day-to-day control that the government has had over the financial sector, since stepping in to rescue it last fall. Nationalizing the banks is still seen, in the mainstream debate as an extreme solution. But if the Feds are essentially making major operational decisions for the big banks, some would say they've been nationalized already -- it's just that no one wants to it.

The Minnesota Supreme Court just finished hearing arguments in Al Franken's lawsuit to obtain an immediate certificate of election, and it has become clear that the court faces a very tough choice: Issue an election certificate now, which would have a theoretical chance of being undone later by pending litigation, and to do so against the commonly-understood meaning of state statutes -- or have Minnesota go without two seats in the Senate for months.

The justices grilled everybody involved. Justice Paul Anderson asked lead Franken lawyer Marc Elias whether the certificate is truly necessary, and whether the court has to intervene. "The Senate has plenary authority to seat whoever they want," Elias replied. "They could declare me the next Senator. But like this court, the Senate has rules."

Elias' argument is that the Senate has rules pertaining to certificates of election, as we saw in the Roland Burris case, and that Minnesota is unconstitutionally shirking its obligation to send a certificate in time for the Senate to meet.

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If you enjoyed rolling your eyes at the GOP's antic attempts to hold up Eric Holder's Senate confirmation, get ready for the Judiciary Committee hearing next week on Elena Kagan's nomination.

Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, would be the first female solicitor general. She comes to the job with stellar credentials, but that hasn't stopped conservative senators (joined by the the Christian Coalition, naturally) from signaling that they intend to fight her hard on her past support for limits on military recruiters' access to law school campuses.

In fact, GOP senators have a history of blocking Kagan -- in 1999, as Judiciary panel chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) notes her, they "pocket-filibustered" her nomination to become a federal judge under Bill Clinton by refusing to hold a committee hearing.

But any Republican itching to filibuster Kagan should give a call to Brad Berenson, who worked under Alberto Gonzales as associate White House counsel to George W. Bush. He's all for Kagan. In fact, he wrote to the Judiciary Committee last week that ...

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