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So what exactly is the deal with the Republicans' new outreach project, the National Council for a New America, and how is it complying with the letter and spirit of ethics rules and guidelines for financing?

Roll Call explored the topic on Monday looking at how the NCNA's spending has been bifurcated. Its main Web site is hosted on Cantor's official House Web site, and his staff have helped build the site, while other aspects such as its recent town hall event have been paid for out of campaign funds. In a follow-up editorial, they called on House Minority Whip Eric Cantor to refund his House account with campaign money for whatever has been spent on this, and for the ethics rules to be revised against this whole thing.

Jan Baran, an ethics attorney advising the group, referred any questions regarding the editorial to Cantor's office. In turn, Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring gives us this comment: "As Roll Call reported, the NCNA is in compliance with the law and House ethics rules just like other congressional groups such as the Progressive Caucus, the Democratic Caucus, Republican Conference, and the Blue Dog Coalition."

I spoke with Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, and she had some tough things to say about it, saying that it went against the overriding principles of the ethics guidelines: "This may be legally permissible, but it's a pretty tortured reading of the rules."

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Several weeks ago, when Robert Gates released early details of the Pentagon budget, we noticed a peculiar, but, I suppose, predictable trend. With an assist from the media, conservatives and other stakeholders--seeking to attack the administration, and protect their parochial interests--began to portray the proposal as a soft-on-defense spending cut, when, in fact, the bottom line represented a modest defense spending increase.

You don't hear too much of that meme anymore. But you do hear quite a bit these days, from Congressional Republicans, and others, that the budget process has been maddeningly opaque--that, for instance officials have been barred via non-disclosure agreement from discussing budget details with anybody outside the Pentagon or relevant government agency while the document was being assembled. John T. Bennett of Defense News first reported the existence of the agreement in February, and he sends along a copy, which you can see for yourself here. The terms of the agreement were rescinded earlier this week.

Still, that didn't please members of Congress who will have ultimate say over the budget itself. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) grilled Gates about the so-called "gag order," and what he described as the general lack of transparency in the budget process as a whole.

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Here's another possible piece of evidence that the Bush torture program was used to bolster the political case for the Iraq war.

That 2004 intelligence committee report on Iraq intel that we just wrote about also contains a short section, on page 324, on the information provided by Abu Zubaydah:

The CIA provided four reports detailing the debriefings of Abu Zubaydah, a captured senior coordinator for Al Qaida responsible for training and recruiting. Abu Zubaydah said he was not aware of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaida. He also said, however, that any relationship would be highly compartmented and went on to name al Qaida members who he thought had good contacts with Iraqis. For instance, Abu Zubaydah indicated that he had heard that an important al Qaeda associate, Abu Mus'ab al -Zarqawi, and others had good relationships with Iraqi intelligence ... REDACTED ... During the debrefings, Abu Zubaydah offered his opinion that it would be extremely unlikely for Bin Laden to have agreed to ally with Iraq, due to his desire to keep organization on track with its mission and maintain its operational independence.

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The Coleman campaign has filed its reply brief to the Minnesota Supreme Court, quite possibly the final written filing before oral arguments on June 1 in Norm's appeal of his defeat at the Minnesota Senate trial. The reply brief, responding to Team Franken's own response brief on Monday, is a passionate argument for more rejected absentee ballots from pro-Coleman areas to be allowed in and counted.

There is also a dog that doesn't bark here: Team Coleman seems to have abandoned its attempts to have the whole election result thrown out. There are numerous points in the brief where it seems like the authors are about to raise this option, as they have before -- arguing that the elections results are unreliable -- only to go in a different direction by arguing for a positive remedy. Coleman is banking squarely on getting more rejected absentee votes counted, as his only remaining hope (and even this is slim) of winning this race.

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RNC Chairman Michael Steele addressed the National Rifle Association's "Celebration of American Values" in Phoenix today, leveling some harsh rhetoric against President Obama: That Obama could end up appointing left-wing ideological Justices to the Supreme Court -- and Dems want to away Americans' guns while moving Al Qaeda terrorists to our neighborhoods!

"It is ironic, to say the least, that at the same time Democrats in Congress are threatening to deny Americans their second amendment right to own a firearm and defend their families and homes," Steele said, "they are considering bringing terrorists like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other Al Qaeda detainees to our communities once the President follows through on his campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay."

Steele also said that liberal groups will be pressuring Obama on the Supreme Court vacancy: "They want a young, activist, left-wing justice who will leave a liberal legacy long after the Obama administration is over. Obama is considering including politicians, not judges, among his short-list of Supreme Court nominees. We don't need a justice on the Court with an ideological agenda."

More excerpts from Steele's speech, after the jump.

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A great find by the Huffington Post offers additional evidence that the Bushies used torture to try to Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda :

A line buried on page 353 of the July 2004 Select Committee on Intelligence report on pre-Iraq war intelligence reads:

CTC [Counter Terrorist Center] noted that the questions regarding al-Qaida's ties to the Iraqi regime were among the first presented to senior al-Qaida operational planner Khalid Shaikh Muhammad following his capture.

"Among the first presented".

Yesterday we rounded up the other evidence that torture was used to bolster the political case for war with Iraq.

CIA director Leon Panetta has just sent the following message to staffers in response to Nancy Pelosi's claim that the agency misled her over torture:

Message from the Director: Turning Down the Volume

There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business. It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I'm gone. But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress.

Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values. As the Agency indicated previously in response to Congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing "the enhanced techniques that had been employed." Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened.

My advice--indeed, my direction--to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission. We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country.

We are an Agency of high integrity, professionalism, and dedication. Our task is to tell it like it is--even if that's not what people always want to hear. Keep it up. Our national security depends on it. (our itals)

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When Arlen Specter became a Democrat nearly three weeks ago, everyone in Washington was extremely "surprised," but nobody was really all that surprised. Specter had been taking a beating from the right for, among other things, supporting the stimulus bill. He had lost the confidence of many in his party and, to ward off attackers, he was tacking steadily to the right to protect himself from a primary challenge he nonetheless seemed poised to lose.

So he became a Democrat. The move made sense as a matter of both Senate and electoral politics. Specter fits in just as well among the significant ranks of conservative Senate Democrats as he does among the ever-shrinking ranks of moderate Republicans, and his move into the majority renews what had been his dwindling hopes of re-election.

But then, unthinkably, he doubled down on all of the positions he'd taken as a threatened Republican. He bucked his new party on health care, reiterated his freshly minted objection to the Employee Free Choice Act (a bill he once wholly endorsed), and he flatly opposed the nomination of Dawn Johnsen, who President Obama has nominated to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

Now, though, he's showing some signs of easing up on the Republicanisms.

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We just told you about the probes underway of Charlie Millard, the obscure Bush-appointed former director of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which provides a form of limited bankruptcy insurance to the retirement funds of 44 million Americans. Millard's aggressive plan to sell off most of the PBGC's bonds and plow the majority of its funds into stocks and real estate has been a pension world controversy since he started at the agency in May 2007, at the beginning of the credit crunch. Even by the highly imperfect standards of conventional Wall Street wisdom, the former Lehman Brothers executive's investment strategy appeared almost gratuitously risky.

But it wasn't until the Office of the Inspector General began sniffing around the agency that Millard's short-lived stint in the federal government began to take on a more sinister light. We've boiled down the draft report of their audit, released yesterday by Congress, to a few key figures, adding a few of our own for perspective.

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now getting in on the same fundraising act as their Senate-side counterparts at the DSCC: Offering small donors a chance to win a paid trip to Washington and get their picture taken with President Obama.

The DCCC has sent out its own fundraising e-mail, much like the DSCC's e-mail from yesterday, telling donors of only $5 or more that they can be entered into a drawing to attend the Democratic Party's big fundraising dinner in Washington on June 18, and get their picture taken with Obama. The lucky winner will have his or her hotel and airfare paid for, including a guest.

Both committees are essentially making a wager: That this raffle will bring in enough money to generate a profit over the costs of the airfare and hotel. In the modern age of Internet fundraising, this doesn't seem like an unreasonable guess.

Full DCCC e-mail after the jump.

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