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The Minnesota election court just handed down a ruling on a key motion by Al Franken's legal team, seeking to limit the scope of Norm Coleman's inquiry into rejected absentee ballots.

And it turns out they've split the difference. Coleman's lawyers have alternately been talking about looking at all 11,000 remaining absentee ballots that have been rejected, or just looking at 4,797 of them, while Franken wants to limit Coleman to a prior list of 654.

The court is allowing Coleman to continue presenting evidence on the 4,797, which had been disclosed to the Franken camp in the summary judgment filings before the trial began. But that's it.

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A very awkward moment just happened in the Minnesota Senate trial. Judge Kurt Marben, as opposed to a Franken lawyer, actively asked about a problem with the photocopy of an absentee ballot that Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg was presenting, which was missing the section where a voter would list proof of residence.

Friedberg said that this was how they received the document itself from the county. This led to a very uncomfortable exchange between the lawyers, the judges and even the witness Kevin Corbid, the head elections official in Washington County, lasting for several minutes.

Judge Denise Reilly chimed in: "The issue is it was rejected for proof of residence, and the part of the ballot showing proof of residence is the part that's been cut off." Corbid added that it was possible that the proof of residence was removed when a separate flap was torn off of the envelope, accidentally taking that section with it.

Who knows.

On the other hand, Coleman has managed to make some headway today in his fundamental legal claim.

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I'm still reporting but what I've heard jibes with what's come out in the last couple of hours: That Daschle made the decision to go himself after the New York Times op-ed and the sense that the opposition could grow and not diminish over the next week. No one in the administration wanted to talk him out of it but they weren't going to pull the plug either. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressional liasion Phil Schilero had all been making calls on Daschle's behalf through yesterday and Daschle's apologetic tone seemed to help. Still, White House officials knew that the story was likely to get worse next week when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is scheduled to announce more detailed plans for bailing out the financial industry. That is likely to once again raise the issue of executive compensation. "Those aren't good atmospherics to be discussing free limo rides," said one Democrat close to the White House.

While no Democrat in the Senate had come out against his nomination, Republican opposition to his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services was growing. This morning he called White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel to say he was quitting. (Obama later spoke with Daschle from the president's private study off the Oval Office.) This morning's announced withdrawal of Nancy Killefer, nominated to the newly created post of Chief Performance Officer, made White House officials more appreciative of Daschle's withdrawal. Had he stayed in the administration would have been seen as sexist, backing two male candidates with tax problems (Daschle and Treasury Secretary Tim Getihner) and jettisoning one woman. Daschle saved them the trouble of explaining that one. That said, Obama has to go on all the network news show tonite and talk about these withdrawals rather than the economic crisis and the stimulus package, his original reason for booking the interviews with the Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson.

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A reader writes in to note my description of a Senate transportation amendment as falling "two votes short" today, suggesting that it had in fact been filibustered by the GOP.

The Republicans certainly did block the amendment, but it wasn't a filibuster -- what occurred was a motion to waive budgetary rules to allow for more new spending that isn't offset by cuts. Such a motion is more of a fiscal box-checking than a political obstruction, though it has the same effect in practice. Sixty votes are needed to waive budgetary rules, the same margin needed to break a filibuster.

But If no budgetary motion had been made on the amendment, it likely would have been deemed "non-germane" according to Senate rules -- and fallen short in the end. Such is the mind-numbing tradition of parliamentary procedure.

As I noted earlier today, Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is said to be on the verge of endorsing an effort to open up the stimulus bill's $5.5 billion transportation grants program to highways rather than limit it to mass transit systems that sorely need more money.

Who on earth would push such an amendment in the first place, you ask? Why, the headed-for-retirement Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO). From CQ's report today:

[Bond] plans to offer an amendment that would transfer $5.5 billion in the bill for surface transportation competitive grants to the highway and bridge formula. The grants are meant for larger projects of national or regional significance that can be started within three years. Bond said that is not stimulative.


"Projects of national and regional significance" that can give Americans an alternative to car travel are "not stimulative"? Say what? Then again, Bond has long denied a human role in climate change and helped block congressional action on the issue. So if Boxer agrees to sign on to his proposal, it's not without being warned.

The conservative movement may be dead -- but one of its key Washington lieutenants is launching a career in electoral politics.

Barbara Comstock, who ran oppo research for the RNC and chaired Scooter Libby's defense fund, is running for the Virginia House of Delegates, from the Washington DC suburbs, according to a website set up by "Friends of Barbara Comstock".

A staffer at the Fairfax County GOP headquarters confirmed to TPMmuckraker that Comstock will challenge incumbent Democrat Margi Vanderhye.

Comstock's resume as a GOP knife-fighter is beyond impressive.

She served as a lead investigator for the notoriously partisan House Government Reform committee during the 90s, chaired by GOP congressman Dan Burton.

In his 2002 book, Blinded By The Right, David Brock painted a vivid picture of Comstock's obsessive zeal to bring down the Clintons:

Late night calls from Barbara Comstock were not unusual. She often telephoned with the latest tidbit she had dug up in the thousands and thousands of pages of administration records she pored through frantically as if she were looking for a winning lottery ticket she had somehow mislaid ... She once dropped by my house to watch the rerun of a dreadfully dull Whitewater hearing she had sat through all day. Comstock sat on the edge of her chair shaking, and screaming over and over again, "Liars!" As Constock's leads failed to pan out, and she was unable to catch anyone in a lie, the Republican aide confided that the Clinton scandals were driving her to distraction, to the unfortunate point that she was ignoring the needs of her own family. A very smart lawyer by training and the main breadwinner for her charismatic, happy-go-lucky husband and kids, Comstock remarked that maybe she couldn't get Hillary's sins off her brain because "Hillary reminds me of me. I am Hillary." In this admission, a vivid illustration of a much wider "Hillary" phenomenon can be seen. Comstock knew nothing about Hillary Clinton. Comstock's "Hillary" was imaginary, a construction composed entirely of the negative points in her own life.


Comstock may have mellowed a bit over the years, but her passion for trench warfare on behalf of the GOP never cooled.

During the 2000 election, she served as the head of the RNC's opposition research team, digging up dirt on Al Gore. "Al Gore kind of gave us the liar thing," she told The Atlantic in 2004. "He had a problem with the truth, and that could be tied to bigger things and bigger issues."

While at the RNC, she became a "close associate" of Monica Goodling, the Christian conservative lawyer and Muckraker favorite who later would help keep the Bush Justice Department stocked with good Republicans.

Comstock herself also moved to the Bush DOJ, in 2001, to run the department's public affairs operation -- doggedly stiffing reporters as they sought information on the administration's aggressive tactics in the War on Terror.

After leaving Justice, Comstock spent some time helping then-GOP Majority Leader Tom Delay play defense on a host of ethics problems.

Next, Comstock helped run Scooter Libby's legal defense fund, formed to help Libby fight charges that he illegally leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame for political purposes.

Later that year, she was off to run damage control for GOP Rep. Jerry Lewis, who was wrapped up in the Duke Cunningham scandal.

And months later, she teamed up with another GOP spin master, Mark Corallo, to form the crisis management firm Corallo Comstock Inc. The firm opened its doors just in time to help defend scandal-tarred Republicans facing scrutiny from the new Democratic administration. As Corallo put it to Roll Call: "Just in time for subpoena season."

Comstock didn't return a message left at her PR firm, seeking comment on her new career. But a reader reports seeing a volunteer passing out flyers promoting Comstock's statehouse run this morning at a special election site in Fairfax County, Virginia. So her campaign appears to be well underway.

Northern Virginia is turning blue at a rapid pace, so she should have her work cut out for her. But something tells us she'll be up for the challenge.

... but he's not telling who. Max Baucus (D-MT), who would have had to shepherd former rival Tom Daschle's health secretary nomination to passage through his Senate Finance Committee, described himself as "surprised" by Daschle's sudden withdrawal today.

Baucus reiterated that he supported confirming Daschle's nomination, while acknowledging that the nominee's scheduled hearing was "a week from today ... it's hard to know what would have happened." When I asked if he had any suggestions for President Obama to fill the health secretary post, Baucus said coyly that "I've got some ideas" but declined to elaborate.

Could he be talking about Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the Nancy Pelosi ally who rents an apartment to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel? Or perhaps health care expert Jeanne Lambrew, now serving as a deputy health adviser to Obama? Or could Baucus be talking about ... himself?

The Feinstein-Murray amendment to increase transportation funding in the stimulus bill -- with an emphasis on highways and mass transit in the background -- just fell two votes short of passage in the Senate. Two Republican appropriators, Sens. Kit Bond (MO) and Arlen Specter (PA), voted in favor, with one Democrat, Mary Landrieu (LA), voting no.

And Landrieu didn't look shy about explaining her vote. I saw her huddling animatedly with White House adviser David Axelrod in a Senate corridor this afternoon and asked Landrieu about their conversation. Her response sheds some light on the apparent slowdown of the stimulus bill in the upper chamber of Congress after its burst of early momentum.

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White House adviser David Axelrod just briefed reporters outside the Senate chamber on the withdrawal of Tom Daschle's nomination as health secretary. Axelrod attributed the decision to pull out to Daschle -- not anyone within the administration -- and suggested that the news came as a surprise to the president, especially coming one day after Democratic senators stood behind their former leader.

"He called [the White House] this morning" to withdraw from consideration, Axelrod said. "I think he made the decision this morning." The

As a former senator, Axelrod added, Daschle "had a clear picture that there was going to be a delay" in his confirmation after revelations that he make a late payment of more than $100,000 in back taxes on a free car and driver as well as other benefits.

Asked about the stimulus bill pending before Congress, Axelrod offered a noticeably temperate endorsement of the legislation as it stands.

"Obviously, no piece of legislation is perfect. This is a very complicated one ... you can point to any number of small things" to have concerns with, he said before touting the larger need for an economic recovery bill.

Well, the Daschle nomination is no more. He's withdrawn his name which is in keeping with the idea that Obama would not actually have to fire him. We're still sorting out details on what happened between Obama's endorsement yesterday and the predictions of the likes of myself and George Stephanopoulos who thought that he'd muscle through it despite being bruised. Were there more tax problems? Did he just grow tired of the scrutiny? Was he asked to withdraw or did he do it of his own volition? We'll know more, I'm sure, as the day goes on.

After Daschle, a few big questions:

1. How many more officials are going to run into the tax buzzsaw. Just spoke to someone who is applying for a senior job in the administration. "If you haven't been preparing for public service your whole life, you're really kind of screwed," said the person. That may be a bit much, but it does raise the question of what tax indiscretion/error is now enough to derail your career in the Obama administration.

2. What's Plan B for HHS and the health care campaign? Remember Daschle was not only supposed to run the largest cabinet agency but also to quarterback health care reform. Will the jobs now be bifurcated?

3. What're the recriminations for Leo Hindery, the New York financier for whom Daschle worked? Did he do anything untoward or was this all Daschle's failure to keep his accounting straight?

4. How badly is Obama tarnished by this both in terms of his competence--two cabinet nominees choke before they reach their confirmation hearings--and his promise of reform.

5. It's No Fun Being Majority Leader. Look what's happened to the last majority leaders in the Senate. Bob Dole quit the post and his senate seat in 1996 and lost badly. Trent Lott got ushered out of office thanks to TPM and others who noted his praise of Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign. Bill Frist was a flameout. Now Daschle's career in public service seems at an end. Makes you not want to run for the leadership.

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