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Whenever the Democratic Congress leaves town for a recess, GOPers like to take potshots based on the false notion that lawmakers are headed off for "vacations." (This past August's bizarre House Republican protest over high gas prices, in which the empty chamber floor was commandeered for the cameras was a perfect example.)

But in reality, lawmakers from both parties will use next week's recess to promote their policy goals, meet with constituents, raise money for their re-elections, and generally work their tails off. For anyone wondering what Democrats will be up to, here's an inside peek at caucus chairman Rep. John Larson's (D-CT) suggestions for promoting the stimulus bill.

The unstated goal of documents like these: generating positive news coverage of the economic recovery plan on a local level.

Looking through the vote tally at the seven House Democrats who opposed the final stimulus bill today, you see reliably right-leaning members of the party's Blue Dog Coalition: Reps. Heath Shuler (D-NC), Bobby Bright (D-AL), Walt Minnick (D-ID), Pete DeFazio (D-OR) ... hold on.

DeFazio is a stalwart liberal and member of the Progressive Caucus. Why would he vote against the bill his party and president backed so strongly?

As DeFazio explained following the vote, he believed in the bill's education and transportation goals -- though he has long decried the stimulus' shortchanging of infrastructure relative to highways. "I couldn't justify borrowing money for tax cuts," he said. Tax breaks make up more than 35% of the final stimulus bill.

"Come on, school construction?" he asked, visibly frustrated that money for that goal had been sliced from the bill. "Why did that have to come out for more tax cuts?"

When asked about the need to bridge the gap between the House and Senate bills in order to win over the three GOP votes needed to prevent a filibuster, DeFazio was as blunt as can be: "We all know that's a convenient artifice from the Senate ... do away with the filibuster or have a real filibuster. It's convenient for [the Senate]. It gives them clout to push around the House and the president."

Whether you agree with DeFazio or not, liberal Democrats have rarely felt free to buck their party on major votes in recent years. It remains to be seen how the Obama administration and DeFazio's leadership will view his stance.

It's official: Judd Gregg will vote against the stimulus package.

On the one hand this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. His refusal to vote for it even while he was the Commerce Secretary-designate -- his recusal was effectively the same as a No vote on all cloture motions -- indicated he was never really on board.

But having him now officially against the bill, the day after he dropped his own nomination to join the cabinet, should tell us where things will be going forward. A week ago he was a bipartisan member of the Obama Administration -- and now he's a solid opponent.

The advertising campaign against them didn't matter. Entreaties from Republican governors didn't matter. House Republicans stayed united against President Obama's stimulus bill, and they looked plenty pleased about it today as the gavel came down and the measure passed despite their objections.

But don't tell Republicans that it's Obama's stimulus plan they're rejecting. GOPers are subtly aiming to capitalize on two very different numbers: the Democratic Congress' sub-30% approval rating and Obama's impressive 64% approval.

"The problem lies squarely with congressional Democrats," House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters after the vote. "My conversation with the president was clear; he said, 'it's the Speaker [Pelosi] and the Leader [Reid] running these chambers, they have the ability to control this process.'"

As the Church Lady might say, How conveeeenient.

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Earlier this week, Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The Hill that one troubled lobbying firm with ties to some Democratic lawmakers, "will become the majority's Waterloo on ethics."

Ashdown added: "If they do not tackle this example head-on they will look as bad as the Republicans on ethics in government."

Sounds serious! So it's worth taking a broad look at what Ashdown's talking about.

The firm under scrutiny here is the PMA Group, which was founded back in 1989 by Paul Magliocchetti, a former top aide to Rep. John Murtha.

It hasn't been a good week for the firm. On Monday, ABC News reported that, back in November, the FBI had raided the firm's northern Virginia office. The following day, the New York Times revealed that investigators were probing the possibility that Magliocchetti had funneled campaign contributions to Murtha and other lawmakers, in a quid pro quo arrangement. And the same day, The Hill added that the firm was "disintegrating," with several senior lobbyists leaving after being unable to strike a buyout deal with Magliocchetti.

PMA specializes in representing defense firms looking for federal money. And its employees are prodigious political contributors. Over the last three election cycles, they've given a total of more than $1 million to political campaigns, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics

And at the top of its list of recipients over the last two decades are two Democratic lawmakers who sit on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee: Murtha of Pennsylania, Rep. Pete Visclosky of Indiana.

Murtha appears to be most closely implicated. Aside from Magliocchetti, at least one other former Murtha aide, Julie Giardina, also works at PMA. And Dan Cunningham, another PMA staffer, is a former Hill aide who has a close relationship with Murtha, according to The Hill.

Roll Call found earlier this week that, over the last three election cycles, Murtha had received around $1.75 million from PMA and its clients. Last fall, when Murtha faced an unexpected re-election challenge after calling his constituents racist, PMA and its clients came to his aid, contributing $110,000 to Murtha's last-minute fundraising effort.

What did PMA get from Murtha? Roll Call also found that in the last two years, Murtha has steered earmarks totaling around $93 million to PMA clients.

It's also worth noting that a second company linked to Murtha, defense contractor Kuchera Indstries, was raided by the FBI in January. Over the years, Murtha has funneled over $100 million in earmarks to the firm and a related company.

It's not hard to see why Ashdown told Roll Call: "This investigation is moving in the direction of Jack Murtha."

As for Murtha's friend Visclosky, he too has personal ties to PMA. Rich Kaelin, a PMA lobbyist, was Visclosky's chief of staff in 2003.

Visclosky has raked in $196,950 from donors with ties to the firm. PMA has been Visclosky's top donor every year since 2004. And the Post-Tribune of Lake County, Indiana has found that in 2008, the congressman secured more than $20 million in earmarks for the firm's clients -- a quarter of the total earmarks he got.

So that's what we've got. So far, there's no evidence that either Murtha or Visclosky are themselves are focuses of the investigation. What this amounts to, at the moment, is a firm contributing alot of money to certain lawmakers with authority over the sphere it works in -- as well as hiring some of their former aides -- and getting earmarks from those lawmakers.

That's not evidence of a quid pro quo. But it doesn't look good, especially given the president's call for a new kind of politics. And something tells us we haven't heard the last of it.

In the Minnesota election trial today, Franken lawyer Kevin Hamilton appears to be laying out a case that election officials have applied inconsistent standards in how they treated absentee ballots -- exactly the sort of case Norm Coleman has made.

The rub: The case is that a local election official in a Republican area has been especially strict with ballots the Franken camp wants included, and permissive for Coleman.

Over the last two days the court has been interviewing Sandy Engdahl, the elections manager for the GOP-leaning Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth. Yesterday, Engdahl in many cases agreed with Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg that some ballots had been improperly rejected. She even went further and volunteered that over the last few days she'd found 11 more envelopes that ought to be included, which weren't ruled as such during the review of rejected ballots this past December.

Then it was Franken lawyer Kevin Hamilton's turn.

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Another development in the ongoing saga of Karl Rove's long-sought testimony on the US Attorney firings.

House Judiciary chair John Conyers has sent a letter to Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, enclosing a subpoena for Rove to appear before the committee February 23. That date had already been agreed to in a prior exchange of letters late last month.

But things are getting slippery again. Rove had originally been scheduled to appear February 2, but the two sides agreed to a delay, in part thanks to a scheduling conflict on Rove's part.

But apparently, Luskin, in the intervening time, had asked for a second delay. In addition, Rove had announced in a recent speech in California that he didn't intend to appear, citing an executive privilege claimed by President Bush.

In today's letter issuing the subpoena, Conyers informs Luskin that he won't agree to the requested second delay. Conyers writes:

Given Mr. Rove's public statements that he does not intend to comply with the subpoena, I am puzzled as to why Mr. Rove needs a mutually convenient date to fail to appear.

Conyers also writes that he can't accept Luskin's request to have Rove's testimony be limited to the matter of the Don Siegelman case, meaning he would stay mum on the US Attorneys firings.

Next week, the Obama White House is scheduled to formally weigh in on the contempt proceedings currently being brought by Conyers' committee against two other former Bush aides, Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten, for their testimony on the firings. The position the White House takes could well determine whether Rove will ultimately be required to testify by a court -- which is where things seem to be heading.

We may have found our favorite mini- (or maybe not so mini-!) Madoff yet...

The FBI, SEC, and IRS are all looking into the business activities of the Stanford Financial Group, a Houston-based private investment group run by the "flamboyant Texas billionaire" Allen Stanford, reports the New York Times.

Like Madoff, Stanford's returns may have been too good to be true. A bank he owns, based in Antigua, has been issuing certificates of deposit that pay interest rates at more than twice the national average, says the paper.

Last summer, two former employees alleged in a lawsuit that the firm misled potential investors by overstating the asset value of individuals; failed to file mandatory forms disclosing its clients' offshore accounts; and removed information from its computers in response to an S.E.C. investigation.

The size of the alleged scam is unclear, but a spokesman for Stanford Financial told the Times that it "holds about $8 billion in deposits at its bank and has about $50 billion in assets in its wealth management affiliate."

The firm has denied the allegations.

But what really piqued our interest here was Allen Stanford himself. Here's some of the color the Times offers on the guy:

[A] decade ago, Mr. Stanford told The Associated Press that he had flown a Roman Catholic priest displaying signs of "stigmata," or bleeding wounds on his wrists and ankles, from the tiny Caribbean island of Antigua to New York City on his jet.

Mr. Stanford, who his firm said was unavailable for comment, ranked 205th last year on the Forbes annual list of the richest people in the United States, with an estimated net worth of $2.2 billion. On Antigua, he is akin to royalty, being knighted by the former prime minister, referring to himself as "Sir Allen Stanford" on the company's Web site.

And maybe most interestingly:
Mr. Stanford has claimed ties to Leland Stanford, the former governor of California who started Stanford University in the 1800s. The university, however, has said there is no genealogical relationship between the two.

Indeed, on that one, Stanford put his money where his mouth is. In 2001, he gave $2.5 million to help rehabilitate the Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park in downtown Sacramento. A press release sent out by the office of then-California governor Gray Davis noted: "Stanford traces his family heritage to the family of Leland Stanford."

The Times also notes that Stanford and his firm have "emerged in recent years as major contributors to various lawmakers, appearing to focus particularly on legislators considering bills that would change offshore banking rules."

So we took a quick look at online campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics -- and it's fair to say the paper wasn't exaggerating.

Over the last decade or so, Stanford or the Stanford Financial Group have given $128,500 to the RNC, $238,500 to the NRCC, over $80,000 to the NRSC, and $180,000 to the DCCC. They have also given smaller amounts to current or former members of Congress with leadership positions, or positions with oversight over the banking and financial systems. That lists includes Tom DeLay, Phil Gramm, Chuck Schumer, Richard Shelby, Charlie Rangel, Max Baucus, Bob Torricelli, and Paul Sarbanes.

We're guessing this won't be the last post we do on Allen Stanford.

Late Update: It looks like, despite being from Texas, Stanford is a cricket fan. Check out this story from the cricket website, reporting that today's match between England and the West Indies in Antigua has been suspended because of a waterlogged pitch. Discussing alternative locations, the site adds:
Another option, as yet unvoiced, would be to shift the match to Sir Allen Stanford's private ground near the airport, the venue of the 20/20 for 20 in November.

He is a knight, after all.

Thanks to reader M.G. for the tip.

A new Rasmussen poll suggests that Arlen Specter may have put himself in serious political danger by supporting the stimulus bill -- that is, by alienating Republican voters back home, as he heads into his 2010 re-election campaign.

An overwhelming 69% of Pennsylvania Republicans oppose the bill, and 58% of Republicans say they are less likely to support Specter because of his vote for it.

Remember that Specter faced a right-wing challenge in the Republican primary back in 2004, and just barely survived by a 51%-49% margin. So his hold on the GOP base has been anything but solid in recent years.

This leave us with two important questions. First, will the grassroots GOP ire continue to linger about this bill? And second, will a viable primary challenger emerge, who could successfully tap into that feeling?

As patently mock-able as it is, this morning's Politico story on the GOP emboldening wrought by Sen. Judd Gregg's (R-NH) pullout from the Obama administration has a crazy kind of truth to it. Republicans are eagerly lionizing Gregg as a conservative hero whose conscience could not allow him to serve under a -- gasp! -- liberal president who believes that government spending can heal the economy.

Listen to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) on Fox this morning:

JORDAN: [Y]ou have Senator Gregg ... he understands that the stimulus package is going to do nothing to stimulate the economy. So I think it is kind of the final thing of a really bad week for the administration for Democrats.

REPORTER: You know, I'm not sure it was a bad week. They got an $800 billion stimulus plan pushed through. That's a pretty good week if you're a Democrat.

JORDAN: That's bad for the American people. That's what Senator Gregg understands.

And that's not even touching on control of the Census, which the GOP turned into a rallying cry to protect Gregg's power in the Obama administration -- before Gregg cited it as a major reason for his withdrawal. Suddenly the dry business of counting Americans, which helps determine congressional re-districting, has become a hot political debate for the GOP. Even our old buddy Hans von Spakovsky can't help but get in on the act.

Yesterday Matt likened Gregg to Sir Thomas More, but I'm thinking he might be congressional Republicans' William Wallace. "Tell our enemies that they can take our majority, but they'll never take ... THE CENSUS!!!"

Late Update: And the lionizing continues. Gregg's party is now imploring him to reconsider his decision not to seek re-election next year.

What's next,