Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Here's another story to keep an eye on.

On election day, one of the most powerful legislators in the Texas House of Representatives, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston) got beat by a Vietnamese American businessman named Hubert Vo (D).

It was awfully close -- 32 votes. And it was also the first Democratic gain in the Texas state House in 32 years. (They've had a string of rough decades.)

With such a narrow margin, Heflin is understandably calling for a manual recount, which he's just officially requested.

But more than that seems to be afoot.

Speaker Tom Craddick -- the guy who handled the DeLay redistricting power grab last year -- has made all sorts of noise that he's cutting Heflin loose. He even reassigned his plum Appropriations Committee chairmanship. At the same time, the Texas Republicans' hotshot election lawyer Andy Taylor -- the guy who handled the redistricting business for Craddick and DeLay -- is representing Heflin and tossing around charges of voter fraud.

Taylor's presence makes Democrats understandably suspicious about whether Craddick and Co. have really given up on the thought of trying to seat Heflin by any means necessary.

And here's how they'd do it.

Under Texas law, in addition to asking for a recount, Heflin can challenge the validity of the election by filing an official challenge with the secretary of state. Based on that challenge Speaker Craddick would appoint a member of the House as a "special master" to investigate the election. If that 'investigation' finds irregularities and fraud, as Andy Taylor is already alleging, they order that a new election be held -- effectively invalidating the results of the election.

Needless to say, the Texas state House is now in Republican hands. So what all of that means is that Tom DeLay's local sub-boss, Speaker Craddick, gets to decide whether Hubert Vo's election gets tossed out on the basis of spurious charges of 'irregularities' and 'voter fraud.'

Of course, these are just the things Craddick could do if he chose. For Craddick and DeLay and the rest of them to actually try pulling this off would be amazingly bold and brazen.

But, then, look who we're talking about ...

This guy has sharp elbows too.

Travis County DA Ronnie Earle in the Times: "The thinly veiled personal attacks on me by Mr. DeLay's supporters in this case are no different from those in the cases of any of the 15 elected officials this office has prosecuted in my 27-year tenure."

And a line that might serve well as a choice quote just below the title on the first page of some future biography of Tom DeLay: "There is no limit to what you can do if you have the power to change the rules."

For the moment, set aside the civil liberties and privacy issues raised by the Istook Amendment. What does it say about the majority's management of the legislative process in Congress at present that it's been two and half days since this line item was discovered and no one has been able to determine who wrote it or who put it in the bill?

Tom DeLay on the Istook Amendment: "Frankly, the media is making a lot out of nothing. I did not know it was in the bill. My staff usually catches these kinds of things, but it was one sentence and we missed it."

The Times has a brief piece on the Istook Amendment. But they hit on the key point early, if a tad obliquely: Rep. Istook changed his story from Sunday to Monday.

On Sunday Istook explained that the tax-snooping language was basically innocuous. But, as the Times notes, he made no attempt to deny his responsibility for the language in the bill, even though the claim that he was behind the provision had been included in numerous press accounts.

Only on Monday did he make any claim that he wasn't involved at all.

So much for states-rights and federalism.

From the Post: "Also included in [i.e., slipped in furtively into] the final [omnibus spending] bill was a major provision barring states from enforcing laws that require health care providers, hospitals, HMOs or insurers to pay for, provide or give referrals for abortion."

California, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York -- none of them can make their own reproductive rights policy.

More here from Ms. Magazine.

One of the fringe benefits of the DeLay Rule brouhaha is that it has exposed the sheer level of disorganization, absenteeism and management deficiency that seems to prevail in the 230+ offices that make up the House Republican caucus. Again and again, TPM-reader-constituents would tell us that for days on end staffers were unable to make contact with their given representative. In other cases, messages to contact him or her to find out their vote on the DeLay Rule would again and again go missing. Equally troubling, in many offices the staffer authorized to comment on the DeLay Rule would be 'away from his/her desk' or 'at lunch' for days on end.

One of the most serious cases appears to be the office of Rep. John Sweeney from Upstate New York.

On Thursday afternoon, reader Chris S. told us: "I called the congressman's office this morning and the staffer said he did not know how the congressman voted. I just got off the phone again and was told that the congressman had been in meetings all day and he didn't yet have an answer for me. When he does, I'll let you know."

Early the next morning, though, things seemed little better, according to reader Jeff C.: "Just called Rep. Sweeney's office (NYState) and after being put on hold for 2 mins, told the staffer that normally handles that question is out and will call back." A short time later, Donald Z. did little better: "I was told that the DeLay rule was a closed vote and that no one has had the opportunity to ask the Congressman how he voted. They took my address and said that the office would respond by mail."

By late Friday morning it seemed Rep. Sweeney was nowhere to be found. Brucie R., who had first called Thursday, followed up with his Friday efforts: "I called John Sweeney's (NY-20) office again this morning at 9am. Left an answering machine message and said I'd call again. Did so at 9:30am, asked for Ian, the person I've been talking to, and Ian said that Sweeney was out all day yesterday so that's why he doesn't know yet how he voted, but that he should have an answer 'in a couple hours' -- said he should know 'early afternoon.'" A few hours later a female Sweeney staffer told Bruce: "None of us here know. The Congressman has been busy with the omnibus bill. Ian doesn't know yet either. None of us know. That's what we're telling everyone. Should we call you when we know?" And then before the end of the day Brucie tried one more time: ""We still don't know. We're trying to find out. We have a long list of people to call when we find out."

By the end of the day Friday we could see a definite pattern developing. And our impression got some confirmation when Jon St. gave us a wrap-up of his efforts on Saturday ...

I live in Sweeney's district, and emailed him a couple of days ago asking about his vote on the DeLay Rule. I have received no response. I called the Washington office yesterday morning and was told, after a bit of delay, that "the person who can answer that question for you is out of the office, and we don't expect her back until late afternoon." I called again late yesterday afternoon. It was clear that by that time they had gotten a few calls on the matter, and had a pat answer. They told me (my paraphrase), "We don't know how he voted at this point. He was in a closed voting session all day and we haven't been able to ask him about it yet. Please provide your name, address, and telephone number, and we'll call you as soon as we know." I did provide my contact information, but haven't heard a peep.

By today a few constituents were actually starting to grow worried. TPM reader Casey M. called repeatedly last week and today she wrote in with a rough recitation of how one of her calls went today. We join the call in progress after a Sweeney staffer tells Casey that they still haven't seen Rep. Sweeney ...

Me: Nobody has seen him? Aren't you getting concerned about him? You must be ready to notify police if no one has seen or spoken to him in what, four or five days now?

[staffer]: Well, I don't have an answer for you Casey. Me: Why is that [staffer]? [staffer]: I don't know, I just don't have an answer. Can you hold? Me: Sure. (( crickets )) [staffer]: Cathy? Me: No, it's Casey. [staffer]: Oh, sorry, Casey, I'm going to put you into The Chief of Staff's voicemail and he can get back to you on this. Me: [staffer], why is so difficult to get an answer to a simple yes or no question after five days do you think. I mean, we are through the omnibus bill for now, and that was the reason you gave me last time we spoke. Why is this hard do you suppose? [staffer]: (getting annoyed now). I don't know Casey but I am going to put you into [CoS's] voice mail and you can talk to him. Me: Okay.

[CoS] voicemail: Hi this is [CoS]. I will be out of the office from Nov. 22 through Nov. 26th. Please leave me a message....[blah, blah, blah] -------

Hmmmmmm. Time to call [staffer] back. I call [staffer] back and I am put into her voice mail. I call [staffer] back and speak to [staffer #2]. I tell [staffer #2] that I am trying to call [staffer #1] back because she put me into [CoS's] voicemail and I need to get an answer On hold: trying to transfer. Wow, I got cutoff!! Calling again, I ask to talk to [staffer #1] ... please put me on hold....oops, after three minutes on hold they put me back into [CoS's] voicemail. Oh dear, time to call back. Hi, is [staffer #1] there? I don't mind holding...What [staffer #1] stepped away from her desk? You know, I just called and she was on her phone, and I'm starting to think she's avoiding me....Sure, I can hold ..[wating for four or five minutes...] Casey, it's [CoS], I'll have an answer for you in a minute.

Me: Oh okay [CoS], thanks. So here's the upshot. They called [CoS] on vacation in [vacation place] to get an answer an make sure it was okay to give out that answer. From the staff, it's a yes. Not so much loud and proud, as whispering from a distance. Say, from-Seattle-type distance. Now it was their turn to question me....how do I feel about the matter. I told them, blah, blah, blah, and then debated the staff into a corner and got bored and said I had to go wash my socks. Okay, I made up the socks part, but my three year old conveniently started begging for popcorn, and Motherhood calls. So that's the story.

We hear some local media may be reporting soon that Sweeney's a DeLay Rule man. We'll let you know when we hear more.

Still loud, still proud and still in the Shays Handful.

Arizona's J.D. Hayworth wrote a letter to the editor of the Arizona Republic yesterday ("Board's brush a little too broad") in which he praises their denunciation of the DeLay Rule but takes exception to their "broad-brush approach."

"In the interest of fairness and full disclosure," wrote Hayworth, "I am writing to inform you and Republic readers that when Republicans met in conference last week to discuss the rules change, I spoke passionately in opposition to the proposal, voted against it, and voted against the final package of rules that included the change."