In it, but not of it. TPM DC

As you've probably heard, Rush Limbaugh today launched a challenge to President Obama, daring Obama to come on his show and debate him on economic policy. What should we make of this?

Rush's challenge is sure interesting, such as the part where he attacks Rahm Emanuel for his "effeminate nature and his ballerina past," but this section really stands out:

I want to thank you guys for elevating me beyond the stature I already earned and achieved, because now more and more Americans have the opportunity to learn who you really are, what your ideas will really accomplish, and what damage and harm I think your policies will bring for a very, very long time to them and to this country. So I want to thank you for the opportunity. Obviously, it's a threat targeting me. I've extended the invitation. I'm looking forward to hearing back from whoever in your cabal one way or the other on accepting my offer.

Here's the real takeaway: Rush is really enjoying this. It's hard to tell who is taking more pleasure from Rush being crowned as the leader of the Republican Party -- the Democrats who are launching the attacks, or Rush himself.

Michael Steele just can't stop.

We're previously reported that Steele has gone back and forth on the question of whether the Republican Party would support primary challenges or decline to help out pro-stimulus Republicans. Now, in an appearance on right-wing talk radio, he's reiterated that this is a possibility.

Steele was pressed today by Laura Ingraham, who very much wants the party to cut off any wobblers, about whether the party would refuse to raise money or give money to GOPers who back the stimulus and earmark spending:

Said Ingraham: "Will you make good on that pledge that the RNC will not raise money and give money to Republicans who continue to put a stick in the eye of fiscal conservatism?"

"As I said, that is something that is absolutely on the table for me," Steele replied. "I'm not backing down from that. I'm not backing down from that."

Steele did add that this is ultimately up the state parties, citing his own past experience as a state GOP chairman. So if those state chairs want to revolt against an incumbent -- say, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania -- it looks like they'll have a friend in Chairman Steele.

Here's a question: If earmarks alone are a cause for withdrawing support, is Mitch McConnell next?

(Via Think Progress.)

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), whose career became mired in the D.C. Madam prostitution scandal back in 2007, and is now headed into his 2010 re-election campaign, is championing the cause of family values in the omnibus bill, and the need to stop government spending on family planning. Really.

Vitter is offering an amendment to the omnibus, forbidding the distribution of any public money to Planned Parenthood. Indeed, the Washington Post points out that Vitter has offered dozens of amendments on social-conservatives issues.

It has to be noted, of course, that Vitter is facing potential primary challenges from a leading Christian-right activist, a former Congressman, and a porn star. (That's three different people, by the way, not one person matching all three descriptions.) As such, he has every reason to send social conservatives a strong message that he's getting things done for them.

Late Update: It turns out that former Rep. John Cooksey said yesterday that he won't challenge Vitter. So we're down to just the Christian Right activist and the porn star -- that is, two people.

No, of course not. But the conservative jurist did side with the Ginsburg, Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, and Breyer in the case of Wyeth v. Levine. The court ruled that FDA approval doesn't insulate drug companies from law suits. Thomas wrote a separate opinion taking shots at the court's use of pre-emption, letting federal law supercede state law. Still, it was an interesting ruling and surprising to see Thomas break from Alito, Scalia and Roberts.

We told you this morning about a group of centrist Democratic senators who have begun closed-door meetings to discuss how to pool their influence during the coming debate over President Obama's budget -- and perhaps slow the roll of its more ground-breaking spending programs.

When I asked a key member of that centrist group, Sen. Mary Landrieu (LA), which particular elements of the budget are sparking her concerns, she told me that senators "did not get into specifics" at their first meeting.

"We are hearing legitimate concerns that there is not enough focus right now on the intermediate and long-term fiscal concerns for the country," Landrieu said. Although "the mess the Bush administration has left is going to take years" to clean up, she added, 5-7 years is a reasonable period of time to "be able to start seeing the end of the red ink."

As Obama observed earlier today, however, he inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit from his predecessor, making total erasure of the deficit an incredibly heavy lift. The administration has vowed to cut the deficit in half by the end of Obama's first term, but that outcome relies on a series of revenue-raising moves that may not pass muster with Congress.

What does this mean for Landrieu's group of centrists?

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The story of centrist Democratic opposition to President Obama's budget, which began to trickle into view this morning, will unfold gradually over this month and next. Democrats won't be fully challenged to embrace Obama's vision for a remodeling of tax and health care policy until April, when the full details of the White House budget emerge.

Congress will then craft its own budget blueprint, taking some cues from Obama but potentially abandoning some of the White House's proposals. The 28% taxation limit on itemized deductions is already taking bipartisan fire and looks like a good bet to be jettisoned, despite uncertain evidence that it would have a negative effect on charitable giving.

So we know already that more than a dozen centrist Dems are meeting to weigh their concerns about the White House budget, while Republicans lick their chops in glee at the brewing rebellion.

But what about the three GOPers whose votes helped put the stimulus bill over the top? In their responses to the budget last week, Sens. Arlen Specter (PA), Olympia Snowe (ME), and Susan Collins (ME) offered one palpable clue about their opinion ...

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The Treasury Department has released more details about that housing bailout plan. Still waiting for some of the Washington lobbies to weigh in on it. My colleague, Elana Schor, has interesting reporting on the fight over "cramdowns"--giving bankruptcy judges the power to rewrite mortgage terms. Would be curious to know if readers are hearing about other fights over the proposal. It feels like the Rick Santelli moment has not yet passed. This Wall Street Journal poll shows a lot of public doubt about the plan.

The Minnesota election trial has proceeded forward today, with the Franken team continuing to present voters (presumably Franken-supporters) who they think should have their votes counted -- and Team Coleman attempting to undermine confidence in the whole election system.

State elections director Gary Poser has been on the stand, and lead Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg has been going over the existence of clerical errors or out-of-date entries in the state's voter-registration database. Poser has said the system is reliable overall, but the Coleman camp is trying to leverage the existence of errors into demonstrating that the admission or rejection of absentee ballots was fundamentally broken.

At one point, Friedberg appeared to be on to something -- there are whole swaths of counties and precincts that still haven't entered in all the new registrations from Election Day, four months ago.

"Now why if you will, have the counties not finished inputting the data from Election Day?" Friedberg asked. "Just manpower problems?"

"Um, yes," Poser said, "and I believe they've also been answering other requests from the campaigns, data-practice requests that have also been interrupting their work."

You've got it: The Minnesota election system is broken, with a never-ending backlog of work preventing the input of voter data -- and it's this very disputed race that has done the job!

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Richard Viguerie is one of the founders of the modern conservative movement. He's not the player he once was but he still carries clout and I think actually makes a reasonable point about the current crisis of leadership in the GOP. Congressional Republicans haven't really seized the leadership mantle so it's been left to the likes of Steele and Rush. He just released this statement:

Broadcasters and commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage are seen as the de facto leaders of the Republican Party for a simple reason, Richard A. Viguerie said today: "It's because no one else is acting like a Republican leader."

"The 'Rushification' of the GOP is the natural and inevitable result of the fact that those who are supposed to provide leadership - Republican elected officials and party officers - are doing little to bring the party back," said Viguerie, chairman of

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and there is no vacuum in nature as empty as the leadership of the Republican Party today."

Said Viguerie: "The GOP absolutely refuses to replace the Congressional leaders who helped get the party and the country into this mess. There are many Republican governors campaigning for the Obama 'stimulus' plan that is wrecking the economy and will push America deeper into socialism. Governor Jindal's speech was technocratic, without passion and toothless, and Michael Steele's foolish attack on Rush Limbaugh will, I'm sure, cost the party many millions in contributions."

The anger of grassroots conservatives continues unabated at the weak-kneed, spineless, earmark -loving Republicans.

In contrast to GOP officials, "Limbaugh and Hannity and most all of their conservative colleagues have something to say. They actually believe in something. They have the confidence of their convictions. They don't cower in fear of the President's popularity. They know that his popularity is built on the sand of false promises and false premises. Like Ronald Reagan facing the Soviet Union, they know how this story ends."

Even Jim Cramer of CNBC, who isn't a conservative, is providing more honest and outspoken leadership than the 'loyal opposition' about how Obama's policies are destroying the life savings of Americans.

"Americans are already beginning to realize that the new president is every bit as reckless and extreme as conservatives said he was," Viguerie said. "But the Republican Party can't get any traction, because the party leadership is as confused and clueless as the Obama administration."

Had Jindal not blown his speech or in Palin had been more out there during the last week--she chose to skip the National Governors Association meeting and the Conservative Political Action Conference--then she might have more of the mantle now. As it is, nature does abhor a vacuum.

We at TPMDC and the TPM mother ship are pretty perplexed about the Treasury Department's continued insistence on maintaining anonymity for the mysterious "counterparties" whose swaps and contracts with AIG are getting bolstered by the taxpayers.

And we're not alone: Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Warner (D-VA) urged the disclosure of AIG's counterparties yesterday. Today, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) added her voice to the chorus during an exchange with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in the Finance Committee:

CANTWELL: Why hasn't Treasury come forward and said who are the affected counterparties, the people that are most affected by the collapse, so that we know why we are doing this?

And Geithner's response was less than illuminating:

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