In it, but not of it. TPM DC

While we're discussing the devastating effects of the Senate stimulus compromise on state budgets, it's worth pointing out that the centrist negotiators didn't just cut $40 billion in state aid.

The stimulus deal cut over the weekend also restricted states' use of stabilization money, requiring governors to use all of their share on education. Under the original Senate stimulus, states could use 61% of their aid from Washington on education and the remaining 39% on public safety or other pressing needs.

By no means am I suggesting that education isn't a worthy use for that cash. But if the centrists had left aid to the states intact, rather than cutting it in half, perhaps California could avoid furloughing government workers without pay. And maybe North Carolina could avoid shutting down mental hospitals and a major prison.

Ben Smith raised an interesting question this morning: Why did Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), whom President Obama has singled out as a valuable mentor, pass up the chance to ride to Indiana on Air Force One today?

Lugar's absence looked a bit amiss to Mike Tomasky and other wise heads, particularly since Rep. Fred Upton (MI) -- another Republican whose vote on the final stimulus bill is still within reach for the president -- did join Obama on today's trip. But as a Lugar spokesman explained to me, the senator had a pretty good reason to decline the Air Force One invitation.

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Back in January, TPM crowned its first Sleeper Bill of the Month, praising a proposal by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) that would set up an independent panel -- with subpoena power -- to probe civil liberties and human rights abuses committed during the Bush years.

The measure has yet to receive a hearing, but it's slowly amassing support from connected Democratic lawmakers, with the biggest breakthrough coming about an hour ago. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), in a speech at Georgetown University, endorsed the creation of an independent "truth and reconciliation" commission. Here's what Leahy said:

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Washington has a way of blurring the human impact of a major policy debate -- such as the one going on right now over the stimulus -- by using vague and dense terminology to describe certain programs. Take, for instance, this talk of "state stabilization funds" that were cut back by $40 billion this weekend in the deal cut by Senate centrists.

The term sounds bone-dry, but the stabilization funds are a crucial bulwark against budget deficits that are already forcing layoffs, cutbacks, and higher taxes and fees in 39 states, 21 of which have at least one GOP senator. You heard right: Senate Republicans are insisting on cutting federal aid to their own states in the name of fiscal responsibility -- while some of these state governments are actually pulling back on tax breaks in response.

"If you take a combination of the [budget] gaps for the rest of the current fiscal year, the gaps for the next fiscal year, and the gaps for 2011, [when] unemployment is still going to be high ... we estimate that the [total state budget] gap is $350 billion to $370 billion," Nick Johnson, director of the state fiscal project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), told me.

Compare that two-year deficit to the $79 billion in state stabilization funding that was included in both the House and Senate's original stimulus bills; then consider that the Senate's compromise left states with only $39 billion to close their budget gaps. Better yet, consider the plights of Maine and Arizona ...

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The White House has just announced that President Obama will be campaigning for the stimulus plan tomorrow in Fort Myers, Florida -- where he'll be introduced by Republican Governor Charlie Crist.

It's odd to think that Crist -- who hit the campaign trail in a big way for John McCain last year, and has been courted to run for the open Senate seat -- has now broken ranks in such a conspicuous manner as to publicly appear with Obama.

It's not just that, but his official statement praises Obama in language that one would normally use for a political ally: "I am eager to welcome President Obama to the Sunshine State as he continues to work hard to reignite the US economy."

Yet another poll, this time from CNN, shows that President Obama is viewed very positively in the legislative battles over the stimulus bill, while the Republican Party remains the unpopular player in this game

Obama has a 76% overall job approval and 23% disapproval. On the economy specifically, his rating is 72%-28%. Meanwhile, Congress has a very poor rating of 29%-71% -- but it quickly becomes clear that this should be not be simply laid at the feet of the majority Democrats, and is instead the GOP's fault.

The Democratic leadership in Congress has a solid rating of 60%-39%, while the Republican leaders are at 44%-55%. Furthermore, respondents said by 74%-25% that Obama is doing enough to cooperate with Republicans, while they say by a 60%-39% margin that Republicans are not doing enough to cooperate with him.

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The Franken legal team just made another shot at forcing Norm Coleman to pick the up the pace of this trial -- and missed.

Franken lawyer David Lillehaug objected to the Coleman team's procedure so far of reviewing ballots one by one, withdrawing some along the way and keeping their complaint that it should be counted for others. "The problem is the contestant has really not sat down and decided which ballots they are going to go through and which they are not," said Lillehaug. "And that is why this trial is taking so long."

Lillehaug called for Coleman to be barred from introducing ballots until he first answered the Franken camp's interrogatories and conducted a more thorough sorting process, paring the list down.

Coleman lawyer James Langdon responded they have given sufficient information on these ballots. "If they're really curious as to how many of these we're serious about, the short answer is all of them," said Langdon, though he added that something might come up during questioning of county officials that would cause them to withdraw a claim.

The judges went into a recess and just came back with their answer: The Franken camp's motion is denied. Instead, Judge Kurt Marben said the panel and the two sides will discuss later today whether there is any more expedient way of doing this.

One month ago, TPM broke the news of a new Sustainable Energy & Environment Caucus being formed in the House to push for environmentally friendly recovery proposals in the stimulus bill.

The SEEC is now stepping up its efforts to ensure that the final version of the stimulus measure keeps its promise of investment in renewable energy and mass transit -- both of them proven job creators. Led by co-chairmen Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Steve Israel (D-NY), 25 members of the SEEC have written a letter to House leaders outlining their priorities.

Amid a flurry of coverage criticizing the shortcomings of the stimulus, the SEEC letter is a healthy reminder that the recovery plan does contain incentives for the nation to wean itself from fossil-fuel addiction ... if the House and Senate can be persuaded not to remove any worthy provisions during conference talks, that is.

If you haven't read Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-PA) op-ed in today's Washington Post, it's worth checking out. Just make sure you've already digested your breakfast, because the exultant-yet-threatening tone he uses to discuss the Senate centrists' stimulus plan may trigger some nausea.

Specter admits, candidly, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) critical response to the Senate stimulus means that he and fellow centrist GOPers have pushed the envelope about as far as it can go. But his choice of words is particularly telling (emphasis mine):

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In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio on Friday, Norm Coleman was asked what his next step would be if the election trial ends with him still behind. And he didn't rule out an appeals process, which could hold up the certification of a Franken victory even longer.

"I don't know if there is a next step," Coleman said, explaining that it's a question of whether there would still be outstanding issues such as improperly-rejected absentee ballots, double-counted absentees, and other questions.

When pressed further on whether he would appeal, Coleman responded: "If those issues are resolved, there's not much to appeal."

In plain English: Get ready for some appeals.

Meanwhile, Al Franken gave his own interview to MPR. Among other things, he commented on Coleman's decision to take a temporary consulting job with the Republican Jewish Coalition: "I think it may be a more permanent job."