TPM News

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was asked by the Reno Gazette-Journal what effect Ted Kennedy's death will have on the health care bill -- and Reid said it would help.

"I think it's going to help us," said Reid. "He hasn't been around for some time," he added, seemingly in response to the (unstated) issue of Kennedy's vote getting lost. Reid also said the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will have a new chairman, either Chris Dodd or Tom Harkin.

"He's an inspiration for us," Reid said of Kennedy. "That was the issue of his life and he didn't get it done."

The Tea Party Express set off from California this weekend, starting a tour set to end in Washington, D.C., on Sept.12, holding protests against health care reform all along the way.

At a stop Sunday in the small city of Ely, Nev., the Tea Party Express got funky. Like lady-tea-partier-chorus-line funky. Note the sign that reads, "Elect Anyone Butt Harry Reid," and the woman in the American flag shirt who, at the end, tells the black emcee, "I don't care if you're pink with blue polka dots, as long as you're American and love America."

The emcee here is Lloyd Marcus, the spokesman for the political action committee behind the bus tour, "Our Country Deserves Better." The PAC is headed by Howard Kaloogian, who you may remember as the GOP-er who, when running for Duke Cunningham's seat in 2006, said a picture of a street corner in Istanbul was taken by his staff on a trip to Baghdad, in a claim that the city was doing well. His chief strategist on that campaign, Sal Russo, is now strategizing for the PAC.

The Tea Party Express is a caravan of buses, RVs and SUVs planning 33 rallies en route to D.C. Tea party groups from across the country are planning to gather in the capital Sept. 12 to protest health care reform. So far, the Express has found hundreds of supporters waiting for them at each stop.

Late Update: More on Kaloogian, Russo, and Our Country Deserves Better here from TPMmuckraker .

Eric Holder is getting support for his decision to announce a criminal probe of torture from an unlikely source: Alberto Gonzales.

The former Attorney General told a radio interviewer for the Washington Times:

We worked very hard to establish ground rules and parameters about how to deal with terrorists. And if people go beyond that, I think it is legitimate to question and examine that conduct to ensure people are held accountable for their actions, even if it's action in prosecuting the war on terror.

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The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley picked up nomination papers for Senate this morning, from the Secretary of State's office -- launching a campaign for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

This would make Coakley the first candidate to officially get in the race since Kennedy's death..

TPM has placed requests for comment with Coakley's campaign committee and the state Attorney General's office.

As Senate leaders begin work on a Democrat-only health care bill, they're finding themselves confronted with an unexpected irony: Though the caucus has reached an uneasy consensus around a public option that's modeled in many ways after a private insurer, it may be necessary to make the public option more liberal, and thus, more politically radioactive, if it's to overcome a number of unique procedural hurdles.

This is the needle Democrats may have to thread if they want a public option, and at the same time, want to bypass a Republican filibuster. And the key for them will be keeping conservative Democrats on board.

"A very robust public option that scores significant savings would presumably be easy to justify doing through reconciliation," says a Senate Democratic aide. "But it is still being studied whether other, more moderate versions of a public option could pass parliamentary muster."

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President Obama will hold a dinner to celebrate Ramadan tonight at the White House.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours. The fast is broken after sunset with a dinner, or iftar, usually as a community. Tonight's dinner will be held at 8 p.m. ET.

The dinner will also "highlight the contributions of American Muslims," according to the White House. A guest list will be released later today.

Obama is not the first president to celebrate the Islamic holiday. President Clinton was the first to hold official iftars, and President Bush continued the tradition throughout his two terms.

Earlier this month, Obama taped a message wishing Muslims around the world a Ramadan Kareem. He said, in part, "These rituals remind us of the principles that we hold in common, and Islam's role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

(Late update: Here's the guest list.)

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Private Defense Department contractors outnumber the ranks of uniformed U.S. military in Afghanistan, according to a Congressional Research Service study obtained by the invaluable Secrecy News.

As of March, there were over 68,000 contractors in Afghanistan and over 52,000 military personnel (Read the report in .pdf format here.)

At 57% of total Defense Department workforce, the number of contractors represents "the highest recorded percentage of contractors used by DOD in any conflict in the history of the United States," the study concludes.

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The new survey of the Virginia gubernatorial race by Public Policy Polling (D) suggests that Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds could be seriously catching up with Republican Bob McDonnell, as Democrats become more motivated and McDonnell takes heat over his controversial right-wing law school thesis.

In the top-line, McDonnell still leads with 49% to Deeds' 42%. However, this is a big shift from the 51%-37% McDonnell lead from a month ago. There has been a significant shift in the make-up of the likely voter pool: A month ago, respondents had voted for McCain by a 52%-41% margin, while the new pool is at McCain 49%-45%. This is still a long way from the actual result last fall, when Obama carried the state 53%-47%.

One big change, according to PPP communications director Tom Jensen, is that the likely voter pool shifted from 37% Democratic to 47% Democratic in the days of sampling after the story broke about McDonnell's thesis, and Deeds then led by eight points in that sample within the sample. However, the margin of error in the post-thesis sample is ±10.8%, and Jensen told me we'll need more post-thesis polling to really see whether this is a fluke, or a real sign of Democrats becoming energized.

On a conference call with reporters just now, the campaign of Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds continued to hammer away at Republican Bob McDonnell for his right-wing thesis from 20 years ago, in which the then-34-year-old McDonnell laid out a plan of action for legislating a Christian right agenda.

And this time, the Deeds campaign brought out some moderate Republican former state legislators, to hammer McDonnell for walking away from it, after a lengthy conference call yesterday in which he disavowed all those positions.

"I've been following closely, of course, the breaking news of the thesis," said former state Sen. Marty Williams. "And quite frankly as someone who served with Bob for years, the thesis didn't have any surprises for me."

Williams later said that this was not a college paper by a 18-year old kid, but a detailed thesis by a man of 34: "My biggest surprise is that he is running away from it. I read that thesis, and it's the Bob I've always known."

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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has used a state helicopter to visit at least 15 churches since March, spending about $45,000 of taxpayer money to visit his Protestant Christian base in far-flung corners of the state.

Jindal, who is Catholic, took the helicopter to church services almost every Sunday in May, June and July, according to records obtained by the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Jindal told the Advocate he tries to schedule meetings with local officials after the services. He also said he only visits the churches because they invite him.

"I'm completely just humbled and honored that I'm asked to come and worship with Louisianians across the state," he said. "It's important for the governor to get out of Baton Rouge."

His office wouldn't say how often he goes to Mass at his own church.

"I go as frequently as I can," Jindal said.

Here's video of Jindal speaking to a congregation last August, sounding a lot like he's on the stump.

(H/T Think Progress)