Tales from the Trail

Specter gains chairmanship, loses potential foe

Senator Arlen Specter, who has had some rocky times since switching from the Republican to Democratic party last week, had a really good day on Thursday.

Specter gained some power — the chairmanship of a Senate subcommittee — and lost a potential and powerful reelection foe, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.specter

“After careful consideration and many conversations with friends and family and the leadership of my party, I have decided not to seek the Republican nomination for Senate,” Ridge said in a statement.

Earlier on Thursday, Senate Democrats, who had stripped Specter of committee seniority this week, turned around and gave him the chairmanship of a Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. 

“I want Senator Specter to feel welcome in our caucus,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, the Democrat who surrendered the chairmanship to make way for Specter. 

Minnesota Democrat Franken calls on Biden

frankenDemocrat Al Franken went to Washington on Wednesday — but not to to claim the Minnesota Senate seat Republican incumbent Norm Coleman lost in the November election. Franken, a comic turned politician, called on Vice President Joe Biden at the White House to talk about policy issues and the still-unresolved Minnesota contest he hopes will end with a win for the Democrats.

“Minnesotans are eager to see Congress make progress on the administration’s agenda and I’m eager to do my part in that effort,” Franken said after his meeting with Biden.

He’s going to have to wait a while. A state court ruled last month that Franken should be certified the winner of the Minnesota Senate race.  But it’s far from over. The widely anticipated ruling merely signaled the end of another round in a long-running battle. Coleman’s legal challenge continues — and he has said he may take his case all  the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Specter: Republican Sr becomes Democrat Jr

SENATE/CLINTON/GATES

A week after switching parties, former Republican-turned-Democratic U.S. Senator Arlen Specter has suffered the political equivalent of a kick in the pants.

The action — stripping him of Senate seniority — isn’t expected to change the outcome of any pending legislation. But it puts Specter on notice he must earn his Democratic stripes.

The figurative boot in the butt was administered on late Tuesday by Senate Democrats, who have been irritated by many of Specter’s initial moves as a member of their party.

Specter debuts on the Democratic side of the Senate

SENATE/CLINTON/GATESNewly minted Democratic Senator Arlen Specter made a relatively quiet debut as an official Democrat on Thursday — his desk was moved to the other side of the aisle.

Specter also showed up — albeit briefly — at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on President Barack Obama’s request for $83.4 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to provide additional foreign aid to countries like Pakistan.

Specter quietly slipped into the room and sat on the Democratic side of the dais but in the last seat where traditionally the most junior member sits. Specter is expected to stay on the same committees he served on as a Republican and retain his seniority.

U.S. Senate goes two ways on estate taxes

The U.S. Senate went two different ways on the estate tax, which has been a contentious issue for years — a tax congressional Republicans have villified as the “death tax”.BRITAIN-RICHARDSON/

Senators voted 51-48 to include a provision in the fiscal 2010 budget that called for exempting estates at $5 million for individuals and limiting the tax to 35 percent — though the measure is non-binding and could be stripped out when the legislation is melded with a separate budget that passed the House of Representatives.

The amendment provoked a moment of drama in an otherwise long day of voting in the Senate where Democratic leaders scrambled to find the votes to kill the amendment, which scores some political points to those who have rallied against the estate tax for years.

White House pulls trigger early on budget praise

G20/As the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate drew closer to wrapping up votes on their version of the fiscal 2010 budget, President Barack Obama’s staff appeared to pull the trigger a bit hastily on his congratulatory statements praising the Senate vote.

At 7:50 p.m. EDT, about 40 minutes after the House of Representatives approved its budget plan that trims Obama’s $3.55 trillion budget proposal, the White House issued a statement from Obama praising the vote as “another step toward rebuilding our struggling economy.”

But appended to the bottom was another statement from Obama — who probably was asleep since he’s in London — that looked like the statement the White House planned to issue after the Senate votes on its own budget plan:

Tell us what you really think Senator Grassley

WASHINGTON – How outraged can they be?

U.S. lawmakers are clearly outraged by the $165 million in bonuses being paid to executives at bailed-out insurer American International Group. For the last two days, they’ve been talking about it in press releases,  at news conference and in speeches on the floor of the Senate and House.

But no one says it more colorfully and more bluntly than Republican Senator Chuck Grassley — so far.

grassley“From my standpoint, it’s irresponsible for corporations to give bonuses, at this time, when they are so sucking the tit of the taxpayer,” Grassley said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Senators escape being pinned down on bill full of earmarks

FINANCIAL/Much has been made in Washington over the last week in the U.S. Senate about which Democrats and Republicans would vote for the $410 billion bill to fund government operations because it includes thousands of lawmakers’ pet projects.

Some senators like Republican John McCain have excoriated the expenditures, roughly $7.7 billion according to a count by the independent group Taxpayers for Common Sense, as unnecessary spending or destined for projects that should have been properly vetted through regular congressional review.

Others like Democratic Senator Tom Harkin have defended their projects, arguing that they have worthy goals or are needed to address a problem.

The First Draft: From education to Bernanke to borders

Topic of the day for the White House: education. OBAMA/

President Barack Obama is unveiling his plans to reform the U.S. education system, which has one of the worst high school dropout rates in the industrialized world.

USA/But while Obama’s education reform plans drew applause on the campaign trail, he might face tough competition for airtime as he is talking at 0945 EDT — roughly the same time as U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks about financial reform.

In his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations, Bernanke said governments needed to take forceful and sometimes coordinated action to heal markets and said sustainable economic recovery was out of reach until the financial system is stabilized.

He’s In…

For everyone wondering whether John McCain would run for re-election to the U.S. Senate after that grueling presidential campaign — wonder no more.

 He’s in.  And he’s asking for help.

The Arizona Republican sent an email to supporters on Tuesday, making clear his intention to defend his Senate seat in 2010.

 ”The magnitude of the financial crisis that many American families are facing makes it clear to me that I want to continue to serve our country in the Senate,” McCain wrote.