Capital Briefs May 11, 2009

RIDGE OUT, SESTAK IN: After a week of speculation and polls showing him running about even with newly minted Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, former Pennsylvania GOP Gov. Tom Ridge announced last week he would not run for the Senate after all. The decision of the moderate-to-liberal Ridge not to run enhances the political position of conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey, who nearly beat Specter in the Republican primary in ’04 and is already running again for next year. The 79-year-old Specter will not have a free ride in the Democratic primary, since two Democrats already in the race have insisted they won’t withdraw and two-term Rep. Joseph Sestak has hinted he may also get into the Senate nomination fight.

SPECTER SWITCH REVIVES RULE ON FILIBUSTER: One of the ironies of Arlen Specter’s switch from Republican to Democrat is that the Pennsylvania senator can no longer give Democrats the vote he might, as a Republican, well have provided to cut off a possible filibuster of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under an obscure (and little-used) Judiciary Committee rule, the vote of one senator in the minority party is required to end debate on the panel. As Cornell Law School Prof. Michael Dorf told the Washington Examiner last week, “The rule as written would allow this kind of problem [for Democrats]. It is a potential glitch.”

BACHMANN v. ACORN, TO BE CONTINUED: Two weeks ago, the House Financial Services Committee passed an amendment by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.) to prevent organizations that have been indicted of voter fraud from receiving any housing counseling grants and legal assistance grants under the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act. The Bachmann amendment, which passed on a voice vote, was aimed at drying up federal funds to ACORN, which is now under investigation for voter-registration fraud and tax violations. Hours after the vote, Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D.-Mass.) announced that he had made a “mistake” in accepting the amendment and that barring people under indictment from taxpayer funds is “a violation of due process.” Frank is now proposing to rewrite a part of H.R. 1728 (the Mortgage Reform Act) to change “indictment” to conviction and to specify that “senior employees” would have to be the ones convicted — in effect, neutering the Bachmann measure.

JUSTICE BERZON? One name that receives little mention in most of the lists of possible appointees to succeed David Souter on the Supreme Court but that causes much concern on the right is that of Judge Marsha Berzon of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Once the law clerk to Souter’s predecessor William Brennan, Radcliffe graduate Berzon practiced in San Francisco for 22 years with a union-representing firm she co-founded with husband Stephen Berzon and partner Fred Altshuler. Berzon was named to the 9th Circuit by Bill Clinton in 1999 as part of a deal that resulted in conservative Bradley Smith getting a Republican slot on the Federal Election Commission. Working against a Berzon nomination is her age (64).

: After losing the much-watched special election for Congress in New York’s 20th District two weeks ago, Republicans did get some good news last week. The just-completed Rasmussen Poll showed that, by a slim margin, Republican U.S. House candidates are now leading Democrats in the no-name “generic ballot” nationwide. According to Rasmussen, GOP candidates lead Democrats 40% to 39%. For most of the year, Democrats have held a lead or been dead-even with the GOP. Rasmussen also showed that, no surprise, male voters favor Republican candidates 47% to 33% but women favor Democrats 45% to 34%.

: That’s the title of a bill introduced last week by four Republican House members. With President Obama requesting $80 million from Congress to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, the “Keep Terrorists Out of America Act” puts Congress on record as opposing transferring the prisoners to American soil, makes it clear that state legislatures and governors must pre-approve the transfer or release of the detainees into their respective states, and requires strict certification standards before the present “Gitmo” inmates are brought into this country. Coming days after Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) slammed the Obama administration for closing the Guantanamo facility without explaining where the inmates would go, KTOOA was crafted and written by Republican Representatives Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), Lamar Smith (Tex.), Peter King (N.Y.), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.).

ALL IN THE (MURTHA) FAMILY: Although finding relatives of members of Congress working on Capitol Hill is nothing new, the assignment of Col. Brian Murtha to the U.S. Marine Corps congressional liaison office last July is now raising eyebrows. Marine helicopter pilot Murtha is the nephew of embattled Rep. John P. Murtha (D.-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees military spending. With a lobbyist and close friend of the congressman now under federal scrutiny for violating House ethics rules, the Murtha clan’s involvement in Washington is coming in for increasing notice. John Murtha’s brother Robert worked until a few years ago as a lobbyist for KSA Consultants, whose clients have received millions in earmarks. Another nephew, Robert Murtha, Jr., heads a company known as Murthech, which has received more than $3.5 million in military contracts over the last three years. The congressman’s cousin, the Rev. John Murtha, was president of St. Vincent’s College in Pennsylvania, an institution that received millions in earmarks.