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First Thoughts: Small ball

*** Small ball: More than two years ago at the first presidential debate, John McCain brought up his crusade against earmarks, and Barack Obama easily knocked it down. “Well, Sen. McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state… But let’s be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year’s budget. Sen. McCain is proposing -- and this is a fundamental difference between us -- $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion.” But what has happened since that debate might be McCain’s biggest legacy from the campaign: the bipartisan aversion to earmarks. (And it’s ironic, given that McCain is hardly a Tea Party hero.) So yesterday, we saw Mitch McConnell -- an avid earmarker in the past -- capitulate to the Tea Party and support the GOP Senate earmark ban, all but ensuring its passage in today’s non-binding Senate Republican vote. That follows the call by House GOP leaders and even President Obama for similar earmark reform.

*** Defining what a legislator is supposed to be, ceding power: But this drive to eliminate earmarks brings up Obama’s criticism from 2008: It’s so … small, especially compared with the price tag of extending the Bush tax cuts (for the wealthy or the middle class) and what the deficit-reduction co-chairs recently proposed (tax increases, spending cuts, entitlement reform). It also raises this question: If senators or members of Congress are no longer in charge of bringing home the bacon to their states or districts (via earmarks or another mechanism), then what becomes their primary mission? Being ideological fighters? And then there's this: By banning earmarks, is Congress ceding all the bacon authority to the executive branch? (If you're a community, for example, you're going to the Transportation Department to get your road projects, not your congressman.) McConnell even addressed this on the Senate floor yesterday, “I’m not wild about turning over more spending authority to the executive branch.”

*** Over to you, Democrats: With the GOP and Obama opposed earmarks, the ball is now in congressional Dems’ court. Per NBC’s Ken Strickland, the last vote on the Senate floor to ban earmarks was in March, and it gained the support of only four Democrats: Evan Bayh, Russ Feingold, Ted Kaufman, and Claire McCaskill. Of those, only McCaskill will be in the new Congress in January. "I'm glad that Republican leadership is coming around to this idea," McCaskill said in a written statement yesterday. "Now it's my Democratic colleagues turn to get on board." So far, there’s been one taker: Colorado Sen. Mark Udall. Through his spokesman, Strick adds, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid presented a strong case continuing earmarks -- without actually calling them "earmarks." "It is up to each senator whether or not they will support congressionally directed funding to their state," said Reid's spokesman Jim Manley. "From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada."

*** A vulnerable Pelosi? Thanks to McConnell’s new position on earmarks, Republicans are shifting focus away from their own divisions and putting it squarely on the Democrats. While Reid offered up changes to his Senate leadership -- placing Chuck Schumer in charge of messaging -- Nancy Pelosi has publicly offered nothing after losing 60-plus seats earlier this month. Right now, she’s lucky that her only challenger is Blue Dog Heath Shuler instead of a non-Blue Dog from the Midwest (on “Daily Rundown” yesterday, outgoing Rep. Brian Baird suggested Ron Kind of Wisconsin). Here’s the honest truth: Despite having the votes on her side, Pelosi’s grip over her caucus is very shaky -- and that’s without having a real challenger.

*** Rangel’s “new embarrassment”: The simmering frustration with Pelosi’s inability to offer up at least one change isn’t the only problem House Democrats are currently facing. Charlie Rangel is another -- after he walked away from the ethics panel investigating him. Rangel’s hometown paper, the New York Times, summed up yesterday’s theatrics in this editorial: “Mr. Rangel demanded a delay, claiming he needed to raise money for a new lawyer. When the committee refused, he walked out the door and into a new embarrassment. There is no reason why the New York Democrat should have been unprepared to mount a defense. He said his defense team, from the firm of Zuckerman Spaeder, dropped him a month ago when he warned he might not be able to find enough money in his campaign fund to pay them for the hearing. But as the committee chairwoman, Zoe Lofgren, pointed out, the committee has repeatedly advised Mr. Rangel since 2008 that he could set up a defense fund to raise the money, which he has not done.”

*** If he couldn’t afford an attorney, why didn’t he accept the earlier reprimand? The Times editorial also made this point: “Mr. Rangel is not facing expulsion or criminal charges. About the worst that can happen to him is a reprimand... But if he had apologized to the House and accepted his knuckle-rap, he would have been spared the hearing. Now he has raised even more questions about his fitness to represent his district.” The ethics subcommittee reconvenes later this morning and is set to vote on whether Rangel is guilty on the 13 charges against him.

*** Murkowski vs. Palin: In Alaska’s still-undecided Senate contest, Sarah Palin was fortunate (for a while) in this respect: Had the race been decided on Election Night, it would have been a big -- and potentially devastating story, as it relates to 2012 -- that Palin was unable to get her preferred candidate, Joe Miller, across the finish line in her own home state. And now that Palin nemesis Lisa Murkowski looks poised to win the race as a write-in candidate, Murkowski is taking her shots against Palin. "You know, she was my governor for two years, for just about two years there, and I don't think that she enjoyed governing," Murkowski told CBS. "I don't think she liked to get down into the policy." More: "We have common interests in a shared love for our state... But in fairness, she is not really that keyed into the state anymore. She is looking, obviously, at a bigger pond, and so we don't see her up north as much." Ouch.

*** Per paper, Murkowski takes the lead: Meanwhile, the Anchorage Daily News is reporting that Murkowski has now surpassed Miller in the vote total. "The Division of Elections has now counted 92,164 votes for Murkowski and 90,458 for Miller. Murkowski's number will grow as the state continues to go through write-in ballots today, looking to see what name voters wrote on them." Miller's hope is that the Murkowski ballots his campaign has challenged (for misspellings, etc.) get thrown out in court. "Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said he still thinks the court challenge could get enough votes thrown out for Miller to win. 'The race is far from over,' DeSoto said."

*** Today’s events: At 2:00 pm ET, President Obama awards Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta the Medal of Honor. Also, Obama's children's book, "Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters," goes on sale… VP Biden chairs a meeting on Iraq at the White House. He then travels to Philadelphia, where he speaks at the "Focus on Recovery Biennial National Procurement and Grant Fraud Conference" at 2:00 pm ET…. At 11:30 am ET in Dallas, groundbreaking begins on George W. Bush’s presidential library… And per Politico, Newt Gingrich spends today and tomorrow in Iowa promoting his new book, “Valley Forge.”

*** Meet the freshmen: The 112th Congress’ freshman class was supposed to take its group photo, but that was cancelled due to the rain here in the nation’s capital. Here’s a quick view of who will be in that picture when it’s eventually taken -- 93 to 97 new members, the most potentially since 1992 depending on the outcome of those undecided races; 39 (and could be 42) are affiliated with the Tea Party, including four women; five former members who are back for another go round; three car salesmen; a reality TV star; a former NFL offensive lineman; an FBI agent; a pizza shop owner; an auctioneer; a potter; a jeweler; a commercial airline pilot; and a Gospel-singing farmer.

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