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After Newt Gingrich was rewarded with a surge in the polls, for playing the race card during the South Carolina GOP debate, Mitt Romney has launched another all out attack on Newt –  this time focusing on Newt’s record as speaker, with an assist from some Republican former members of Congress. But Romney isn’t forgetting his other rivals. He’s unleashed the mother of all robo-call campaigns, and one of the main targets is Rick Santorum. Now that Romney’s narrow victory in Iowa has vanished — transformed into virtual tie, thanks to a 34-point Santorum lead combined with missing precincts and other irregularities — we can probably expect more attacks on Santorum.

The thing is, Romney’s attacks on Santorum are spot on. It’s not about Santorum’s extremism, though there’s more than enough material there. The label that may undermine Santorum with Republican primary voters isn’t “extremist.” It’s “Washington Insider.”

The “Rick Facts” website run by Romney’s “Restore Our Future” PAC cites a Politico article as the source of Santorum’s “Washington Insider” title.

Rick Santorum - Caricature
As Santorum tries to seize the tea-party mantle and paint Mitt Romney as the ultimate establishment candidate, the reality is Santorum became the ultimate Washington insider.

Santorum was popular with most of his GOP colleagues, emerging as the No. 3 Senate Republican, and he briefly considered a run for Senate GOP leader. He played a key role in the so-called “K Street Project,” an effort by top Republicans on Capitol Hill to fill the ranks of powerful lobbying shops with Republican supporters. He pushed for hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for Pennsylvania projects and companies, then used those relationships to help his post-Senate career.

And he profited mightily from his Senate ties after he left the chamber in 2007, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars by cashing in on his insider relationships, including serving on a hospital management board that was accused of Medicaid fraud.

Santorum’s work the with “K Street Project,” not only established Santorum as a Washington power broker during the heady days when the GOP held a virtual lock on government, but probably laid the foundation for Santorum’s post-Senate career as a lobbyist.

Beginning in 2001, after Republicans seized control of Congress and the White House, then-Sen. Santorum (R-Pa.) began hosting Tuesday morning meetings with a select group of lobbyists. These meetings were part of a larger plan — originally launched in the 1990s by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), conservative activist Grover Norquist and others when the GOP retook the House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic control — to pressure lobbying firms and trade associations to dump their Democratic lobbyists and replace them with Republicans. Named after the Washington business corridor famous for housing lobbying firms, the K Street Project was aimed at installing a permanent Republican majority in Washington.

Journalist Nicholas Confessore explained Santorum’s role in the K Street Project in a 2003 Washington Monthly article: “Santorum’s responsibility is to make sure each [top lobbying job] is filled by a loyal Republican — a senator’s chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors.”

This wasn’t just backroom chatter. There were real direct effects on policy. When Jack Valenti, the longtime chief of the Motion Picture Association of America, retired, Republicans led by Santorum and DeLay sought to pressure the trade group to hire a Republican. The MPAA ultimately replaced Valenti with former Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, deeply offending leaders of the K Street Project.

Santorum brought up the Glickman hire at a closed-door Republican caucus meeting and was quoted in a 2004 Roll Call article saying, “Yeah, we had a meeting and, yeah, we talked about making sure that we have fair representation on K Street. … I admit that I pay attention to who is hiring, and I think it’s important for leadership to pay attention.”

Later in 2004, the Republicans in Congress voted down $1.5 billion in subsidies for the movie industry. Grover Norquist told Roll Call at the time that the movie industry’s hire of Glickman was one of the reasons Republicans scuttled the subsidies. “Hollywood has recently expressed contempt for the Republican leadership in the House, Senate and White House,” Norquist said.

Understandably, Santorum has tried to downplay his involvement, since he stopped routinely meeting with lobbyist in 2006. WaPo’s Fact Checker looked into Santorum’s denials that he had any involvement in the K Street Project, ever tried to get anybody a position on K Street, or so much as shared an elevator with Grover Norquist. (Think in terms of a Clinton-style denial – “I did not have meetings with those lobbyists.”

Republicans launched an initiative in 1995 to change the makeup of K Street, which had supposedly become flush with Democrats after four decades of congressional dominance by the Democratic party. DeLay helped spearhead the effort by starting a dossier that listed the campaign contributions and party affiliations of lobbyists, presumably to help GOP officials block non-allies from government access and jobs.

Norquist asked lobbyists for help completing the profiles during a private meeting in June 2002, according to a report that year from the Post. Santorum, who was serving as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, hosted the gathering, the article said.

The previous year, Santorum had started holding twice-monthly conferences with handpicked lobbyists and GOP officials to review job openings in the lobbying world. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted the former senator referring to those discussions as the “K Street meetings.”

Former GOP congressman and lobbyist Rod Chandler explained to Washington Monthly how the gatherings worked. “The underlying theme was [to] place Republicans in key positions on K Street,” he said. “Everybody taking part was a Republican and understood that that was the purpose of what we were doing.”

Fact Checker gave the whole story a score of “two Pinocchios,” suggesting that there’s some shading of facts and selective truth-telling going on.

Santorum’s connections with Big Coal lobbyists are part of the story, too. Santorum’s “aw, shucks” demeanor when speaking about his coal-mining grandfather, and his decision to come to the aid of “a local coal company from my area.” Santorum wasn’t so much helping the little guy as going to work for an old friend he’d helped out many times before, as a member of the Senate.

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Rick Santorum likes to brag about how he helped a poor local company fight big, bad government regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. “My grandfather was a coal miner,” Santorum said at a debate in New Hampshire this week. “So I contacted a local coal company from my area. I said, look, I want to join you in that fight. I want to work together with you.”

But Consol Energy, the company for which Santorum was a “consultant,” wasn’t some bare-bones local outfit-it’s one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States, and its largest shareholder is the German utility RWE. And Santorum wasn’t doing volunteer work: He was paid quite handsomely for his services, to the tune of $142,500 from 2010 to August 2011. He only ended his role with Consol when he launched his presidential bid last spring.

Santorum’s relationship with the coal company began long before his consulting gig; Santorum and Consol had a mutually profitable association during Santorum’s tenure in the Senate, too. Consol donated more than $73,800 to Santorum during his time as a legislator while simultaneously spending more than $1 million lobbying Congress on pollution limits, mine reclamation, worker health benefits, and tax policy, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the US Senate Office of Public Records.

…It’s not entirely clear what Santorum did during his tenure as a Consol consultant, which started in 2007 after he was defeated for reelection. A spokesperson for the company told the New York Times he was hired “to provide strategic counsel on a variety of public policy-related issues.” Although he was never registered as a lobbyist, former legislators can still be adept at maximizing their clients’ influence without actually having to officially register as lobbyists under the law.

Big Coal’s may have been Santorum’s favorite lobby, it wasn’t the only one corporate interest. Politico also reported on Santorum’s seven-year-old attack on the National Weather Service. In 2005, Santorum sponsored legislation that — while leaving the agency intact — would have severely restricted its ability to distribute information directly to the public. The Political article says opponents criticized the bill as a reflection of an “outdated worldview” — that government-sponsored information should flow through private, for-profit entities before reaching citizens.

But former congressman Alan Grayson writes that Santorum’s anti-NWS crusade had little to do with conservative principles.

AccuWeather_Logo.jpg (278×58)Now you must be thinking, “Wow, that guy Santorum is a REAL conservative.” Santorum recognizes that government weather forecasts are meteorological socialism; they are a serious infringement on your constitutional right not to know whether it will rain tomorrow. Santorum sees that weather forecasts are a government takeover of the skies. In fact, Santorum is such an astute and profound conservative thinker that he probably realizes that traffic lights are a government takeover of the roads.

But this note is not about traffic lights. It’s about Rick Santorum and government weather forecasts. And why Rick Santorum tried to ban them.

Here’s why. It’s because AccuWeather is a commercial weather forecasting company, and AccuWeather employees gave Santorum more than $5,000 in campaign contributions. Then he introduced the bill. Which subsequently and consequently led to Santorum being named as one of Congress’s “most corrupt politicians.” Which is saying a lot.

Wendell Potter, former insurance company executive, has a similar story to tell about Santorum’s ties to the health insurance lobby.

Shortly before that fundraiser I refused to attend, Santorum was a co-sponsor in the Senate, along with Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), of the absurdly titled “Health Coverage for the Uninsured Act of 2005.” In reality it was a bill written largely by health insurance lobbyists to further enhance the appeal of HSAs. It would have created “refundable” tax credits providing incentives for people with low incomes to purchase private insurance. Instead of waiting to get a refund for insurance at the end of the year, low-income earners would get credits each month that they would use to pay premiums to a private insurance company. They would have to buy coverage with high-deductibles, of course.

As you might expect, health insurers have been among the biggest contributors to Santorum’s Senate campaigns over the years. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Blue Cross Blue Shield was his fourth largest lifetime donor, contributing $114,790, while CIGNA came it at number 10, with contributions totaling $68,610.

If Santorum makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next year, his inauguration would usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity for big insurance corporations like the ones I used to work for — and an era in which being underinsured would become the new norm for the rest of us.

Shaping legislation to serve his corporate donors’ interests helped fill Santorum’s campaign coffers as a member of Congress. Selling his access and influence as a former member of Congress, while staying just this side of the law, has paid well for Santorum. The New York Times noted that, like Gingrich, Santorum has become a multimillionaire by peddling his influence to big corporations.

Don’t let the sweater vests and coal-miner’s-grandson routine fool you. Santorum pocketed $6 million in six years, based on his Washington insider status, according to a Bloomberg article that says a lot about how he earned it.

“I come from a little different background than most Republicans,” he said at a Jan. 2 town-hall meeting in Newton, Iowa, where he recalled playing as a child outside the coal mines in which his grandfather toiled.
Yet Santorum, 53, has come a long way from those gritty early days to the top tier of the Republican presidential primary race after coming in second to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Since his 2006 re-election defeat, the former Pennsylvania lawmaker has gone from being one of the poorer members of the U.S. Senate to earning $1.3 million between January 2010 and August 2011. In 2007, he spent $2 million to buy a 5,000-square foot home in Great Falls, Virginia, according to property records.

Santorum’s financial rise was powered by consulting contracts with fuel producer Consol Energy Inc. (CNX), faith advocacy group Clapham Group and American Continental Group, a Washington consultancy, as well as media engagements.

“If he’s claiming he’s not an insider, this is the thing that insiders do — after public office they cash in,” said Kent Cooper, a campaign finance expert and former Federal Elections Commission assistant staff director.

That pretty much says it all. Like I said before, the more these guys attack each other, the more we learn about how right they are about each other. And it looks like Romney had this much right about Santorum: he’s the very model of a “Washington Insider.”

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