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FEC probe creates headaches — and legal bills — for this House Republican

with help from Sarah Ferris and Andrew Desiderio

WATKINS’ WOES — Freshman Rep. Steve Watkins might be the most embattled House Republican who you’ve probably never heard of. The Kansas lawmaker — who has kept a relatively low-profile on Capitol Hill since narrowly winning his election last cycle — is under fire on multiple fronts: the FEC is investigating potentially illegal donations that his father funneled to his 2018 campaign, a local District Attorney’s office is probing Watkins over alleged voter fraud and there are new revelations about his conduct on the campaign trail.

Chief among Watkins’ legal headaches: his father, Steve Watkins Sr., confirmed in a brief phone interview with POLITICO that he is being probed by the Federal Election Commission for giving thousands of dollars to his daughters, a home-building contractor and the contractor’s wife, which they then used to max out to Watkins’ congressional bid. Those types of “straw man donations” violate campaign finance laws.

The elder Watkins — who also dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a super PAC to support his son’s election — insisted he didn’t know that what he was doing was illegal. “I feel terrible about it,” Watkins Sr. said of the campaign-finance controversy. “My son is getting all this bad publicity for something he didn’t do.” Watkins’ office said neither the GOP lawmaker nor his campaign are under investigation by the FEC, though campaign filings show that Watkins has paid $30,000 in legal fees to campaign finance lawyers over the last year.

Then there are also personnel issues that surfaced during the 2018 campaign. Watkins lived in a group house with five of his staffers — an unusual setting that one person described as a “frat-like” atmosphere. The living dynamic also led to an awkward confrontation at one point: Watkins thought one of his staffers stole some of his “Viagra” pills that were apparently imported from Asia, according to multiple sources. Watkins then had another staffer confront that person about the alleged incident, which the sources said was all a big misunderstanding. The scoop from your Huddle host and Bres: https://politi.co/2IqAOPO.

WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? — Female lawmakers and voters alike are lamenting that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary, leaving just two white men in their late 70s as the only serious contenders still in the race. And it stings even more since the primary started out as the most diverse primary field in history. People always say, “Well, it’s not the right woman,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.). “Well, who’s going to be the right woman? Look at us, we’re as diverse as you can get, we’re all different shapes, sizes, colors. So which one of us is the right woman?”

Laura Barrón-López breaks it down: “Warren likely failed for reasons more than gender: She was competing with Sanders for the progressive mantle, while also arguing she could bridge the two wings of the party better than her opponents. She stumbled during her rollout of a Medicare for All plan (though she also faced more pressure than Sanders early on to explain how she’d pay for it.) And she may have played nice for too long with her opponents. But there’s few denying, including the candidate herself, that gender played a key role.” Much more: https://politi.co/3axn4ic.

Related: “Warren joins Senate’s club of failed presidential hopefuls,” by Marianne and Andrew: https://politi.co/2Ipt54E; and “Pelosi cites ‘element of misogyny’ after Warren drops out,” from Sarah: https://politi.co/2TpkLIl.

CAPITOL PREPS FOR CORONAVIRUS — Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said U.S. Capitol officials have begun discussing contingency plans, including potential telework, in the case of a coronavirus outbreak. (Except for voting, of course, which must be done in person.) Meanwhile, there are growing concerns among members and staff about the lack of coronavirus tests available in the U.S. Capitol. Pelosi confirmed to reporters that there likely wasn’t “the capacity” to do testing on campus right now.

So far, so good: Pelosi said she is aware of zero cases of coronavirus in the Capitol. Asked if staff and members are healthy, she replied: “In relationship to the coronavirus, yes.” But some members are already planning for the worst: Sen. Marco Rubio told Bloomberg: “I assume that we’re going to have infections on Capitol Hill.” The latest from Daniel Flatley: https://bloom.bg/3aCJM8V.

Related: “Senate approves $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus package,” from Jennifer Scholtes and Caitlin Emma: https://politi.co/2PS51LL.

HAPPY FRI-YAY! Welcome to Huddle, the play-by-play guide to all things Capitol Hill, on this March 6, where I think we can all relate to Bailey the golden retriever’s love for burritos.

THURSDAY’S MOST CLICKED: The AP’s report on how coronavirus is changing the “art of shaking hands” in Washington was the big winner.

ALL EYES ON MITT — Mitt Romney is about to be in the spotlight again. Weeks after voting to convict Trump in the impeachment trial, the Utah Republican will once again become the center of attention when the Homeland Security Committee votes on a subpoena for documents related to Hunter Biden and Burisma. Romney could derail the entire effort; Republicans have just an 8-6 majority on the committee, and a 7-7 tie would mean the subpoena is not issued.

Romney hinted on Thursday that he could vote against the subpoena, telling reporters that “the appearance is not good” and suggesting that the panel shouldn’t even be looking into the issue: “I would prefer that investigations are done by an independent, nonpolitical body.” Romney’s concerns appeared to be heightened after Trump said in a Fox News interview that he intends to use the Burisma issue against Biden in the general election if the former vice president becomes the Democratic nominee. Democrats are optimistic that they can defeat the subpoena motion. Andrew has more: https://politi.co/39vCYcL.

Related: “Dems push Biden to ‘fight back hard’ against Trump’s Ukraine attack,” from Kyle, Heather and Martin Matishak: https://politi.co/2TwlPud.

REGRETS, I’VE HAD A FEW — Chuck Schumer expressed regret on Thursday over his comments about Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — but not before an onslaught of scathing criticism from Republicans, including this line from Mitch McConnell: “As long as this majority holds the gavel, we will never let the minority leader’s dangerous views become policy. This majority will ensure the only casualties of this recklessness are the reputations of those who engage in it.”

While Schumer insisted he wasn’t making a threat against the conservative justices, he said he should not have used those words and accused Republicans of “manufacturing outrage” against him. Chief Justice John Roberts’ own rebuke of Schumer put the GOP criticisms into full swing, with several Republican senators taking to the Senate floor on Thursday to denounce the minority leader and urge him to apologize. Andrew has more on the mea culpa: https://politi.co/2TrjEbe.

Related: “Sen. Hawley moves to censure Schumer after ‘intimidation’ of SCOTUS justices,” from Louis Casiano of Fox News: https://fxn.ws/3cDbXpO.

FISA FAIL — House and Senate leaders still have no plan to keep key federal surveillance powers from expiring, just days before a March 15 deadline. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she wouldn’t let the authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, lapse. But House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler told CNN: “I’d rather see it expire than to see it continued as is.” It’s not just Democrats who are split on the issue: GOP senators met with President Donald Trump this week on the issue, but are still at an impasse over exactly how they want to reform the surveillance tools. The latest from Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju: https://cnn.it/2xaWZHm.

Meanwhile … Trump will consider protections for so-called “Dreamers”, but only after a Supreme Court ruling comes down on whether the current DACA program is legal, he told Republican lawmakers at the White House yesterday. The deets from Anita Kumar and Marianne: https://politi.co/2TwGrm9.

FINKENAUER FEATURE — “Iowa congresswoman reveals painful endometriosis battle, new fight to increase funding,” by USA Today’s Christal Hayes: http://bit.ly/39xpT2E.

WEEKLY WINNERS AND LOSERS — We survived Super Tuesday — and coronavirus, even though it’s starting to spread in the United States. But in the meantime, here are our picks for the biggest political victories and failures:

W: The Democratic establishment, which rallied around a single challenger to Bernie Sanders and helped deliver massive wins to Joe Biden on Super Tuesday.

L: Big money, which couldn’t buy the election for Mike Bloomberg, who spent half a billion dollars on his campaign and was forced to drop out after only winning American Samoa.

Kaylin Dines is now press secretary for Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). She previously was writer and editorial adviser at Third Way.

The House and Senate are OUT.

Nada.

THURSDAY’S WINNER: Jeffrey Last was the first to guess that Woodrow Wilson was the first president to attend a World Series game — and the Red Sox won the title that year.

TODAY’S QUESTION: From Stephen Díaz Gavin: the majority of the Presidents of the United States have been lawyers – 25 in total. Who was the first President who was a lawyer? Who was the first to graduate from law school? The first person to correctly guess gets a mention in the next edition of Huddle. Send your best guess my way at mzanona@politico.com.

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