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Welcome Back Lieberman



Sen. Joe Lieberman (BiggerPictureImages flickr)

When Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) switched from Democrat to independent in 2006, Democrats needed him to remain in their caucus to control the Senate with 51 votes.

Yet many Democrats openly disdained Lieberman for championing the war in Iraq. The disdain escalated this year, when Lieberman campaigned tirelessly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican nominee for president.

It was something of a surprise, then, when a newly configured Democratic Senate caucus — no longer clinging to a one-vote majority — decided Tuesday, by a vote of 42-13, to keep Lieberman as one of their own. He will even retain his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which is responsible for oversight of the executive branch.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The vote appears to be less about Lieberman and more about Democrats and President-elect Barack Obama building a consensus. While highly critical of Lieberman’s straying allegiance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was careful never to cut him loose. And Obama signaled that that he wanted Lieberman to remain in the caucus.

“The Democrats wanted to string up Lieberman by his toes and hit him with a broom,” said Kenneth Dautrich, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut. “But by extending this olive branch, they’ve learned to overcome their emotional response and not be vindictive.”

“The result of the vote is not because the Democrats want to forgive him,” said Dautrich. “It’s because he’ll be an important vote.”

The 55-member Democratic Senate caucus — including at least five newly elected members — also allowed Lieberman to hold onto his chairmanship of an Armed Services subcommittee. But it stripped him of his chairmanship of a subcommittee of the Environmental and Public Works Committee.

After the caucus meeting, Lieberman said the vote “was done in a spirit of reconciliation.”

The vote came after 11 months of Lieberman stumping for McCain. The Arizona Republican even wanted Lieberman as his running mate before GOP strategists persuaded McCain to choose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

That didn’t stop Lieberman from delivering a speech at Republican National Convention exalting McCain and blasting Obama.

“Sen. Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man,” Lieberman said in his Sept. 3 address. “But eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times. In the Senate, he has not reached across party lines to get anything significant done, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party.”

Two days after Obama won the presidency and Democrats widened their margin in the Senate, an aide to Reid told the Associated Press that Lieberman would likely lose his chairmanship of the homeland security committee. Reid himself told a CNN reporter that, “Joe Lieberman has done something that I think was improper, wrong — and if we weren’t on television, I’d use a stronger word of describing what he did.”

The statement made headlines but Reid also hinted at reconciliation. “Joe Lieberman votes with me a lot more than a lot of my senators. He didn’t support us on military stuff, and he didn’t support us on Iraq stuff. But you look at his record — it’s pretty good.”

Then last week Obama informed Reid that he held no grudges toward Lieberman and wanted him to remain in the Democratic caucus.

“Once Obama intervened on this, it made it more likely that Democrats would treat Lieberman gently,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Julian E. Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, praised Obama’s support for the Connecticut independent as consistent with the president-elect’s calls for post-partisanship. “The Obama strategy of wanting to keep broadening his coalition is genuine,” Zelizer said. “Obama’s aware of the political flack he’ll take. But it’s a pragmatic move. He’s a non-ideologue.”

With Lieberman in the fold, the Democrats still have an outside shot of a 60-member caucus that could end Republican filibusters. That possibility hinges on yet-to-be decided races in Georgia and Minnesota.

“Lieberman will be a senator until 2012,” said Dautrich. “In the next four years, there will probably be votes on health-care reform legislation and Supreme Court nominees. … The Republicans will try to filibuster and the Democrats will need 60 votes.”

Lieberman, a senator since 1988, has had a rocky relationship with Democrats since he lost to Ned Lamont in the 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut. After declaring himself an independent, Lieberman went on to defeat Lamont in the general election. He vowed to continue to caucus with Senate Democrats.

His chairmanship of the homeland security committee was largely viewed as both a reward and an incentive to prevent his defection to the GOP.

But the same issues that cost Lieberman in the Democratic primary also made him an oft-criticized chairman, especially his unflagging support of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq and overall “war on terror.”

It is unlikely that Lieberman will provide tougher oversight of an Obama administration that has welcomed him back into the Democratic Party.

“Lieberman is a very calculating politician,” said Zelizer. “I don’t think he wants to spend his political capital on investigations.”

Lieberman is thus expected to tread carefully. Thanks to the new configuration of the Senate, he needs the Democrats at least as much as the Democrats need him.

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