A Traitor Among Us? The Dems' Lieberman Problem

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Susan Walsh / AP

Senator Joe Lieberman speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008

Throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged that, if elected, he would work to bridge the partisan divide. "Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long," he said Tuesday night in his victory speech.

One of the first tests of whether that new spirit will prevail in Washington may be how Senate Democrats deal with Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Senator who crossed the aisle to support John McCain in the election. During the campaign, Lieberman angered many in his longtime party by attacking Obama's experience and leadership (and occasionally even calling into question his patriotism). "Senator Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead," Lieberman said in a speech at the Republican National Convention. "But eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times." Later in the same speech Lieberman misleadingly accused Obama of "voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground."

Until recently, the Dems' precarious power in the Senate meant that Lieberman could pretty much say what he wanted. Al Gore's 2000 running mate, he had been forced to run for re-election in 2006 as an independent after liberals groups angry over his support for the war in Iraq helped mount a successful primary challenge. Since then, Lieberman has caucused with the Democrats — his presence among their ranks giving them control of the Senate with a 51-49 majority — while siding with the Bush Administration on Iraq and the war on terror.

But Lieberman may no longer be able to get away with it. Democrats have expanded their majority in the Senate by six seats — with three more seats still too close to call — and are no longer dependent on Lieberman's vote (although if they somehow win three more seats, Lieberman's vote could give them a filibuster-proof majority). Senate majority leader Harry Reid met with Lieberman Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill in what he said was the first in a series of conversations before the two will jointly address the party caucus when they convene in two weeks. "While I understand that Senator Lieberman has voted with Democrats a majority of the time, his comments and actions have raised serious concerns among many in our caucus," Reid said, adding that no decisions have been made.

For his part, Lieberman was vague about his next move. "Senator Reid and I have just completed what I would describe as a good conversation between two colleagues and friends," he told reporters. "I want to spend some time in the next few days thinking about what Senator Reid and I have discussed and what my options are at this point." He went on to say that "the people of Connecticut were good enough to re-elect me to the United States Senate in 2006 as an independent. And so I have tried since then to view the decisions I make in the United States Senate on what I believe are best for our county and our state."

At the very least, experts and Democratic Senate staffers say, Lieberman is likely to lose his current role in the Homeland Security and Oversight Committee. "Reid will be under pressure to strip Lieberman's chairmanship from him," says Stephen Wayne, a political-science professor at Georgetown University. "If he votes to organize with the Dems, they will allow him to choose a committee assignment, but not chair."

Republicans over the past weeks have made it clear they'd welcome Lieberman if he chooses to defect. "Joe Lieberman is certainly going to be a wild card," Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, told MSNBC last week. "And it depends — you know, we welcome Joe. I think Joe's a terrific guy with a lot of integrity and does what he believes."

The way Democrats see things, Lieberman is not the only traitor in their midst, though he is the most high-profile case. Senator Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat and the heir apparent to the Appropriations Committee — if the committee's chairman, Robert Byrd, who will be 91 on Nov. 20, is given an emeritus role — publicly supported Republican Senator Ted Stevens in his re-election bid in Alaska. Inouye maintained that position even after Stevens was found guilty of seven counts of lying on his financial-disclosure forms to cover up expensive renovations done to his Alaska home by an oil-services company (Stevens, amazingly, appears to have been re-elected in a close race). There's been no discussion of punishing Inouye yet. "Having Inouye campaigning for Ted Stevens complicates matters some," says Charlie Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races. "Besides, Lieberman votes with the party over half the time." (Read "Congressional Races to Watch '08.")

Indeed, while Lieberman may have supported a Republican — and his good friend — for the White House, most of his votes in the Senate, aside from the war in Iraq and other security issues, are perfectly in line with the Democrats. "Given his voting record other than national security, I can't imagine his being welcomed with open arms by the Republicans," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Maybe he and John McCain will start a new party in the Senate." (See pictures of John McCain's campaign farewell.)

In the final weeks of the campaign, as Obama widened his lead over McCain, Lieberman was careful to tone down his rhetoric and attacks on the Democratic nominee. "Everybody seems to agree that we need a new kind of government in Washington that breaks across party lines, right? That gets things done," Lieberman told a crowd in Peterborough, N.H., on Sunday night, wearing his "lucky" red sweater that he sported when he endorsed McCain last December. "I want to present myself immodestly as Exhibit A. I'm a Democrat, re-elected as an Independent, here to support the Republican candidate." And when Obama won, Lieberman struck a decidedly conciliatory tone in a statement: "Now that the election is over, it is time to put partisan considerations aside and come together as a nation to solve the difficult challenges we face and make our blessed land stronger and safer," he said. "I pledge to work with President-elect Obama and his incoming Administration in their efforts to reinvigorate our economy and keep our nation secure and free."

Lieberman long ago started marching to the beat of his own drum, and he appears to have no regrets about it. "Most people will see Lieberman as one of the big losers of this election," said Sean Smith, Lieberman's 2006 primary campaign manager, who worked for Obama in Pennsylvania in the presidential election. "In reality, though, the bet he made on McCain had no downside. If McCain had won, he would have been rewarded handsomely. But if vengeful Democrats now make an example of him, Lieberman will wear it as the ultimate badge of honor in the martyr myth he has built of himself — punished for his independence and for putting friendship above party."

— With reporting by Michael Scherer / Phoenix

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