Why the Democrats — and Obama — Forgave Lieberman

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Mark Wilson / Getty

Senator Joe Lieberman talks to reporters after a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Nov. 18

Throughout his political career — from his earliest days as a state senator and Connecticut attorney general to his roles as U.S. Senator, vice-presidential nominee, pariah to the left and prominent endorser of John McCain — Joe Lieberman has never been shy about speaking his mind. That outspokenness on the campaign trail is what got him in his recent predicament of angering many in the Democratic Party, leaving his fate as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and member of the Democratic caucus to depend on the good graces of Senate Democrats.

Lieberman easily won the vote on Tuesday allowing him to keep his positions, but he might not have been so fortunate without the implicit backing of President-elect Barack Obama, the same man whom Lieberman said so many nasty things about during the race for the White House. Yet Obama wasn't just acting out of bipartisan goodwill. In supporting Lieberman's continued inclusion in the caucus, Obama may have effectively defanged his toughest potential opponent in the Senate Democratic caucus. If Lieberman is anything, as he proved with McCain, he's loyal — and now he owes Obama a big one. For the first time in his long political career, his job over the next few years is to keep quiet.

The move is especially savvy because Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid know that in order to achieve virtually anything on the Democrats' long list of ambitious legislation, they will need every vote they can possibly get in the Senate. Obama's biggest challenge in both chambers of Congress will be keeping the varying factions of his own party together, especially the more liberal members and the more conservative so-called Blue Dog Democrats. To that end, Lieberman can be an asset, especially in helping to convince his fellow moderate members in the so-called Gang of 14, which includes some Republicans like McCain and Lindsey Graham. "We need every person that we can in Congress working constructively to move forward with the new agenda for our country," says Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "Look, we're the majority party, we have the responsibility to act, and we've got to bring in the broadest possible coalition in order to get that done, and Senator Lieberman can be a very valuable member of our team."

The Gang of 14 — or what's left of it, now that Republicans John Warner, Mike DeWine and Lincoln Chafee have all either retired or lost their re-election bids — came into existence in the spring of 2005 to prevent the far wings of the two parties from blowing up the Senate over several of President George W. Bush's judicial appointments. Senate Republicans wanted to use an arcane rule to effectively overcome, and therefore destroy, the filibuster. "While Presidents come and go every four to eight years, judges could be there 20 to 30 years. More and more decisions are being made by the courts," says Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "So you're going to have a number of instances — at least a few fairly soon — where you might get filibusters. And that's where calling in party loyalty matters and it makes sense to keep Lieberman in the fold."

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