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

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For anybody with doubts about Lieberman's fate, Obama's meeting with McCain in Chicago on Monday was a clear sign that the President-elect is more interested in building bridges than tearing them down. Reid himself underscored that theme at a press conference following the caucus meeting in which members voted 42-13 to allow Lieberman to remain in the caucus and to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Reform committees — though they stripped him of his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. "I would defy anyone to be more angry than I was," says Reid. "But I also believe that if you look at the problems we face as a nation, is this a time we walk out of here saying, 'Boy, did we get even'?"

Reid's comments will likely do little to stem the tide of liberal anger that will come from Lieberman's continued presence in the caucus. Many Democrats were already angry at Lieberman's unyielding support of the war in Iraq long before he endorsed McCain and openly questioned Obama's patriotism during the course of the campaign. Some bloggers and activists argue that the Connecticut independent should have lost his chairmanship not because of his past behavior but because he could use the powerful committee — which has jurisdiction and subpoena power over the Executive Branch — to make trouble for Obama. To strengthen his bargaining position, Lieberman had threatened to bolt to the Republican caucus if he lost his committee chair.

When asked if he felt reprimanded, chagrined or punished, Lieberman responded with unwavering support for his fellow Democrats. "This is the beginning of a new chapter, and I know that my colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus were moved not only by the kind words that Senator Reid said about my longtime record but by the appeal from President-elect Obama himself that the nation now unite to confront our very serious problems," said Lieberman, while admitting that he had uttered certain statements on the trail that he now regretted.

Many members of the caucus are still furious with Lieberman — 13 voted against him in the secret ballot, and many more emerged saying that while the decision was good for the country, they personally will have a tough time forgiving him. That lingering resentment should help guarantee Lieberman's cooperation. "It is the iron law of reciprocity. He will remember and help those who helped him at a critical time in the future," says James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "It is politically smart. The President and the Democrats will need him in the future. It is part of building bipartisanship and political capital."

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