Can the Dems Keep Putting Up with Joe Lieberman?

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Michael Reynolds / EPA

Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut walks outside the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill

Senate Democrats are used to the lashing their Republican colleagues dish out every week on the Sunday-morning political shows, but lately their biggest headache has been one of their own. And while they would dearly love to fire back at Joe Lieberman of Connecticut after his almost weekly bomb-throwings, there is little they can do but bite the insides of their cheeks and bear it.

On last weekend's Fox News Sunday, Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced that he was launching an investigation into whether the Fort Hood massacre suspect was in fact a terrorist. The Sunday before, on CBS's Face the Nation, Lieberman said he would support a Republican filibuster of health care reform if the Democratic bill included a public option — as it currently does. "I feel so strongly about the creation of another government health-insurance entitlement," Lieberman told CBS's Bob Schieffer. "I think it's such a mistake that I would use the power I have as a single Senator to stop a final vote." Just days before that, he told ABC News he intended to campaign for both Republican and Democratic candidates in next year's midterm elections. And late last month, in a rare oversight hearing of the Obama Administration, he examined the legality of the President's so-called czars — a favorite bone of contention of Fox News' Glenn Beck and talk radio's Rush Limbaugh.

Lieberman, who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, is technically not a Democrat anymore. He left the party in 2006 after losing a primary to challenger Ned Lamont but continued to caucus with the party after winning in the general election as an independent. But he has gone rogue before, straining his relations with the Democrats, most notably when he endorsed Republican John McCain for President and vociferously campaigned for him — often sharply criticizing Barack Obama. Soon after, his Senate Democratic colleagues voted on whether to allow him to stay in their caucus. With the support of Obama, Lieberman was welcomed back and allowed to keep his committee chairmanship.

Now, however, the idea that he might bring down health care reform — the biggest item on the Democratic agenda — sticks in many a liberal's craw. "The overwhelming majority of the American people want a public option. And I think if you break it down even further, over 80% of Democrats — and this is going to be a Democratic bill — want a public option," says Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the only other independent in the Senate. Sanders was one of a handful of Dems who voted to boot Lieberman from the party back in January and says that if given the chance, he'd do it again. Rumors have swirled on Capitol Hill and on liberal blogs that if Lieberman follows through with his threat, he could face such a vote, though Sanders demurs. "I leave that to Senator [and majority leader Harry] Reid; that's his job," he says.

Reid in fact is actively trying to tamp down those rumors, telling outside groups to lay off Lieberman, according to Reid's senior adviser Jim Manley. Reid "has never been a big fan of Democrat-on-Democrat violence like that," Manley says. "He believes in trying to work within the process to get the votes." Reid, who spoke to Lieberman by phone on Nov. 10, says he's "confident that we'll work something out," and many observers are betting that Lieberman is merely bluffing.

But raise the same issue with Lieberman's Democratic colleagues in the Senate, and they look uncomfortable. "He's a Senator, he's got a right to his opinions," says Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Democrat (as of April, when he switched from the Republican Party). "We'll work it out." "There's a long ways to go" before considering punitive measures, says Patty Murray of Washington. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who also voted in January to expel Lieberman, is similarly cautious: "Let's see what happens. Nobody should be filibustering health care — either vote it up or vote it down." Says Dianne Feinstein of California: "If there is a public option and somebody wants to remove it, move an amendment, stand up on the floor and debate it, but don't prevent anything from going forward."

Lieberman is by no means the only Democrat who is not happy with the public option, though he may be the only one who comes from a relatively liberal state. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, for example, all have strong reservations about a government-run alternative to private insurers. But Lieberman is the only one who has stated flat-out that he would join a GOP filibuster of the bill to prevent it from getting an up-or-down vote. And unlike his other moderate Democratic colleagues, he has claimed he's not even open to the compromise proposal that Republican Senator Olympia Snowe has been pushing — a so-called trigger mechanism whereby a state would be able to access a national public option only when the private sector was not providing enough affordable plans of its own. At a time when Senate Democrats are trying to avoid the mistake their House colleagues made — drawing too many lines in the sand — Lieberman is the only one drawing lines.

Pressuring Lieberman, however, might prompt him to leave the party, a move that would deprive Democrats of their 60th vote, not just on health care but on other issues like global warming and financial regulatory reform. That has led most of his colleagues to soft-pedal their persuasion. "I've talked to Joe several times," says Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. "I think he's interested in getting a bill done."

Then again, Lieberman would be wise to remember that the 2010 midterm elections are coming, and some election watchers are predicting the Democrats could pick up one or two more seats. That would be enough to lessen Lieberman's pivotal importance to the party — and his appearances on the Sunday talk shows as well.