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Lieberman Lives on Center Stage

When Senators go to the floor this week to debate the proposed Iraq troop surge, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) will demonstrate once again to his Democratic colleagues that he is his own man. And while the Democratic leadership has made clear that Lieberman should be treated just as any other Caucus member, they cannot completely extinguish skepticism in their ranks about his long-term party loyalty.

Democratic Senators and aides said last week Lieberman’s political posture hasn’t changed much since winning re-election as an Independent Democrat. But in a narrow 51-49 seat majority, Democrats privately acknowledged they are still worried that as an Independent free from party peer pressure, Lieberman may cost them precious votes or even go so far as to join the GOP Senate minority.

“With a one-vote margin, there’s no room for error,” conceded one Senate Democratic aide. “But we have to take him at his word” that he is with the party.

“Of course there is some skepticism,” added a senior Democratic Senate staffer. “He is the linchpin for the whole thing.”

Democratic Senators and aides said that outwardly, Lieberman appears to be acting no differently in the first month of the 110th Congress than he did before he became an Independent last year after losing in

the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont. Lieberman went on to win a resounding victory in the general election, but his campaign divided his allies in the Senate, many of who turned away from him to support Lamont as the Democratic nominee.

Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), one of the moderate Democrats who stood by Lieberman throughout his switch to run as an Independent, said Lieberman always has been a true Senate centrist — left leaning on key domestic items and conservative on national security matters. “He’s always been willing to break with the party in what he thought was the right thing to do,” Pryor said. “He hasn’t changed.”

As such, Pryor doesn’t believe Senate Democrats approach Lieberman any differently these days, nor does he sense “any awkwardness” toward him from the Caucus. And, Pryor said, he doesn’t believe Lieberman — even as one of the most conservative Democrats these days — would ever defect to the Republican Party.

“My sense is, looking at it, he lines up much better with the Democrats than the Republicans,” Pryor said. “It’s a personal decision for him to make, but I don’t see any real advantage for him switching parties.”

Undoubtedly, Republicans would love to have Lieberman jump ship and tip the Senate to an even 50-50 split. Such a move would give the GOP the gavel since Vice President Cheney as the President of the Senate would get the tie-breaking vote.

Meantime, the GOP leadership will gladly accept Lieberman’s support on the war as they confront opposition to President Bush’s proposal to increase troops in Iraq by 21,500.

No other Democrat or Independent besides Lieberman has signaled support for the Bush proposal, which will face a hefty share of criticism from the well of the Senate during this week’s multi-resolution debate.

Still, Lieberman makes no apologies for his Iraq War stance, and insists that his view on the surge is “consistent with the position I’ve taken over the last four years. That notwithstanding, I feel so deeply that we have an enormous stake in how Iraq comes out.” Lieberman said he respects the disagreements among his colleagues over the war, and with the troop increase, but believes his position is the right course for a successful outcome to the conflict.

“I wish there were a few more Democrats that agreed with me,” he said.

Lieberman appears completely at ease these days as an Independent, not only on his war positions but also with his political alliances. Lieberman has even flirted with the possibility of endorsing a Republican — most notably Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — in the 2008 presidential contest.

Even so, sources say Democratic leaders have made clear that the veteran Connecticut Senator is still one of their own, and that while he deserves no special treatment, he should win equal favor from the Caucus. Lieberman holds a powerful slot as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee this Congress, a position Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insisted he would hold as long as the Connecticut lawmaker agreed to caucus with the Democrats during the 110th Congress.

“Sen. Reid treats him like any other chairman,” said a knowledgeable Democratic Senate aide.

“He’s treated equally,” added a Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t see him getting special privileges beyond what any other chairman would get.”

Lieberman continues to participate in Democratic Caucus functions, and attends regular party luncheons and meetings, Democratic sources say. Lieberman said last week that he “absolutely” continues to feel comfortable with the Democrats, and doesn’t believe his colleagues approach him differently these days — even though many of them campaigned against him when he decided to run as an Independent.

Lieberman said he is trying to fashion himself similarly to the independent-minded Democrats of the 1960s — progressive on domestic affairs and strong on foreign policy. “At this point, I am feeling a sense of mission … I am fighting for that tradition — that [Sens.] Kennedy, [Hubert] Humphrey (Minn.), Scoop Jackson (Wash.) tradition.”

His position on Iraq is the most notable break from the Democrats, and certainly comes as no surprise within the party ranks. Still, some Senate Democrats say the jury is out on how Lieberman will posture himself over the next two years, and they remain uncertain about where his votes will fall when leaders need his support in a narrow majority.

The Senate Democrat said that even though many of his colleagues sided with Lamont in the November election, Lieberman has been “well received” since returning to the Senate in January. And while no Member appears outwardly worried, Lieberman undoubtedly presents a challenge for the party that must capture 60 votes to avoid a filibuster on any legislation of consequence. “With a slight majority of 51, when he’s off with the president on a certain issue — that’s a challenge,” the Senator noted.

“But that would have been a challenge whether he was a D or an I,” the Senator added.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said “functionally nothing has changed” with how Democrats treat Lieberman or in how he positions himself on the issues. “Obviously, Sen. Lieberman’s opinions are his. He’s an independent thinker, we know that.”

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