Obama Looks Like Lieberman’s Lifeline

Posted November 12, 2008 at 4:25pm

With President-elect Obama’s fingerprints seemingly everywhere, momentum appears to be building among Senate Democrats to let Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“The overall atmosphere is toward reconciliation,” said one Lieberman supporter, who noted that Obama “has in a large sense set the tone” by calling for Lieberman to remain a member of the Senate Democratic Conference.

However, Democrats still say they are exploring options for penalizing Lieberman in other ways for his disloyalty to the party during the 2008 election cycle. Those options might include stripping him of two plum subcommittee chairmanships, or taking away his membership on either the Armed Services or Environment and Public Works panels.

Lieberman allies, including Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), have been part of a group that is trying to find a way to punish Lieberman for his ardent support of GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), but still allow him to keep his Homeland Security position.

“They’re trying to figure out what has to be done to keep him in the caucus without it looking like he has gotten off scot-free,” said the Senate Democratic aide.

The issue still appears to be headed toward a vote in the Senate Democratic Conference on Tuesday.

Support for Lieberman appears to have been growing since Obama began making calls to several top Democrats to discuss the Connecticut Senator’s status. Since then, several senior Senators began making statements that seemed to indicate a willingness to let Lieberman retain his gavel.

In addition to telling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that he would like for Senate Democrats to find a way to keep Lieberman in the Democratic fold, Obama has had similar conversations with other top Democrats – including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Lieberman’s home-state colleague, Dodd, sources said.

Obama is close with all four of those Senators, each of whom endorsed him in his quest to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination this year.

“Obama has been very magnanimous in his desire to keep Joe Lieberman as part of the caucus. He’s coming off as a bigger man than Joe Lieberman,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “Certainly, Obama’s words coupled with those of other senior Senators give momentum to Sen. Lieberman for finding a way for him to stay in the caucus.”

Still, many Democrats are wary of letting Lieberman walk away unscathed, given it could make Reid – and the whole caucus – look weak. Lieberman’s transgressions against the party are multifold, his critics say, including aggressively criticizing Obama’s candidacy while stumping for McCain, campaigning for Senate Republican incumbents and arguing that it would be dangerous for Senate Democrats to reach a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats.

In fact, some Democrats said foes of Lieberman might argue next Tuesday that Lieberman went too far in campaigning against Senate Democrats this cycle – notably, stepping at the last minute to defend moderate Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) from attacks by Democratic challenger Al Franken. That race is now headed to a recount with Franken trailing Coleman by just a few hundred votes.