Lieberman Looking Safe

Posted November 17, 2008 at 6:39pm

Although Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) worked tirelessly this year to quash President-elect Barack Obama’s political aspirations, Senate Democrats appear poised today to allow Lieberman to retain the gavel on the panel with primary jurisdiction over Obama’s new administration.

Democratic Senators and aides have been plotting for months to exact their revenge on Lieberman’s transgressions against the Democratic Party by stripping him of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But Democrats appeared to lose their nerve after the election when Obama and other influential Democrats called on the party to forgive and forget Lieberman’s harsh criticism of the president-elect during campaign appearances for Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Instead, Senate Democratic leaders are expected to present their caucus with a compromise proposal that would only strip Lieberman of a subcommittee gavel that he holds on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Senate Democratic sources cautioned that that proposal might change depending on the outcome of discussions this morning. Lieberman is expected to make his case to the entire Senate Democratic Conference — including newly elected Senators — during a meeting in which the caucus will also elect their leaders for the next Congress.

Although the Democratic leadership will likely propose that Lieberman lose his gavel on the Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection subcommittee, it was unclear at press time whether that would be the plan on which Democrats would actually vote. Senators have the ability to offer different proposals, and aides suggested that the level of remorse on Lieberman’s part could influence the ultimate outcome.

Several Democratic Senators have said they want to hear from Lieberman before making a decision on whether to punish what most have said was behavior that went beyond the pale, and they are particularly interested in how Lieberman would conduct oversight of the Obama administration if he keeps his Homeland Security gavel. Earlier this week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said, “We want to ask Sen. Lieberman some real questions about his support for this administration before we make a decision.”

Even some of Lieberman’s staunchest supporters said Monday that he should be penalized for stepping over the line in some of his comments about Obama as well as his decision to work on behalf of Senate Republican incumbents in Minnesota and Maine this year.

“I’m probably as disappointed with Sen. Lieberman as anyone in our caucus,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has been one of four Senators looking to find a compromise punishment for Lieberman. “I believe there should be consequences, but at the same time we need for him to remain in our caucus and the question is … to figure out what consequences are fair and reasonable in light of his behavior and what steps can be taken that will not lead him to leave our party.”

Carper acknowledged working with Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and “taking the temperature of colleagues in the caucus to see how they feel about what consequences should occur.”

Still, even Lieberman’s opponents said they do not want to see him punished so severely that he either switches to the Republican Party or resigns his seat and is replaced by a Republican appointed by Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R).

“There is value in having Joe Lieberman in the caucus,” said one Senate Democratic aide, whose boss has been angry with Lieberman’s actions on the campaign trail. The aide explained that the extra Democratic vote would be important on tight votes needed to overcome GOP filibusters. Plus, having more Senators in the Democratic caucus could aid Democrats in increasing their majorities on all Senate committees.

Lieberman is expected to argue that Democrats would not have been in the majority for the past two years if it had not been for his decision to continue caucusing with them after he lost his primary in 2006 but won re-election as an Independent. Democrats have ruled the Senate with a 51-49 margin during the 110th Congress. If Lieberman had switched parties, Republicans would have controlled an evenly divided Senate by virtue of the vote of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Lieberman is also expected to remind Democrats that he has voted with them on nearly every major procedural vote during the 110th and that he only broke with them on votes to end the war in Iraq. Unlike many in the Democratic caucus, Lieberman has been a staunch defender of the Iraq War.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met with Lieberman on Nov. 6 and offered to give him the chairmanship of a less prestigious committee, but he made it clear at that time that Lieberman would likely have to give up Homeland Security. Lieberman flatly rejected that offer but did not rule out accepting some other compromise.

Reid later said he would leave it up to the entire Democratic caucus. It was unclear as of press time whether Lieberman is comfortable with the current leadership proposal. His office had no comment.

Anything short of stripping Lieberman of the Homeland Security gavel is likely to inflame passions on the left, particularly among liberal bloggers who have led the charge against the Independent Democrat.

Of the leadership proposal, the Senate Democratic aide said, “I don’t know if it’s enough for the net roots, but it’s enough to say we stood up as Democrats” against Lieberman’s actions.

Taking the subcommittee on global warming away from Lieberman may be seen as a stinging rebuke, given that he used the panel to push himself to the forefront of the climate change debate in the Senate earlier this year. However, Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) plans to deal with climate change legislation at the full committee level next year. So Lieberman may not lose much if his colleagues vote to strip him of that plum assignment.

“This is real consequence for Lieberman. He has a long environmental record and cares a great deal about these issues,” the Senate Democratic aide said.

Although Lieberman also chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Airland, it appeared that gavel was secure.

The debate over Lieberman is expected to be the most dramatic in what would otherwise be a lackluster leadership election. Democrats picked up at least six Senate seats this year — with the potential for three more once races in Alaska, Minnesota and Georgia are decided — and are set to re-elect their entire leadership slate by acclamation.

Reid (Nev.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) are all expected to retain their posts.

Aides said they do not expect the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to be resolved by today. Schumer, the current chairman, has indicated that he does not want to seek an unprecedented third term atop the campaign arm, but has not made that official, saying he wants to wait until the races in Alaska, Minnesota and Georgia are resolved before he makes a decision.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), who is currently vice chairman of the DSCC, is the most likely candidate to replace Schumer for the 2010 election cycle, but Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) has been mentioned as well.