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Senate Democrats backed away from a major rebuke of Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) on Tuesday morning, keeping their colleague as the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in the next Congress and stripping him only of his spot on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Though many Democrats and liberal activists wanted a tougher penalty for Lieberman’s disloyalty — his aggressive criticism of President-elect Barack Obama’s candidacy and his support of GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — Senate Democrats ultimately voted by secret ballot, 42-13, to allow Lieberman to keep his plum Homeland Security post.

Lieberman will leave the Environment and Public Works Committee entirely, which will require him to give up his gavel on the Subcommittee on Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection.

While a handful of Senators spoke out against Lieberman during their closed-door meeting about his future, most said they wanted to move forward in a spirit of reconciliation after the historic election of Obama and a Senate Democratic pickup of at least six seats. Democrats could enhance their majority in the 111th Congress even more since three other Senate seats remain unresolved.

“I would defy anyone to be more angry than I was [at Lieberman], 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?’” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) after the Members-only meeting. “I feel good about what we did today. I don’t apologize to anyone on what we did today. We’re moving forward, recognizing that there is a period of time in Joe Lieberman’s political career that I will never understand or approve.”

Reid, who has long enjoyed a friendship with Lieberman, gave his Connecticut colleague credit for continuing to caucus with the Democrats even after Lieberman lost his 2006 primary race and won re-election as an independent. Lieberman’s decision to continue caucusing with the Democrats allowed Reid to become Majority Leader with a 51-49 majority.

Lieberman said he agreed to give up his seat on the Environment panel in order to assuage the intraparty anger and fulfill any desire from his fellow Democrats for retribution.

“Sen. Reid asked me to relinquish my seat on the Environment Committee and in the spirit of cooperation [and] in part to make room for freshman Senators — new Senators — who want to be on our committee, I said I would … do that,” Lieberman said.

Anticipating a blow back from liberal activists for their decision to let Lieberman keep his Homeland Security chairmanship, Democrats stressed that they were still imposing a stiff penalty in forcing him to give up his seat on the Environment panel.

“It was basically a plea bargain,” said one Democratic Senator who asked to remain anonymous.

“It is a serious punishment,” argued one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Lieberman — who was at the center of this year’s debate on global warming — sought to put a positive spin on the situation by saying he would not give up his environmental policy work just because he won’t continue to sit on the committee.

“That’s a committee that I have been actively involved in in recent years, particularly on matters related to doing something on global warming, but I will just continue to do that off the committee. In fact Sen. McCain and I — soon after the 111th Congress convenes — will introduce the latest version of our anti-global warming bill,” he said.

Senators and aides who were briefed on Tuesday’s highly anticipated meeting said Lieberman apologized for the remarks that he made about Obama on the campaign trail. Lieberman spent much of the last year stumping for McCain and even spoke at the Republican National Convention in September on behalf of the Arizona Republican.

The anonymous Democratic Senator said Tuesday’s exchange between Lieberman and his Democratic colleagues was “a calm, reasoned discussion” that was “very candid.”

“There were people who very upset with Sen. Lieberman’s remarks [about Obama],” the Senator said. “Some were upset with him having defended [Minnesota GOP Sen.] Norm Coleman.”

Indeed, Lieberman wrote an op-ed at the height of Coleman’s re-election campaign defending his fellow Homeland Security panel member from attacks by his Democratic opponent, comedian Al Franken. That race is heading into a recount, given Coleman’s narrow lead of just more than 200 votes.

But aides said Lieberman’s remarks to reporters were much more tempered than the more contrite statement that he delivered to his colleagues.

Speaking to reporters, Lieberman said, “I said very clearly … some of the things that people have said I said about Sen. Obama are simply not true. There are other statements that I made that I wish I had made more clearly. And there are some that I made that I wish I had not made at all, and obviously, in the heat of campaigns that happens to all of us. But I regret that, and now it’s time to move on.”

When asked about his speech at the GOP convention in which he said Obama was a “young man” who spoke well, Lieberman did not indicate whether he apologized to his colleagues for those remarks.

“What I said at the convention was to explain why I was supporting Sen. McCain,” he said.

Senate Democratic aides said Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) spoke out against Lieberman, while Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), along with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen.-elect Tom Udall (D-N.M.) , spoke in favor of the resolution allowing him to keep the Homeland Security gavel.

Cardin was tight-lipped afterward about his role.

“I will characterize (the meeting) as being a healthy discussion for our caucus,” he said.

David Drucker and Tim Taylor contributed to this report.

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