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Dodd and Lieberman at Odds Once Again

Clarification Appended

Connecticut Sens. Chris Dodd (D) and Joe Lieberman (ID), successful in repairing a relationship that had been torn asunder by electoral politics in 2006 and 2008, now find themselves on near-opposite ends of a health care debate that amounts to Congress’ biggest undertaking in a generation.

Dodd, a fifth-term liberal Member in serious danger of being ousted next year, is a central player in the Senate negotiations on a final health bill.

While he is at odds with Lieberman — a leading moderate — over key health care policies, their relationship appears to be weathering the storm. And few believe their divide on reform will further imperil Dodd’s chances for 2010.

“At the end of the day, the bottom line is, people are going to judge you not by what your colleague in the state has made a decision on, they’re going to judge you by what you decided on — why you stand up for that decision and why you think it was best for the people of Connecticut,— Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said.

A Connecticut-based Republican campaign consultant offered a similar analysis. Meanwhile, GOP strategists in general do not plan to make an issue of Dodd’s health care stance, viewing other matters such as his connections with lobbyists and transparency as more potent.

“I’d be surprised if Lieberman really impacted Dodd’s re-election chances,— the consultant said, although this source noted that Nutmeg State political observers are aware of the two Senators’ differences on health care and that the issue has been raised.

Dodd stands with the left flank of the Democratic Conference on health care: He led the markup of legislation approved this summer by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that includes a public insurance option and several other liberal reform priorities.

Lieberman, a health care centrist who quit the Democratic Party after losing his re-election primary in 2006, opposes the public insurance option and has even expressed reservations over the more moderate Finance Committee health care plan.

In brief interviews last week, both Dodd and Lieberman dismissed the idea that their disagreements over health care reform would register with Connecticut voters in 2010. “No, no, no,— Dodd said.

“We have such a long relationship, a friendship — a lot of mutual respect. And we just don’t agree all the time, but it’s never personal,— added Lieberman, who formally endorsed Dodd for re-election months ago.

But Dodd and Lieberman’s relationship hasn’t always been the smoothest. Lieberman endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the presidency in 2008 when Dodd was mounting a separate bid for the Democratic nomination. And in 2006, after Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to businessman Ned Lamont and decided to run for re-election as an Independent, Dodd — in the name of party loyalty — supported Lamont.

But since the end of the 2008 presidential race, the Connecticut Senators have worked hard to put their relationship back together. Despite Lieberman’s McCain endorsement, leadership allowed him to retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at the urging of President Barack Obama and Dodd.

Democratic operatives familiar with both Senators conceded the two aren’t best friends but said the pair have made a concerted effort to put the recent past behind them.

In perhaps a sign of lingering bruised feelings, however, Lieberman was not expected to attend two events Dodd was scheduled to hold with Obama on Friday in his hometown of Stamford, Conn. Lieberman would not have attended the evening fundraiser for Dodd’s re-election, given that it falls at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. But there was also a tour of a small business earlier in the day before sundown.

“Where their relationship is, I’d say it’s much better,— said a former Democratic Senate aide who now works downtown.

To be sure, not all Senate delegations are tight.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine are not personally close and are sometimes competitive with one another. Like Dodd and Lieberman, they also have taken different positions on health care reform as the debate in the Senate has progressed. Snowe voted for the Finance bill in committee, while Collins has said she doesn’t support either of the Senate’s health care bills.

Dodd and Lieberman could end up voting for the same health care package regardless of their differences. Although liberal, Dodd is also pragmatic and has often supported legislation that can pass even if it is less comprehensive than he would like. Lieberman is expected to ultimately side with the Democratic Conference unless he is part of a group of moderates who is unified in resistance.

Neither Senator enjoys high approval ratings at home, and in fact Dodd might benefit with his Democratic base by taking a different tack than Lieberman on health care.

Like many incumbents, Dodd has taken a hit with constituents over the troubled economy. But Dodd also has gotten himself into hot water for moving his family to Iowa during his long-shot presidential bid and for his participation in a Countrywide Financial VIP program. Dodd has denied any wrongdoing and has said he never asked for favorable lending terms under the VIP plan. The Senate Ethics Committee has cleared him in the incident. Lieberman has come under fire with Connecticut Democrats over his hawkish views on Iraq, endorsement of McCain and break with the party that led to Lamont’s defeat.

“At the end of the day, we will have health care and health insurance reform that Lieberman will join in on, that Dodd will have been a creator of,— Menendez predicted. “Nobody’s going to remember that there were differences during the journey. But when they’re all at the destination, holding hands together, I think it will be absolutely fine.—

Clarification: Oct. 26, 2009

The article stated that Dodd received favorable mortgage rates under a Countrywide Financial VIP program. But the Ethics Committee, which reviewed the matter, found “no evidence that the interest rates— Dodd received “were below prevailing mortgage rates.—

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