After weeks of tough talk and threats, Senate Democrats are poised to let Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee despite his support for John McCain — and criticism of Barack Obama — in the presidential race.
It’s a familiar trick for the senator from Connecticut. Two years ago, Democrats, furious over Lieberman’s support for President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, rejected him in the primary — only to see him win reelection as an independent.
Lieberman may yet pay a price this time around. When Democrats gather Tuesday morning in the Old Senate Chamber, they could decide to punish him by stripping him of subcommittee seats he holds on the Armed Services and Environment and Public Works, or EPW, committees. But Democratic insiders said Monday there was growing consensus for letting Lieberman keep the gavel at Homeland Security.
“My sense is that he will remain in the caucus, and probably — I’m guessing — remain chairman of the Homeland Security committee,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a junior member close to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Our caucus is not a lockstep caucus. He obviously supported McCain every way he could, and he is out of sync with the Democrats on Iraq, but if you look at pretty much every other issue, he’s a Democrat.”
A top aide to a Senate Democrat close to the issue said Monday that it was “becoming a sure bet” that Lieberman would hold on to the Homeland Security chairmanship, but he confirmed that members were “looking at EPW and Armed Services.”
Lieberman currently chairs the EPW subcommittee on the Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection. Lieberman has been active on global warming, and ousting him from the subcommittee — a possibility that was getting substantial attention on Monday — would take away a forum where he can pursue the issue.
Neither Reid’s nor Lieberman’s office would comment on the “EPW option” late Monday. Lieberman himself was secluded in his Senate office, quietly calling senators in a bid to shore up support.
Reid initially took a tough line with Lieberman before and after Election Day, warning him privately 10 days ago that he could lose his chairmanship due to his vocal backing of McCain. Lieberman countered that he would leave the Democratic Caucus and join Republicans if that happened, putting Reid in the unenviable choice of all-or-nothing as punishment for Lieberman’s transgressions.
But after Obama said that he holds no grudge against Lieberman, Reid softened his tone, pointing out last week that Lieberman votes with Democrats most of the time.
“Joe Lieberman votes with me a lot more than a lot of my senators,” Reid noted. “He didn’t support us on military stuff, and he didn’t support us on Iraq stuff. But you look at his record, it’s pretty good.”
Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) joined with Obama and Reid in making conciliatory comments, leading Senate Democrats to believe that Lieberman had dodged a bullet.
But Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came out with strong statements last week in which they said that Lieberman should be stripped of his gavel. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) called his behavior “unacceptable” — a sign that party leaders will have to overcome displeasure from the rank and file if they want to let Lieberman escape relatively unscathed.
“What we’ve been doing is … taking the temperature of our colleagues in the [Democratic Caucus] about how they feel about what consequences should occur, given Sen. Lieberman’s — not just his support for Sen. McCain so much — but the very negative things he said at times during the campaign about Sen. Obama,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
Carper, along with Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Bill Nelson of Florida and Ken Salazar of Colorado, has been talking to colleagues about a suitable punishment for Lieberman.
Carper supported Lieberman’s 2004 presidential run, but says now that he’s “very disappointed with what [Lieberman] did, the way he handled himself, not so much with respect to John McCain, but with respect to Barack Obama. I’m unhappy with that, I’m disappointed with that. There are others in our caucus who range from disappointed to very angry.”
Lieberman does have other support across the Democratic Caucus beyond party leaders, including from many “Old Bulls” who fear the idea that a sitting chairman might be removed for a political stance.
As secretary of the Democratic Caucus, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will call Tuesday’s session into order, and the debate over Lieberman’s fate will begin immediately. After requests from Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and other Democrats, Lieberman will be allowed to address his colleagues. It’s unclear if Reid will then speak on the matter. Reid’s aides are trying to dissuade him from doing so, saying that Democrats “should follow their own conscience on this, not the leader’s will.”
A motion would have to be offered to remove Lieberman as chairman of the Homeland Security committee, and amendments to such a motion could also be introduced, such as allowing Lieberman to keep his full committee post but remove him from the positions on Armed Services or EPW.
Once any speeches or comments have been completed, a vote would be taken by secret ballot.
After those proceedings have ended, the caucus will reelect Reid as majority leader, likely by acclamation. Reid will then take the gavel and announce elections for the rest of the leadership posts.
All those are likely to be decided by unanimous acclamation as well. Democratic insiders said the next chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — likely to be Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey — could be chosen Tuesday as well, although plans were not final at press time.