Just three months ago, some Democrats wanted to revoke Lieberman’s chairmanship as punishment for backing John McCain, but Obama quietly pushed for a lesser penalty for Lieberman’s election season apostasy.
And when the president needed Lieberman down the road, the gentle hand paid off.
With Obama’s economic stimulus plan on life support in the Senate last week, Lieberman (I-Conn.) joined a group led by wavering moderate Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and helped bring Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on board to save the bill, which passed Tuesday with just enough votes in the Senate.
Lieberman, still a villain in the liberal blogosphere, has now emerged as a key ally for a new Democratic president attempting to navigate a Senate with quickly hardening partisan lines.
Senate Democrats now see the wisdom in letting him keep his coveted gavel as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Had he been removed from his chairmanship, bitter relations may have ensued between Lieberman and his Democratic colleagues, sending him into the arms of the Senate Republican Conference — and the economic stimulus may have stalled.
“I think he can provide some very valuable liaison with the Republicans,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
By instead keeping him in the Democratic Caucus with just a slap on the wrist, Lieberman has proved to be a loyal vote, supporting all of Obama’s Cabinet nominees, voting for passage on the first two major bills Obama has signed into law and working as an ally on the stimulus bill. Indeed, Lieberman has broken from his party on just seven of the first 61 votes of the 111th Congress, as the opening weeks of 2009 have been dominated by domestic issues where Lieberman’s views are in line with many Democrats, unlike his hawkish positions on foreign policy.
Lieberman appears to be relishing his new role.
“It’s a great thing about life that I was raised to believe that so long as you’re alive, the possibilities for doing things and change are limitless,” Lieberman said. “I’m very happy I could play a constructive role; I think it’s very important that the president gets as much of what he wants right now as possible, because the whole country needs this to succeed.”
The reality is that outside of national security issues, Lieberman has always been a reliable Democratic vote, and that’s why the president needed him in the early stages of his administration.
Even some Senate Republicans say Democrats’ move to swallow their pride and keep Lieberman in the caucus was politically wise. And in a peculiar role reversal, Lieberman’s efforts on the stimulus package have effectively infuriated his close friend McCain.
“Joe will put his country in front of party, that’s for sure, but I think the Democratic Party was smart to keep him in the caucus,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain loyalist.
Part of Lieberman’s positioning may reflect his precarious political standing back home. Lieberman doesn’t face reelection until 2012, but his poll numbers have dropped sharply since he took on a partisan role as a McCain surrogate on the campaign trail.
A new Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found him trailing by a wide margin (58 percent to 30 percent) the state’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, in a hypothetical matchup. In an interview, Blumenthal said his “sole focus” is his 2010 reelection bid as attorney general, but he is not ruling out later running as a Democrat for the Connecticut Senate seat.
Lieberman seems to be preparing for that possibility. The senator already has amassed a campaign war chest of $1.8 million, and his political action committee has nearly $400,000 more, according to his latest campaign filings. Lieberman said “it’s too far away” to say whether he’d run for the Democratic nomination in the 2012 Connecticut Senate race.
For a successful run, Lieberman will have to continue restoring his relationships with Democrats back home, according to analysts in the state.
Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said Lieberman’s relationship with many state Democrats is “still awkward” but that he’s “working to follow through” on his pledge to advance Obama’s agenda.
Lieberman reiterated that pledge following the decision by Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and most of his Democratic colleagues to let him keep his chairmanship. With the votes from Lieberman and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democrats now control 58 seats in a chamber where 60 votes are needed to move any substantial legislation.
While Lieberman calls that decision by his colleagues “family therapy,” liberal groups were furious, mounting a petition drive to remove his gavel after he attacked Obama on the campaign trail, including at the Republican National Convention.
And some on the left are still critical of Lieberman — especially a former opponent.
Connecticut businessman Ned Lamont, who defeated Lieberman in the state’s 2006 Senate Democratic primary but lost to him in the general election, criticized the concessions that moderates forced on the stimulus, citing a scaled-back amount of aid given to states and on some energy efficiency measures, including for buildings.
“It doesn’t seem to me that Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins made the bill better,” Lamont told Politico.
The liberal group Americans United for Change launched television ads thanking Snowe, Collins, Specter and Nelson for their support, but left Lieberman out.
“Simply put, we felt these were the most critical four,” said Jeremy Funk, a spokesman for the group.
But McCain and his GOP colleagues remain particularly miffed about the outcome of the stimulus debate, with the former presidential candidate calling the measure “neither bipartisan nor is it a compromise.”
McCain said he and Lieberman are “dear friends, and we don’t always agree.” Asked what he made of Lieberman’s positions, McCain said tersely: “What I make of it, I think that’s his position.”