The Joe Lieberman soap opera is finally over — replaced on Tuesday by a new two-man show starring Barack Obama and Harry Reid.
In the first episode — “What to Do About Joe” — a Senate majority leader who’s worked hard to win over the left-wing blogosphere and a president-elect who’s become everything to everyone are forced to make the pivot from campaign rhetoric to something close to governing.
The climax: Reid swallows his tough talk to keep Lieberman — and his vote — in the Democrats’ camp.
The epilogue: Daily Kos’ disgusted Markos Moulitsas declares, “I’m done with Reid as Senate leader.”
Senate Democrats’ decision to punish Lieberman for his campaign-trail transgressions with a slap on the wrist — he loses his spot on the Environment and Public Works Committee but keeps his chairmanship of Homeland Security and Government Affairs — may represent a productive start to the relationship between Reid and Obama.
But it underscores the challenges Reid and Obama face as they move from “If I were in charge” to “I am in charge.” They can’t please everyone who helped put them in power.
Reid tried to walk the line Tuesday. He said that “no one was more angry” than he was over Lieberman’s support of John McCain — and criticism of Obama — during the presidential race.
But echoing Obama — who’d said previously that he “held no grudges” against Lieberman — Reid also said, “This was not a time for retribution; it was a time for moving forward on the problems of this country.”
The this-way, that-way solution left Lieberman happy — he called it a “resolution of reconciliation and not retribution” — but it left plenty of Democrats and their allies grumbling.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — one of 13 caucus members who voted against the deal — challenged Lieberman over his threat to leave the party if he lost control of the Homeland Security panel.
“If you are a Democrat in your heart, why do you need your chairmanship to remain one?” Sanders asked Lieberman, according to a senator who attended the closed-door session.
But Obama’s publicly stated willingness to forgive Lieberman for supporting McCain gave the sometimes irascible Reid a chance to save face — and preserve a badly needed Democratic vote against GOP filibusters.
“I think once that was done, it set the climate,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told Politico. “There is something different about this guy, Barack Obama, that he really wants things done differently in Washington. It’s not about partisan politics. It’s all about governing. I think what President-elect Obama did made our decision in our caucus a lot more comfortable and easier.”
Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker, who worked in Reid’s office recently as a visiting staffer, added: “Anybody who knows Reid and the Senate knows how painful this was, and Obama gave Reid cover.”
Reid warned Lieberman right after Election Day that he could lose his Homeland Security chairmanship. But in recent days, and after a discussion with Obama, he eased off. By Tuesday morning, after Democrats had approved a resolution allowing Lieberman to keep Homeland Security by 42-13, Reid was firm in his backing for his Connecticut colleague.
“Joe Lieberman is a Democrat. He’s part of this caucus,” Reid said after the vote.
Lieberman blamed the press and partisan tensions surrounding the presidential campaign for some of the controversy he created, but he did acknowledge that he would take back some of his anti-Obama comments if he could.
“Some of the statements, some of the things that people have said I said about Sen. Obama, are simply not true,” Lieberman said. “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.”
Inside the session with his colleagues, Lieberman offered similar comments, although Democratic senators said he was “more apologetic, more contrite” than at his press conference afterward.
There was only one motion considered — Lieberman would be permitted to retain his Homeland Security gavel, but he would lose his seat on EPW, a committee on which he’s served for two decades.
A long list of senators spoke out in favor of Lieberman, in addition to Lieberman himself, including Reid, Cardin, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Bill Nelson of Florida, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, as well as Sen.-elect Tom Udall of New Mexico.
Dodd, who acknowledged calling other senators on Lieberman’s behalf, said he made three specific points in addressing the caucus: Connecticut should not be penalized for Lieberman’s political actions, Lieberman should be judged on the “totality” of his life and career, and Lieberman was important in moving the Democratic agenda next session.
“I’ve known Joe longer than anyone in there, over 40 years, and you judge people on the totality of their lives,” Dodd said.
“This is a guy who was riding into Mississippi in the ’60s on segregation policies. This is a guy who was a progressive leader of our state Senate, the majority leader. This is a guy who was one of the most forward-looking attorney generals in the country. He was doing violence-against-women work in the 1960s and 1970s.”
But when several members pushed for a unanimous vote, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) strongly objected, calling the punishment “a slap on the wrist” for serious transgressions against the party, said several sources.
A vote was called, which Lieberman and the leadership won easily.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, complained afterward that she “did not think [Lieberman] should be chairing a full committee.”
Another Democrat, who asked not to be named, said he was “surprised we even got 13 votes once leadership had come down for Joe.”
The outcome was going to be difficult for Lieberman in any case. His top aides warned him against even speaking on the matter in the closed-door session.
But Reid, a former whip, knew that he would lose a vote for the entire 111th Congress if Lieberman bolted, and he didn’t want to see that happen.
“These kind of secret-ballot votes are all about what is best for them,” said one Democratic insider, speaking about a senator’s mindset going into the interparty fight. “Does it help me if Joe Lieberman gets kicked out [of the caucus] or leaves? How does it affect me? That’s what they are thinking about.”
With Lieberman continuing to caucus with them, the Democrats will have 57 votes in the next Congress — 58 if Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich hangs onto his lead over Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in Alaska. Two other seats — from Minnesota and Georgia — remain up in the air.
Top Democratic aides were fully aware that Reid and the leadership will be criticized by party activists, who are furious over Lieberman’s actions and possibly angrier still over any move to allow him to keep his gavel.
But they may need his vote at some point over the next two years, and Reid was aware of that. “Joe Lieberman will never step out of line again, that’s for sure,” said one senior Democratic senator.
In the end, the Senate did what it does best: It protected one of its own, according to numerous senators and aides.
“You are either in the club, or you are not,” said another Democrat. “Joe is in the club, so that’s why this happened.”
Ryan Grim and Martin Kady II contributed to this story.