Last December, Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 made one of the most daring acts of his political career: the self-proclaimed Independent Democrat endorsed Sen. John McCain’s candidacy for president.
Now, after the election of Sen. Barack Obama, Lieberman is being forced to defend his position to his colleagues on Capitol Hill. Senate Democrats, fresh off of a series of landslide victories, are considering expelling him from the Democratic Caucus and stripping him of his prominent chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. But according to a handful of Senate insiders, Lieberman will, in all likelihood, continue to caucus with the Democrats.
After his endorsement of McCain, Lieberman fended off criticism by pledging his loyalty to his country rather than to his party. Lieberman echoed statements he made after his 2006 victory as an Independent over Democratic-nominee Ned Lamont SOM ’80.
“I will go to Washington beholden to no political group, but only to the people of Connecticut and my conscience,” he said
Lieberman’s rhetoric irked many of his Democratic colleagues when he attacked some of Obama’s policies this summer, most notably in a speech at the Republican National Convention. In his keynote address, Lieberman criticized Obama’s inexperience and partisanship.
“Eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times,” he said.
Democrats responded to his remarks with criticism, calling them a breach of his pledge not to attack Obama.
“Everybody is just profoundly disappointed with what Joe did,” Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) said to The New York Times in September.
But the Democratic leadership did nothing beyond simply expressing their disappointment. At the time, Lieberman was the swing-vote preserving their fragile majority in the Senate.
A new reality
Lieberman seemed not to worry about possible retribution. But now, with the election over, Lieberman faces a new political reality: Democrats are torn between punishing their former vice-presidential nominee and welcoming him back into the fold.
His fate as a member of the Democratic Caucus and as Chairman of the HSGAC is expected to be the subject of a secret ballot among caucus members — set to meet next week, Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, said Wednesday.
Lieberman met with Reid late last week to discuss avoiding the vote, but they were unable to reach an agreement. Politico quoted an unnamed Lieberman aide Friday who said Reid asked Lieberman to step down from the powerful HSGAC and take the helm of a lesser committee, but Lieberman reportedly indicated that the proposition was unacceptable.
Nancy DiNardo, the Connecticut Democratic Party chairwoman, said she doubts he will leave the caucus, despite a resolution put forth by the state party in August censuring him for his support of McCain and calling upon him to remove his name from party rolls.
In a statement released last week, Lieberman pledged to work with the Obama administration, but he made no mention of his future with the Democratic Party.
A spokesperson for Lieberman declined to comment for this story.
If recent news reports are any indication, Democrats still want Lieberman on their side of the aisle.
Obama spoke with Reid last week to say he did not want Lieberman expelled from the caucus.
“President-elect Obama looks forward to working with anyone to move the country forward,” Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said in a statement Tuesday. “We’d be happy to have Sen. Lieberman caucus with the Democrats. We don’t hold any grudges.”
On Wednesday, Politico reported that several leading senators, including Sens. Chris Dodd, Bill Nelson and Ken Salazar are rallying in support of Lieberman before next week’s vote. Requests for comment to the senators’ offices went unanswered.
The simple reason for this support, staffers said, is strategy — Democrats do not have a filibuster-proof hold on the Senate. Democrats also need to anticipate the midterm elections, when historically the party occupying the White House loses seats in Congress, the staffers said.
“They don’t have 60, and it is bad strategy for a party to throw people out,” said David Mayhew, the Sterling Professor of Political Science. “It is also bad publicity.”
Some Democrats are also advocating being gracious in victory.
“Despite what Sen. Lieberman did in campaigning for Sen. McCain, speaking at the Republican convention, he has voted with the Democrats an overwhelming percentage of the time,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the Majority Whip at a Veterans Day event Tuesday.
With the Democrats looking to solidify their hold over the Senate, Lieberman’s position in the Senate seems secure. He is up for re-election in 2012.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.