Senate Democrats voted Tuesday morning to keep Sen. Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 in his post as chairman of the powerful Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
The decision is the latest step Democrats are taking to put the contentious election season behind them. The former Democratic vice-presidential candidate turned self-proclaimed Independent Democrat upset many of his colleagues when he supported Sen. John McCain’s presidential candidacy.
Calls for terminating Lieberman’s chairmanship flared after he criticized Sen. Barack Obama for being unfit to lead at the Republican National Convention.
But Obama, now the president-elect, called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shortly after Election Day to make it clear he wished for Lieberman to remain in the Democratic caucus as a sign of unity.
Support for Lieberman, a former chairman of the News, primarily came from longer-serving senators who have forged close personal bonds with him. It was Sens. Chris Dodd and Ken Salazar who presented the plan at Tuesday’s meeting of the Democratic caucus to allow Lieberman to keep a hold on his key committee.
Lieberman is, however, losing his chairmanship of an Environment and Public Works subcommittee as part of the deal. The combined measure passed by a vote of 42-13.
Democratic support for Lieberman is, at least in part, a response to uncertainty in whether Democrats will have a successful midterm election showing under a President Obama. Incumbent parties have traditionally lost congressional seats in midterm elections.
Among Lieberman’s vocal detractors was a group of liberal Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self described Democratic Socialist, said in a statement Friday that allowing Lieberman to keep his prominent chairmanship would be a slap in the face to Obama supporters.
But, as he entered the historic Old Senate Chamber where the caucus was meeting for a secret ballot, Lieberman seemed confident.
“I feel very good.” Lieberman said. “I’m going into a roomful of friends.”
One senator who wished to remain anonymous said that before the vote, Lieberman spoke of his 2006 Democratic nomination defeat and watching many of his colleagues rush to support his general election opponent.
“He spoke earnestly of the pain he felt when he was rejected by the Democratic Party in his reelection and in turn, the rejection he felt from many in the caucus who campaigned against him after decades and decades of friendship,” the senator said. “And that put him in a very different place approaching the 2008 election, and John McCain was the only candidate for president who asked for his support.”
After the meeting, Lieberman apologized for several of his controversial campaign comments.
“There are some (statements) that I made that I wish I had not,” Lieberman told reporters. “In the heat of campaigns, that happens to all of us, but I regret that. And now it’s time to move on.”
Lieberman said in a statement after the vote that Democrats, and indeed all Americans, must put politics aside to address the challenging issues facing the country.
“Let us turn the page, honoring our differences and moving forward together,” he said.
Some Connecticut Democrats do not share Lieberman’s desire to put the episode in the past. Two members of Connecticut’s Democratic state central committee — Audrey Blondin and Myrna Watanabe — said they will still ask the state’s top Democrats at their next meeting Dec. 17 to consider a resolution repudiating Lieberman and asking him to resign his membership in the Democratic Party for publicly backing McCain.
But Nancy DiNardo, the state Democratic Party chairwoman, said in a phone interview with the News Tuesday that she doesn’t think the resolution will pass in its current form.
“I understand people and I agree something should be done to let him know we are upset with him over some of the things he has said and done recently, but if President-elect Obama says he wants Lieberman to remain a Democrat and Senate Democrats say they still want him, I don’t see how we can do it,” she said.
Lieberman, who has served in the Senate since 1988, is next up for reelection in 2012.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.