Democrats focus on Lieberman

Senator's allegiances put doubt on future as subcommittee chair

Obama's Transition

November 18, 2008|By James Oliphant and Janet Hook | James Oliphant and Janet Hook,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON - When Sen. Joe Lieberman broke from his longtime Democratic allegiance to back Republican John McCain for president, some rank-and-file Democrats were angry. And after Lieberman spoke at the Republican National Convention and criticized Barack Obama, they were practically apoplectic.

Once Obama won and Democrats cemented their grip on Congress, the talk quickly turned to punishing the senator from Connecticut, who just eight years ago was the Democratic nominee for vice president.

Liberal interest groups mounted a campaign to have Lieberman tossed out of the Democratic caucus in the Senate altogether. Some senators proposed stripping Lieberman of his chairmanship of a prestigious committee.

But that none of that looks like it's going to happen. Instead, when Senate Democrats vote this morning, they are likely to ask Lieberman to step down from chairing two subcommittees - and allow him to keep running the Homeland Security and Government Affairs panel he now heads. Technically an independent, he would remain working with the Democrats.

Sometime between the heat of presidential campaign and now, the passion for retribution cooled drastically. Much of that might have been due to Obama himself. Last week, he said he believed Lieberman should stay with the party.

One senior Democratic Senate aide said that before Obama made his feelings known, more senators than not thought Lieberman should "pay the price." But, the aide expects "the caucus to follow [Obama's] lead."

Lieberman could give up chairmanship of two subcommittees as part of the deal, one a panel of the Armed Services Committee and the other of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The compromise, should it occur, would provide an anticlimactic ending to one of the more stirring subplots of the presidential campaign.

Already unpopular with many Democrats after running and winning as an independent candidate in Connecticut in 2006, Lieberman stirred even more resentment when he not only campaigned for McCain but suggested that Obama was not ready to be president.

After meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about his future earlier this month, Lieberman suggested that he could join the Republicans if he lost his chairmanship.

That, too, may have contributed to the Democrats' more-sober approach. There's a real-world reason for not coming down on Lieberman too harshly. Even after the results of three still-contested Senate races come in, Democrats are likely to be short of the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority they have sought. Lieberman's support - and perhaps his ability to work with moderate Republicans - could be crucial in moving some big-ticket pieces of legislation.

Another senator will be facing a verdict from some longtime political friends today.

Republican senators may consider expelling Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska from the party's caucus in the Senate, a prelude to his potential expulsion from the Senate altogether. Stevens was convicted on seven felony corruption counts last month.

His political future might be more decisively settled by the voters of Alaska, who seem poised to deny him another term. Stevens, a 40-year veteran of the Senate, is trailing his Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, in a close count that is not likely to be concluded until later this week.

Nonetheless, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has promised to force a vote on a resolution that would ostracize Stevens and strip him of his committee assignments, including his post as top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

Stevens was one of the most popular and influential of Alaska's politicians until his conviction for falsifying financial disclosure forms. His case is being appealed.

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