By Dana Milbank
Thursday, September 7, 2006
You could feel the temperature drop as Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut entered the Senate chamber yesterday for the first time since he lost his Democratic primary last month and became an independent candidate.
Democratic leaders Richard Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.) kept a safe distance. Christopher Dodd (Conn.) gave him a perfunctory handshake. Harry Reid (Nev.), the minority leader, turned his back; when Lieberman approached, Reid indulged him in a quick handshake then quickly busied himself in another conversation.
Republican Susan Collins (Maine), spying Lieberman alone in the center aisle, rushed over with a hug and a kiss -- and a pledge to campaign for him in Connecticut. Could she feel the daggers in his back when she hugged him? Collins chuckled. "I told him I'm going to get him a dog named Harry," she told reporters later.
Harry Truman's famous adage -- If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog -- has never been truer. After Lieberman was vanquished by antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in last month's primary, 40 of the 45 members of the Senate Democratic caucus abandoned their longtime colleague and their party's former vice presidential nominee. In this town, partisanship is thicker than friendship.
"Joe Lieberman is out of step with the people of Connecticut," John Kerry (D-Mass.) harrumphed on the Sunday talk shows. To highlight their embrace of Lamont, Reid and Schumer invited him to meetings at the Capitol yesterday.
"Hey, you know, that's politics," Senator Pariah told reporters who besieged him off the Senate floor. Lieberman reported that, privately, "some of the Democrats said, 'Sorry it didn't turn out better, but we hope you come back.' " He added, wryly, "I won't disclose which one said that."
It probably wasn't Dodd. Speaking to reporters off the Senate floor, he chided Lieberman sharply. "Joe made a decision to do what he wanted to do, and other people respect the decision by voters," he said angrily. "You don't just disregard that, okay?"
Of course, Dodd made clear that he still likes his good buddy Joe; he just wants him to lose his job. "The affection for people that you have is not subject to the vagaries of elections," Dodd declared.
The treatment of Lieberman has been so unkind that some wonder whether the outcast -- who is, after all, ahead in opinion polls -- might be angered enough to bolt from the party. "Could they possibly be so stupid?" columnist Norman Ornstein asked in Roll Call yesterday.
The five moderate Democrats who haven't abandoned Lieberman formed a security detail for their embattled colleague. "We're the escort committee," Mary Landrieu (La.) said as she and Ken Salazar (Colo.) preceded Lieberman into the Senate Democrats' weekly lunch. Does the Lieberman Caucus have a table in the back? "Yes, right here," Landrieu said, beckoning in the direction of a bench outside the room.
Lieberman, entering without a food tester, ate lunch surrounded by Landrieu, Salazar and Tom Carper (Del.). "Look, he's my friend, and I put friendship ahead of partisanship," said Ben Nelson (Neb.), who, with Mark Pryor (Ark.), completed the Lieberman Caucus. But this is a minority view among Senate Democrats. "It seems to be," Nelson said, somewhat bitterly.
Nothing personal, the Lamont Democrats insisted. "He's our friend," Durbin declared after lunch, at which he said colleagues gave Lieberman "a big ovation."
"He's a friend of mine," seconded Carl Levin (Mich.).
Lieberman told reporters that Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) approached him at lunch and said, "I'm not going to settle for a handshake; I want a big hug."
Hugs and ovations are nice. But Durbin, Levin and Lincoln aren't on Lieberman's list of supporters.
Republicans, perhaps hoping for a convert, were quick to offer succor; half a dozen approached with backslaps and condolences during Lieberman's eight minutes on the Senate floor. "What happened to him was a tragedy," Trent Lott (Miss.) said off the Senate floor. "I'd be happy to have him in our party."
Lieberman took a charitable view of his peers' disloyalty. "My colleagues were as warm and collegial as you would expect them to be," he told a pack of 20 reporters. "I understand the rules of the game."
Three Lieberman aides finally wrested the senator away from the reporters and into an elevator, only to find that the doors wouldn't shut. "Please!" the senator cried out.
While Democrats kept their distance from Lieberman, Lamont was in town basking in their affection. "I love all my new friends," he joked at a bacon-and-eggs breakfast downtown with reporters. The high-flying Democratic nominee was so exuberant that, when a questioner asked him to list his weaknesses, Lamont was stumped.
"I like to get things done," he offered. "I think I get along pretty well with people."
Lamont made clear that even in victory he wouldn't be magnanimous. When asked if he would vote to confirm Lieberman to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, Lamont said he would not. "That would be what we call in my world a lateral move," he said.
A couple of hours later, Lamont arrived at the Capitol for a meeting with Reid and Schumer. "They're on board 100 percent!" he exulted after the 20-minute session, at which he detected no residual support for Lieberman. "That's then and now is now," the candidate said.
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.