MAN WITHOUT A PARTY

Lieberman Keeps Democrats Guessing

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) stands with his former colleagues most of the time, but the exceptions are big ones.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) stands with his former colleagues most of the time, but the exceptions are big ones. (By Ken Cedeno -- Bloomberg News)

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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

When Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman returned to the Senate in January, reelected as an independent after a bruising primary loss in Connecticut, his Democratic colleagues welcomed him warmly back to their caucus. But privately, they weren't sure what to expect.

The independent Lieberman has emerged as the Senate asterisk, out of sync with both parties on key issues. His outlook for the war in Iraq remains as optimistic as ever, despite growing concerns among many Republicans that the military battle may already be lost. Earlier this week, Lieberman suggested that a U.S. strike against Iran may be in order.

Although Democrats never expected Lieberman to vote their way on Iraq, they had hoped he would show solidarity on other high-profile matters. But on Monday night, Lieberman opposed a symbolic vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. Every Democrat and seven Senate Republicans voted yes, in a direct challenge to President Bush.

The day before, appearing on Fox News, Lieberman had praised two GOP presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He said would stay out of the 2008 White House battle until after the nominees were chosen, but Lieberman suggested that he was more in sync with "the leading Republican candidates for the presidential nomination," especially on "Islamist extremist terrorism," which he called "the defining issue of our time."

Despite the feisty rhetoric and his defection on Gonzales, Senate Democratic leaders are confident that Lieberman will not cross the aisle to formally join Republicans, leaving his erstwhile party's majority status intact. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, rated Lieberman's chances of joining the GOP at a blunt "zero."

Lieberman also cautioned against reading too much into his recent actions, particularly the Gonzales vote.

"I just thought it was a waste of the Senate's time because it had no effect," Lieberman said of the nonbinding measure in an interview. Gonzales, he said, has "lost a lot of his credibility," but the senator added, "this is a matter between the president and the attorney general."

He was also eager to move on to the energy bill -- a major Democratic-led initiative that Lieberman considers a top priority. One of his amendments to the legislation, aimed at reducing foreign oil dependence, passed easily on Tuesday.

"Schumer wasn't happy, but we talked about it," Lieberman said of the Gonzales vote. Was he sending any other signals? "No, not at all," he insisted.

Actually, Lieberman remains a solid Democrat, at least on paper. Of the 210 votes that the Senate has taken so far this year, he has broken with the party just 24 times. A third of the dissenting votes were related to Iraq.

That record, compiled by washingtonpost.com, rates Lieberman as slightly more reliable to Senate Democrats than Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) are to the GOP -- and they are both members of the Senate Republican leadership. Lieberman's 88.3 percent score for the 110th Congress represents a slight decline from his 89.9 percent rating in the 109th Congress, but a fairly significant drop from his 93.2 percent score during the 108th Congress.

On foreign policy, however, Lieberman continues to march to his own beat. Last week, the senator told CNN that the U.S. troop increase in Iraq "has worked," although most military experts agree that its impact will not be clear for several more months. Although sectarian deaths have ticked up recently, Lieberman argued that was "because our enemies, the insurgents and al-Qaeda -- insurgents particularly supported by Iran -- see us winning, and they're doing desperate things."

On Sunday, he stated on CBS's "Face the Nation" that a U.S. attack on Iran may be in order. "We've got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq," Lieberman said. "And to me, that would include a strike into -- over the border into Iran, where we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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