By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 3 -- Democrats officially warned Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Wednesday that he could face repercussions for delivering a speech at the Republican National Convention in which he called Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama an "eloquent young man" who lacked the experience to be in the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that Lieberman's status within the Democratic caucus is in jeopardy.
"Senator Reid was very disappointed in Senator Lieberman's speech, especially when he appeared to go out of his way to distort Senator Obama's record of bipartisan achievements in the Senate," said Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley. "The Democratic caucus will likely revisit the situation with Senator Lieberman after the elections in November."
Obama's aides also accused Lieberman of misstating Obama's legislative record.
The uproar followed Lieberman's address on Tuesday to the Republican convention here. Although Lieberman long ago endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain, many Democrats had hoped that Lieberman would use his prime-time speech only to support McCain, a friend of two decades, and not to criticize Obama.
Most of Lieberman's speech focused on McCain's credentials, but toward the end, he pointedly said Obama "has not reached across party lines to get anything significant done, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party."
"Senator Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But eloquence is no substitute for a record," said Lieberman, who eight years ago was the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Manley would not address what sort of punishment Democrats would consider, but said no sanction would be imposed until after the November elections.
Democrats are expected to win four to eight Senate seats in November. If that happens, Democratic senators and aides have privately said, Lieberman may face punishment from the caucus because its members could afford to risk his walking across the aisle and caucusing with the Republicans. If Lieberman were to do that now, the Democrats would cede control of a 50-50 Senate to the Republicans, because Vice President Cheney would cast tie-breaking votes.
But on Wednesday, Democrats stated publicly for the first time that Lieberman faced consequences for his actions, particularly after the speech here.
"He clearly went too far," Manley said of Lieberman.
Democratic leaders have considered stripping him of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The strongest reprimand would be to strip him of all his committee assignments, which would effectively be a banishment from the Democratic caucus.
Lieberman lost his 2006 Democratic primary to an antiwar candidate but won as an independent in the general election. Since then, he has caucused with Democrats and voted with them on most issues except those related to the war in Iraq. As a supporter of President Bush's war plans, Lieberman reached a gentleman's agreement with Reid last year that he would not attend party meetings when war policy was the central issue.
He has repeatedly said he has no plans to leave the party. "I remain a Democrat for reasons of principle," he said in a June interview. "I've been a lifelong Democrat, so I have no desire to leave the party."
Republicans praised Lieberman, whom McCain considered as one of his six finalists to be his running mate. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a member of the House GOP leadership team, said Lieberman appealed to middle-of-the-road voters and predicted Democrats would attack Lieberman at their peril.
"The significant majority in America that is not in tune with partisan politics is going to listen to Joe Lieberman," Cantor said.
Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director, made the rounds on network and cable talk shows Wednesday and accused Lieberman of ignoring Obama's cooperation with lawmakers such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), with whom he worked on nuclear weapons legislation, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), with whom he worked on government transparency legislation.
"Do everybody a favor. Don't make stuff up," Gibbs said in an interview on washingtonpost.com.
Despite the sharp critiques from Democrats, Lieberman still enjoys some institutional connections to his former party that have not been severed.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Obama's running mate, accepted a $5,000 donation from Lieberman's political action committee in July as part of Biden's effort to retire debt from his unsuccessful presidential campaign this year.
Lieberman has donated more than $145,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and in July he cut $5,000 checks from his PAC to such key Democratic candidates as Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado and former governor Mark Warner of Virginia, both of whom are trying to win seats vacated by Republicans.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.