By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama has endorsed keeping Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) in the Democratic caucus, suggesting to the leadership that the two sides reach a compromise in the conflict over the former Democratic vice presidential nominee's future, sources said yesterday.
In a phone conversation last week with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Obama said that expelling Lieberman for his support of the Republican presidential ticket would send the wrong signal after Obama's promises to set partisanship aside, according to a Senate Democratic aide familiar with the conversation.
Obama "didn't get into the minutiae. It was more along the lines of 'Let's find a way to put the campaign behind us,' " the aide said.
The call to Reid, which covered many issues, came before the majority leader met with Lieberman last Thursday to discuss his future in the Democratic caucus. Lieberman is one of two independents who caucus, and generally vote, with Democrats.
Aides to Obama and Reid declined to comment on the specifics of the conversation between the two party leaders. Obama's camp insisted that the president-elect did not make any specific suggestions about how to resolve the situation but did say that he wants Lieberman to remain with the Democrats.
"President-elect Obama looks forward to working with anyone to move the country forward," Obama transition spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said yesterday. "We'd be happy to have Senator Lieberman caucus with the Democrats. We don't hold any grudges."
Lieberman faces a crucial Nov. 18 meeting of Senate Democrats at which he is expected to plead his case for retaining the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has wide oversight of the executive branch. Many Democrats have privately suggested that Lieberman should surrender the post even if that risks him crossing the aisle to caucus with Republicans, in part because Democrats padded their majority in the Senate by gaining at least six seats in last week's election.
Some liberal activists have pushed to have Lieberman expelled from the caucus by stripping him of all his committee assignments, particularly after his speech on behalf of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) at the Republican National Convention. Lieberman called Obama "an eloquent young man" who was not prepared to be president.
Reid hinted Sunday that Democrats could offer Lieberman an alternative to his current chairmanship.
"The caucus has a decision to make and they're going to make it . . . whether we're going to say, 'Okay, we've had enough of you, Joe, go vote with the Republicans,' or whether we're going to try to work something out with Joe Lieberman," Reid said Sunday on CNN's "Inside Edition."
After meeting with Reid last Thursday, Lieberman told reporters that with the election over, the country "must now unite."
"That is exactly what I intend to do with my colleagues here in the Senate in support of our new president, and those are the standards I will use when considering the options that I have before me," he said.
One alternative would be to give Lieberman the chairmanship of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, which has one of the lowest profiles on Capitol Hill. Its current chairman, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), is set to move into a more prestigious chairmanship. Other senior members of the panel chair more powerful committees, which would allow Lieberman to become chairman if he is removed from his current post.
But a Lieberman aide said yesterday that the senator rejected Reid's overtures to chair the small-business committee and that he demanded to retain his current chairmanship. "It's unacceptable for him to be removed as chairman of the homeland security committee," the aide said. "That's the one area he's been very clear about."