Senate Democrats Allow Lieberman to Retain Key Chairmanship

By Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) easily won a vote yesterday to remain chairman of a key committee and will stay in the Senate Democratic caucus despite his high-profile criticism of President-elect Barack Obama and his support of Sen. John McCain during the presidential campaign.

Lieberman surrendered his position on the Environment and Public Works Committee, leaving the panel and his subcommittee chairmanship. But he will remain chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and head of the Armed Services subcommittee that oversees air and land power issues.

"This was done in a spirit of reconciliation," Lieberman told reporters after the meeting.

The Democratic caucus voted 42 to 13 to accept a deal negotiated by Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), Ken Salazar (Colo.), Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

Those voting were Democrats who will be in office for the 111th Congress, including the six senators-elect who helped increase the party's majority to at least 58 seats. (Mark Begich of Alaska, who became the seventh senator-elect last night, did not attend the caucus meeting.) Neither Obama, who resigned his Senate seat last Sunday, nor Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who will resign his seat before the Jan. 20 swearing-in, were allowed to vote.

Some senators had publicly suggested that Lieberman, one of two independents who caucus with Democrats, be stripped of his committee chairmanship. The panel will have considerable oversight responsibilities in the Obama administration.

The more than two-hour meeting was held in the Old Senate Chamber, where senators convened for most of the 19th century and where several grand deals were hatched, including the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Meeting next door in the Mansfield Room, Republicans dismissed attempts to sanction Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), who was convicted on seven felony counts of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts he received. In their closed meeting, GOP senators agreed to set aside the resolution because of the possibility that Stevens would not be reelected. (Last night, the Associated Press called that election in Begich's favor.)

After the Democrats' meeting, Lieberman and several senators said the senator from Connecticut told the caucus that he regretted some of his remarks about Obama during the campaign. "There are some that I made that I wish I had never made at all," Lieberman said later.

But he did not apologize or offer a blanket statement of regret about his actions, according to several participants and those familiar with his remarks.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said the decision was "less about retribution and more about reconciliation and atonement. And there was some atonement." Asked whether Lieberman had pledged to show party loyalty in the future, Nelson said, "In effect he did, yes."

Many Senate Democrats said Lieberman crossed a line during his speech at the Republican National Convention in September, when he called Obama, then the Democratic nominee, "an eloquent young man" who was not prepared to be president.

Some said privately that the risk of driving Lieberman across the aisle to caucus with Republicans was worth taking because of the Democrats' increased majority in the next Congress. But Obama endorsed reaching a compromise that would keep the independent in the caucus.

Lieberman lost the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, a self-financing multimillionaire whose campaign was centered on Lieberman's support of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war. But he won the general election as an independent and announced in late 2007 that he would endorse McCain.

For the past year, liberal activists have demanded retribution, with some calling for his expulsion from the caucus and others pushing for his chairmanship to be revoked.

But Democratic sources said Lieberman held the upper hand in the negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), because he appeared to have less to lose. Many of his Senate colleagues have interpreted the Connecticut independent's behavior as an indication that he may retire when his term expires in 2012, leaving him free to remain politically at large -- or perhaps willing to join the Republican conference under the right terms.

Senators who witnessed yesterday's proceedings in the Democratic caucus described the mood as businesslike. Vermont's two senators, Patrick J. Leahy (D) and Bernard Sanders (I), opposed Lieberman retaining his chairmanship, but many others -- including Senators-elect Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico -- offered remarks on his behalf.

For Obama's closest allies, Lieberman's sin was not his support for McCain, but his speaking so emphatically against Obama, especially on foreign policy. "I was as frustrated and angry as anyone else," said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), a centrist who voted for Lieberman to retain his homeland security post.

According to one Democratic participant and others familiar with his remarks, Lieberman said that although he wanted McCain to win, he was "deeply moved" by Obama's victory. He cited Obama's victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, when the president-elect called for national reconciliation.

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