Senate Democrats Let Lieberman's Bad Deed Go Unpunished

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank updates the employment status of Senators Joe Lieberman and Ted Stevens. Video by Akira Hakuta/washingtonpost.comOne of These Senators Is Not Like the Others
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"I'm intact!" Joe Lieberman said with a laugh as he left the Old Senate Chamber yesterday.

It was to be his Judgment Day before his Senate Democratic colleagues, but he emerged without so much as a scratch. Democrats had made big noise about wanting to strip the Connecticut independent of his homeland security committee chairmanship to punish him for supporting John McCain. Yet, in a secret ballot, they voted 42 to 13 to let him keep the position without so much as a rebuke for actively backing the Republican presidential candidate.

"It's very clear that the vast majority of the Democratic caucus wants to keep Senator Lieberman as chairman of his committee," announced Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose own thoughts about Lieberman, he has said, could not be broadcast on television. "And that was done. It's all over with."

No blood on the floor. Not even any groveling beyond a mild expression of regret for words said "in the heat of campaigns." The prodigal son had returned without receiving so much as a threat to dock his allowance or suspend his cellphone privileges.

"I don't think there were more than 20 lashes in the whole thing," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). That didn't seem to satisfy Lautenberg, a longtime critic of the former Democrat's apostasy. Lieberman, he said, "was a bad boy."

During the campaign, Lieberman suggested that Sen. Barack Obama's "naive" worldview would jeopardize Israel, and he went to the Republican National Convention to backhandedly dismiss the Democrat as "an eloquent and gifted young man." But when asked at a news conference yesterday whether he felt "chastened in any way" by his colleagues, Lieberman saw only Democratic togetherness. "Well," he said, "I think this was done in a -- in a spirit of reconciliation."

Republicans may have been celebrating the Democrats' weakness, but they were having their own Judgment Day problems. While Democrats met in the Old Senate Chamber, Senate Republicans gathered nearby in the Mansfield Room to decide what to do about Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), now a convicted felon. And their mercy was no less abundant. Precisely four minutes after the meeting's scheduled start time, they announced that they were putting off a decision on Stevens for two more days, to give vote counters in Alaska more time to determine whether the senator lost his bid for reelection. Late last night, he did.

About 200 reporters and photographers lined the hall outside the rooms where Senate Democrats and Republicans were holding their meetings. After nearly two hours, a door opened and a flurry of camera flashes started a stampede of reporters. Lieberman? No -- Stevens! He was immediately surrounded by dozens of cameras and microphones. "Can I just go to the bathroom?" he pleaded.

On his way back, Stevens was again besieged, and this time he paused to talk. He said that he hadn't really slept in four months. He said that he feels as though he's living multiple lives. "I wouldn't wish this on anyone, on my worst enemy," said Stevens, who, by cruel coincidence, was celebrating his 85th birthday.

The GOP meeting soon ended, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) went before the cameras just off the Senate floor. He avoided a mention of Stevens in his opening statement -- but three of the first four questions were about him. McConnell gave the same answer to each: "The position of the conference was that that matter ought to be postponed until we knew the outcome of the election in Alaska," he said. That answer proved insufficient, so reporters asked about Stevens a fourth time. "I don't know whether I should repeat the same thing four times or not," McConnell said, before deciding in the affirmative.

Stevens's reprieve, at least, was temporary. Lieberman's was absolute.

Marshall Wittmann, Lieberman's spokesman, wore a worried look as he waited for his boss to emerge from the session with Senate Democrats, but he spoke confidently of the outcome. "They're in there singing campfire songs," he speculated. For additional reassurance, he quoted Lincoln: "With malice toward none, with charity for all."

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