By Ben Pershing
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, November 20, 2009
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman gaveled into session Capitol Hill's first public hearing on the Fort Hood attack, promising Thursday to run his investigation from exactly where he sat on the dais -- the center.
The homeland security committee inquiry would be conducted in a "bipartisan and nonpartisan way," pledged the onetime Connecticut Democrat who won as an independent in 2006, backed a Republican for president in 2008 and does not know -- or isn't saying -- what his political affiliation will be by the time his 2012 reelection contest comes around.
Lieberman, in his fourth term, has built a career straddling party lines, but as an independent he has tried to take the art of leveraging clout from the center to new heights.
His latest focus: the debate over health-care reform and, now, the investigation into the shootings on the Texas military post this month that left 13 dead and dozens wounded.
Other committee chairmen, all of them Democrats, have held off on launching inquiries, mindful of the Obama administration's requests that lawmakers slow down as the White House conducts its review. Some Republicans, particularly in the House, have essentially accused the White House of a cover-up.
Lieberman sits somewhere in between.
"Some people have jumped to attack the administration for wanting to stop the investigation," he said in an interview Thursday. "My way of operating here . . . is to work with the administration and proceed cooperatively as opposed to going into an attack mode."
Some on the left don't see it that way. Daily Kos, an influential liberal blog, featured two posts on Lieberman on Thursday, one an attack on his "Fort Hood political theater" and the other an expletive-laden tirade against his position on health-care reform.
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top Republican on the homeland security panel and a longtime friend, said Lieberman can "weather abuse and criticism." As the Senate nears consideration of its compromise health bill, Lieberman has drawn increased scrutiny for threatening to filibuster any reform bill that includes a public insurance option.
He is sensitive to those who say he is simply siding with Republicans, and he told National Public Radio on Wednesday that he was doing what he believed and not seeking to "join with anybody in any political party."
Lieberman first angered many on the left with his support of the Iraq war and most of the Bush administration's national security policies. After losing the 2006 Democratic primary, he further inflamed liberals by winning reelection anyway as an independent. Then he backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential campaign and had even been considered a possible running mate.
But in a Democratic-dominated Washington, he's had to be mindful of just how far he can push. After a brief controversy last year over whether he should keep his committee post, Lieberman has been a largely reliable vote for Democrats. "He's been very constructive," said fellow Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D). "A lot more are made of these things than are actually the case."
Lieberman has been coy about his plans in 2012. He could try running as a Democrat, run as an independent or retire. Republicans would love to have him, but he shows no signs of wanting to switch parties.
With the White House, on Fort Hood, he's been insistent but not unyielding. In launching his investigation, Lieberman pressed the administration for witnesses and was rebuffed, and he pointedly stated that Congress "will require the prompt and full cooperation" of the executive branch. But by Thursday's hearing, he said he had talked to administration officials and was more optimistic, saying the probe was off to "a good, cooperative start."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who has decided to hold off his panel's Fort Hood investigation, said Lieberman is walking a fine line.
It's too early to get administration participation, Levin said, but Lieberman knows "it's not too early to get people who can talk about the subject matter without . . . in any way jeopardizing the prosecution."
McCain sits on both committees. Who is right? "I respect whatever chairpersons do," McCain said, adding that while the federal investigation must not be hampered, "there is some urgency to fulfilling Congress's constitutional role."
Even Lieberman's friends can play it down the middle.