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Lieberman assailed for role in health-care debate

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By Lois Romano and Alec MacGillis
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) has once again inserted himself into the middle of an inflamed partisan debate, raising questions about his motives, his ego and his fickle allegiance to the Democratic Party, which forgave him after he supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president.

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Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent who caucuses with his former party, says he is feeling "relevant" as he threatens to withhold his vote -- potentially the decisive 60th -- on health-care reform legislation if it includes a government-run insurance plan. And it is hard to dispute that as Capitol Hill moves farther from the "public option," to the consternation of liberals.

"There is no question he's taken pleasure in this role," said Jacob S. Hacker, a Yale political scientist who helped craft the initial proposal for the public option.

Lieberman has assumed such a central role despite what health-policy experts say have been serial misstatements about reform proposals. But, Hacker laments, "No one's called him on anything."

Lieberman has helped push the debate far from the public option, which was conceived as a way to force competition. Over the weekend, attention turned to a new alternative, a network of national, nonprofit insurance plans similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan. Skeptics say this falls far short of the original goal of a government-run plan. Lieberman says he is open to the idea.

Although he has been more in line with Republicans on national security issues, Lieberman has tended to stick with Democrats on domestic politics. So it has been startling for even his detractors to hear the four-term senator vowing to join a Republican filibuster against any bill with a government-run plan.

A number of senators are privately furious, Senate sources said. But they added that it is unlikely the Democratic caucus would take punitive action, such as stripping his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- at least not in this Congress.

Beyond the Hill, liberals have stepped up attacks, with one advocacy airing ads in Connecticut and on national cable that accuse Lieberman of acting in self-interest. John Mertens, who is challenging Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) as a third-party candidate next year, narrates a 30-second spot: "Joe never forgets who he ran to represent: Himself. It's not about you. It's all about Joe." The League of Women Voters is also launching radio spots to pressure him.

Hundreds of protesters representing an interfaith organization showed up at Lieberman's home in Stamford and at his office in Hartford, to plead (and pray) for him to support the bill. Among them was Rabbi Ron Fish, of Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, Conn., who was so supportive of Lieberman's 2006 reelection bid that he rushed through John F. Kennedy International Airport in search of a mailbox in which to send his absentee ballot before boarding a flight to Israel.

"I was very upset when I heard him say it was a matter of conscience for him to vote against the bill," Fish said. "His conscience bothers him about the cost of a government insurance option? What about his conscience for the millions of people living in real fear, suffering without insurance?"

More than a few liberal blogs have accused Lieberman of being beholden to the insurance industry in his state. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he has received more than $1 million from insurance interests since 1990. Last month, protesters were arrested in his Washington office, shouting, "Represent Connecticut, not Aetna!"

Some believe he is being driven by a potential reelection bid in 2012, when he will need strong GOP support. Lieberman switched his affiliation to independent in 2006 after being defeated in the Democratic primary by antiwar businessman Ned Lamont. Lieberman won the general election by knitting together a coalition that included 70 percent of the Republican vote and only 33 percent of the Democratic vote.


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