By Dan Balz and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:00 AM
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee who won reelection to the Senate in 2006 as an independent, plans to announce Wednesday that he will retire at the end of his term, according to an aide.
Once a stalwart member of the Democratic caucus and a leader in the party's centrist wing, Lieberman (Conn.) has spent most of the past four years in partial exile - voting with Democrats on organizational matters and some domestic issues while siding with Republicans on key issues of national security.
His estrangement from his party reached its apex when he backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, siding with a close friend and political soulmate over the nominee of a party that had been his home since he entered politics four decades earlier.
Lieberman, 68, has scheduled an announcement for Wednesday in his home town of Stamford, Conn. There, an aide said, he will cast himself as a politician in the mold of former president John F. Kennedy, who inspired him to enter politics and who, in Lieberman's rendering, was strong on national security, a centrist on economic issues and a liberal on social issues.
"He believes he's been consistent with that legacy since in public life," said Marshall Wittmann, his communications director.
Lieberman achieved an important item on the liberal agenda, the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" prohibition, which was approved last month.
But even that victory was not enough to win back the full affection of many Democrats, who could not forgive him for his unwavering support of Republican President George W. Bush's Iraq war policies and for his decision to back McCain.
Lieberman faced the prospect of a potentially difficult reelection campaign, including a competitive primary, if he sought the Democratic nomination.
Instead, he decided to retire in two years, with the intention of remaining active in public life. After four terms in the Senate, he decided he wanted to open a new chapter in his life, an aide said.
Lieberman's statement Wednesday will come one day after an announcement by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) that he will retire rather than face what could be a difficult reelection campaign in two years. His seat will become a prime prospect for a Republican takeover.
Connecticut, a perennially Democratic state, may pose a more difficult challenge for Republicans. Last November, the GOP was frustrated in its hopes of picking up the Senate seat of Christopher J. Dodd (D), who retired in the face of a potentially difficult reelection race.
On Tuesday, lawmakers were consuming the news of Lieberman's decision even before it was made official. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), who is considering a 2012 Senate bid, noted that Lieberman had a career with "a lot of twists and turns" but still was "one of the giants" in his state's political history.
"Joe is like a family member to the state," he said.
Lieberman became involved in progressive politics as a college student, when he was active in the civil rights movement and went to Mississippi to help with voter registration drives for African Americans.
He began his rise in politics by winning election to the Connecticut Senate, defeating the body's majority leader. He later served as the state's attorney general. In 1988, he challenged then-Sen. Lowell Weicker, a maverick Republican who was considered the strong favorite. In an upset, Lieberman narrowly won.
In Washington, he became a leader of the party's centrist wing, eventually chairing the Democratic Leadership Council. On foreign policy, he voted for the Persian Gulf War resolution, in 1991, when many Democrats opposed it, and he has been one of Israel's staunchest supporters.
In 2000, Al Gore chose Lieberman to be his vice presidential running mate, making Lieberman the first Jewish American on a major-party ticket. After Bush became president, Lieberman made clear that he thought the Gore political team focused too much on class warfare. He and Gore later broke more significantly on Iraq.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Lieberman helped engineer passage of the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security and embraced Bush's war in Iraq. It was that support that prompted a primary challenge in the 2006 Senate race from millionaire Ned Lamont and a campaign that pitted the emerging progressive netroots of the Democratic Party against the party's former vice presidential nominee.
Lieberman lost that primary but announced immediately that he would run in the general election as an independent. Most of the Democratic establishment abandoned him, but when Republicans declined to put their full resources behind their nominee, Lieberman won reelection.
He said later that his 2006 race had freed him from the "tribal partisanship" that had come to dominate Washington.
"Being elected as an independent has encouraged me to do more what is right, rather than worrying about what it means politically in two years or four years," he told The Washington Post in June 2008.
While many point to that 2006 race as Lieberman's seminal break with Democrats, he rejoined the caucus in 2007 without much fanfare, openly breaking from the party only when it came to the war in Iraq.
But the decision to endorse McCain for president proved to be a bridge too far for many Democrats and liberal activists, particularly after he delivered a damning speech at the Republican National Convention that questioned Obama's credentials.
"Senator Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But eloquence is no substitute for a record," he said in that address.
Lieberman, who said at the time that "country matters more than party," was under serious consideration as McCain's running mate until advisers convinced the senator from Arizona that conservatives would not accept someone who favored abortion rights and gay rights. When McCain announced then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Lieberman was dumbfounded, he later said.
At one point after Lieberman's election as an independent, Senate Democrats, with the backing of party activists, began discussing revoking his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), holding a one-seat majority at the time, rebuffed those requests.
After Obama's 2008 victory, Reid found himself on the cusp of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Lieberman's vote would come very much in handy with the ambitious agenda ahead and any punishment might have sent him across the aisle to caucus with Republicans.
As Democrats spent the days after the 2008 election pondering how to punish him, Obama came to Lieberman's defense and publicly suggested that there should be no retribution. Lieberman kept his chairman's gavel and became a reliable Democratic vote throughout most of 2009.
Yet in late 2009, he again drew the ire of liberal activists when he refused to support the creation of a government-run option for insurance during the lengthy negotiations on health-care reform. Along with several Democrats, the objections made it impossible to get the 60 votes needed to block a GOP filibuster.
Once Reid crafted his final compromise, Lieberman loyally marched through the procession of votes needed to approve the legislation - including a several-mile walk from his Georgetown synagogue on a chilly December day.
An observant Jew, Lieberman does not allow himself to be driven anywhere during the Sabbath. So, just as he did last month on a cold Saturday morning to help repeal "don't ask, don't tell," Lieberman donned a furry hat and an orange scarf and made a roughly 45-minute walk to the Capitol to cast the 60th vote for the health-care bill, helping it clear a major hurdle.
"Shabbat shalom," he said as he stepped off the Senate elevators.
Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.