60 is the New 51: Senate Dems Ponder Lieberman’s Fate

16 11 2008

On Tuesday morning, Senate Democrats will gather to vote on Senator Joe Lieberman’s (D-CT) political fate. At issue, is whether Lieberman will be allowed to caucus with the Democrats and if so, should he hold on to his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs and retain all of his senior status, after he aggressively campaigned against President-elect Barack Obama and endorse the Republican nominee John McCain. Democrats seemed poised to keep Lieberman in the caucus, but are divided as to whether he should keep his much coveted chairmanship.

On the campaign trail, Joe Lieberman suggested it was a good idea to ask then-Senator Barack Obama if he was a Marxist and questioned his patriotism, but demurred to weigh in on the question himself. This despite raising taxes on only the top five percent of the highest income earners and had the temerity to advocate for better regulation and oversight of the financial sector.

Lieberman also accused Obama of taking an unprincipled stance on Iraq in an effort to cater to interest groups, saying Obama “would be open to changing his plan for Iraq after going there and talking to General Petraeus — only to change that position a few hours later after being heatedly criticized by organizations like Moveon.org?” Obama, however, has opposed the war in Iraq since 2002 and repeatedly emphasize the need for withdrawl.

In a speech before the American Israel Political Action Committee, the priemier pro-lsraeli organization in the U.S., Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, said Obama misjudged and “minimized” the threat Iran posed to the U.S. and Israel. But Obama, in his own speech to AIPAC, said, “Because of the War in Iraq, Iran which always posed a greater threat to Israel than Iraq is emboldened and poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States and Israel in the Middle East in a generation.”

All of this has proved to be too much for certain Democrats to tolerate. Both Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders have already publicly stated their opposition to having Lieberman maintain his chairmanship. Leahy said Lieberman’s attacks on Obama “perpetuated some of these horrible myths that were being run about Senator Obama and if he had done something similar “I would not be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress.”

Sanders was far more brutally honest. “To reward Senator Lieberman with a major committee chairmanship would be a slap in the face of millions of Americans who worked tirelessly for Barack Obama and who want to see real change in our country.”

To be sure Leahy and Sanders are not alone. Websites such as www.joeliebermanmustgo.com are calling for Lieberman’s ouster as Senate Homeland Security committee chairman. The group has already collected more than 40,000 signatures and posted a script for visitors to recite when phoning the offices of their respective home state Senators. They even put together this video here:

But Lieberman is not without defenders. Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Amy Klobouchar (D-MN), an early and fervent Obama supporter, have proposed that Lieberman be allowed keep his chairmanship if he apologize and behaves, i.e., not use his subpeona power to investigate an Obama administration to lead a GOP partisan attack, and agrees to side with Democrats on close votes. If Lieberman does not cooperate, then Democrats can opt to remove him later. Moving to ouster Lieberman now will risk pushing the Connecticut Senator into the arms of Senate Republicans, argue Bayh and Klobouchar.

But even that does not really seem like a viable alternative since removing a Senator from his or her chairmanship post will require Democrats put together a 60 vote coalition in the Senate that would have to include GOP senators. Provided that Alaska’s Mark Begich comes out ahead in the recount against the recently convicted felon Senator Ted Stevens – a likley prospect, and Al Franken does the same against Norm Coleman in the Minnesota recount – an increasily likely prospect, along with a win by Jim Martin in Georgia’s run off election against Saxby Chambliss on December 2nd – a distinct possibility, Democrats can get to a filibuster proof 60 votes majority in the U.S Senate only if Joe Lieberman continues to caucus with them.

Coupled with an overwhelming advantage in the House of Representatives, such a majority in the U.S. Senate would allow to an Obama administration and Congressional Democrats push any legislation they want. Through a spokesperson Barack Obama has expressed a wish for Lieberman to stay in the Democratic caucus, but stayed mum on the chairmanship issue.

For his part, Senator Lieberman’s aides have said caucusing with the Dems without his chairmanship is “unacceptable.” A bold yet not altogether unsurprising position given the other pending U.S. Senate races, and the kind of leverage he potentially could have. Its also a familiar one considering after his 2006 Senate race against Ned Lamont he was courted by the Republicans to switch sides, which would have allowed the GOP lawmakers to control the Senate with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote in a 50-50 U.S. Senate.

That said, Democrats should vote to strip Lieberman of his chairmanship. For one, no one really knows if Lieberman will go rogue and behave the same way against an Obama administration as he did against Obama on the campaign trail. Most of the attacks he waged against Obama on behalf of the McCain campaign were, as noted above, on security grounds. To reward Lieberman with a Homeland Security chairmanship would risk repeating the same thing turn of events. On principle, that just does not make sense.

Plus, much of the immigration reform and government reform legislation, if not all of it, not to mention certain appropriations bills, will have to go through that committee, which would present Lieberman with ample opportunity to cause mischief whether its including stalling bills the or attaching poisonous amendments to them.  He could hold them hostage for bargaining power and work with Republicans to frustrate Obama’s agenda that might fall under the committee’s jurisdiction.

His performance as chairman has also not inspired a great deal of confidence either. Lieberman has also not urged the committee to conduct any real investigations into the Katrina aftermath or the ongoing ICE raids.

Of course, there is always the split the baby option, which is to introduce a bill that would create a Senate Select Committee on Government affairs and one on Homeland Security.  Lieberman could be chairman or better yet a subcommittee chairman of the Government Affairs one, but not Homeland Security. At least, that option would provide Lieberman with some semblance of seniority, until he fades into the sunset.

That is, provided he does not get reelected in 2012.

Update: The title of this post has been changed from “60 is the New 50” to “60 is the New 51” to draw a parallel between Lieberaman’s pivotal role in caucusing with the Senate Dems, which allowed them to sieze control of the Senate in 2006 and his critical position today in possibly helping them achieve a filibuster majority today. Obviously, 51 counts as majority not 50.

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