Renegade Lieberman works well with Obama

Seven months after nearly becoming politically irrelevant, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is working closely with a president he actively campaigned against and is playing a leading role in moving major pieces of legislation through the upper chamber.

Lieberman’s last few years have been a rollercoaster ride, starting with his unusual primary loss in 2006, continuing with his triumph in the general election over anti-war activist Ned Lamont and climaxing — some would have said crashing — with his high-profile endorsement of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president.

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In the wake of McCain’s loss, many political analysts said Lieberman was done. Defying the pundits yet again, Lieberman survived a major effort to take away his Homeland Security Committee chairmanship. And his political stock has spiked.

During an interview with The Hill on Wednesday, Lieberman appeared at ease with where he is now, free from party restraints and on good terms with many of his Senate colleagues and the Obama White House.

Lieberman has been consulting with senior White House officials, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, on banning the release of photos depicting abuse of detainees in American custody, and was asked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to play a pivotal role on the economic stimulus package earlier this year.

Many, including Lieberman, know that Obama could have called for Lieberman to give up his committee perch after the Connecticut senator sharply criticized Obama at the 2008 Republican convention. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Lieberman has significantly scaled back his criticisms of Obama following the election, defending many of the president’s foreign policy moves.

Yet Lieberman is still very much an independent, and continues to speak his mind, criticizing Obama’s move to close the Guantánamo Bay prison.

 With a huge “Flag of Honor” behind him bearing the names of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, Lieberman spoke warmly Wednesday of the Democratic colleagues with whom he caucuses, but made clear that he retains the right to endorse Republican candidates, as he did last year.

“I have never ceased to be a Democrat, although I have been at odds with the party, both over the war and [on] matters of foreign policy,” Lieberman said. “But I was reelected as an Independent, and that’s very important to me … Bottom line, yes, I’ll continue to selectively support Republicans.”

He supports Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) for reelection and strongly suggests he would have backed him regardless of what political party he belonged to.

The 67-year-old senator said the once-deep-rooted anger at him among Senate Democrats has been replaced with a comfortable relationship that works both ways. He noted that Reid did ask him to resign his chairmanship before the two of them worked out a compromise in which Lieberman instead lost his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Soon after, Reid asked Lieberman for help in passing Obama’s economic recovery bill.

Lieberman’s endorsement of McCain was a key test of the Reid-Lieberman relationship, with Reid telling Lieberman after the election, “I’ve got to do something.”

But with Reid’s help, as well as with assistance from Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Lieberman kept his chairmanship on a vote of 42-13.

Lieberman labeled the conference discussion on his future “a little like family therapy.”

“The relationship now is very good,” Lieberman said. “Maybe the extra dimension of my own sense of separation on other political matters, or on the [Iraq] war, has receded, because obviously the election is over and I’ve pledged to help Obama be a successful president.”

Lieberman has also endorsed Dodd for his reelection, even though Dodd campaigned for Lamont in the fall of 2006.

This week, Lieberman and McCain ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) received word from Emanuel that Obama is considering signing an executive order classifying the controversial detainee photos that some Democrats in Congress want released.

Separately, the two senators made progress on getting a Senate vote — possibly as soon as this week — on a standalone bill that would codify the photo ban into law.

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“It ain’t over until either a law is passed or the president issues an executive order,” Lieberman said. “But today, as we talk, I’m very confident that one of those two things will be done.”

It is a matter of some speculation how deep Lieberman’s Democratic roots reach these days. The senator’s office said he still talks “on occasion” with former Vice President Al Gore, his 2000 presidential running mate — who stiffed Lieberman, without a heads-up, to endorse Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) for president in 2004 — but Democratic aides and senators said the party’s angst over Lieberman has indeed waned.

“We had problems with what happened in the last election, and we believe he was wrong and we told him he was wrong,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “But on issues other than the war in Iraq, he’s almost always with the Democratic caucus. We’ve moved on. He’s moved on. We’re all happy.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of Lieberman’s closest friends across the aisle, said Lieberman is “enjoying himself” because he loves having a role in national security policies.

“He’s making a big contribution,” Collins said.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Lieberman is back to playing “critical” roles for Senate Democrats, but that things were very difficult during his 2006 primary and last year’s presidential campaign.

“It was painful for all of us, but those of us who know Joe know that he’s a good person, has been an excellent senator and his heart’s in the right place,” Durbin said.

Lieberman’s hot-and-cold support for Obama also remains intact. The senator disagrees with assertions by former Vice President Dick Cheney that the country is less safe with Obama in the White House.

“In the area I know best, which is homeland security, there’s been no weakening of our defenses,” Lieberman said. “It’s a never-ending journey, but we’re doing well … There’s no guarantee of safety, but I don’t think there is a case to be made that we’re less safe today.”

Lieberman labeled Obama’s decisions to reverse himself on some foreign policy issues as “gutsy,” including his decision not to release the detainee photos.

However, Lieberman said the Guantánamo Bay prison should stay open, adding that he plans to urge Emanuel to ask Obama to reconsider that decision.

“As he’s seen the difficulties in carrying out this decision to close Guantánamo, I think perhaps he ought to look back and say, ‘Maybe this is the best solution to the problem,’ ” Lieberman said.