Lieberman could be kingmaker if next Senate winds up divided 50-50

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) could have the power to decide who controls the Senate after the midterm elections.

Polling suggests Republicans could pick up as many as nine seats this fall, making a 50-50 split between the two parties a distinct possibility.

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A nine-seat gain for the GOP would give Democrats the slimmest possible majority: a caucus of 50, made up of 48 Democrats and two independents, Lieberman and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). Vice President Joe Biden would become the crucial tie-breaking vote in the Democrats' favor.

But that one-vote majority would hinge on Lieberman continuing to caucus with the Democrats. Under that scenario, the Democratic Party's love/hate relationship with Lieberman could reach a critical juncture.

Lieberman is facing a tough reelection fight in 2012 and could be tempted to caucus with the Republicans — or switch parties outright — during the next Congress.

The senator has never definitively ruled out becoming a Republican, but has instead stuck to declarations of independence. Asked this week about the senator's political affiliation, spokesman Marshall Wittmann said: “Sen. Lieberman is happy where he is in the Senate and has no other plans.”

Lieberman considered joining the GOP after the 2008 election, when his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was nearly yanked by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid’s decision to allow him to stay on as chairman — with the advice and consent of President Obama — proved to be a wise decision that allowed Democrats to pass major legislation during the 111th Congress, including the healthcare law.

But Lieberman's relationship with the Democratic Party has been strained at times. The friction dates back to 2006, when grassroots activists in the party toppled him in a Senate primary in favor of businessman Ned Lamont.

Lieberman went on to win reelection as an independent, much to the disappointment of the liberal activists who worked to drive him from office.

After 2006, Lieberman increasingly asserted his right to side with Republicans on foreign policy issues. The senator went so far as to endorse Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) for president in 2008 instead of Obama — a decision that still rankles liberal voters in Connecticut, according to one expert.

“A lot of voters have some reservations about him in the sense that he’s been all over the map,” said Jeffrey Ladewig, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut. “It’s a tough pill to swallow in many ways.”

Lieberman also raised the ire of liberals last year when he came out against the public option in healthcare reform, an announcement that was widely reported as dooming its chances. The defeat of the public option still stings Democratic Party activists, who cite it as a major failure of Obama's time in the White House.

A November 2009 poll by the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute suggested most of the state’s voters already view Lieberman as an ally of Republicans and not the Democrats with whom he caucuses.

Asked if they view him as a Republican or a Democrat, 51 percent of the 1,236 registered voters who responded to the poll said they saw Lieberman as a Republican, while just 25 percent said they viewed him as a Democrat.

Given that fact, Lieberman might have nothing to lose from joining up with the GOP.

“It is an interesting hypothetical," said Quinnipiac Director Douglas Schwartz. "Lieberman has a 2012 campaign, and after the election, people here in Connecticut will start thinking about Lieberman much more.”

Schwartz said the potential situation with Lieberman in the Senate reminds him of 2000, when Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords bolted the GOP to caucus with Democrats, handing them control of the chamber on a 50-49-1 basis.

Connecticut has traditionally voted as a blue state, but this year's Senate race between state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) and Republican Linda McMahon suggests winning as a conservative isn't out of the question. McMahon has been running close with Blumenthal in polls.

Schwartz said it’s not surprising that people in his home state see Lieberman as a Republican, given his support for the war in Iraq and his campaigning with McCain.

“I wouldn’t see him as hard-right, but the past few years have been very tumultuous, especially with the GOP convention where he spoke against Obama,” Ladewig said. “That certainly made a mark.”

If Lieberman decides to stay in the Democratic caucus next year, he could become one of the most powerful swing votes in the Senate.

“Lieberman and [Nebraska Sen. Ben] Nelson would definitely be the most pivotal” in a closely divided Senate, Ladewig said. “It could come up pretty heavily after [the election].”

While Lieberman's vote will be critical, it's possible to overstate it, given the need to get 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate. Ladewig suggests that whether Lieberman votes with Democrats or Republicans on a specific bill, 60 is the new 50.

"The Senate’s going to be a mess either way,” Ladewig said. “And you can’t do anything in the Senate these days with a majority. You need a super-majority.”