By J. Taylor Rushing - 11/24/09 11:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) played major roles in allowing Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to retain his committee gavel in 2008.
One year later, Lieberman could end up killing Obama’s and Reid’s No. 1 priority: enacting healthcare reform.
Reid has downplayed the maverick’s opposition, recently going as far as to say that Lieberman is the least of his worries.
Lieberman and Reid have a strong working relationship, something Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) pointed out last week during an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Schumer implied that one way or the other, Reid and Lieberman will come to some type of agreement and healthcare reform will be enacted in this Congress.
Reid was instrumental in fending off calls from the left to take Lieberman’s gavel away after the Independent senator endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president and spoke at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Some political analysts believed that if Obama had called for Lieberman’s ouster as chairman, Senate Democratic leaders would have followed their new president’s orders.
Lieberman ultimately withstood the challenge to his chairmanship by a 42-13 vote of Democratic senators.
If Lieberman stands in the way of the Democrats’ effort to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system, Reid will be second-guessed for not stripping Lieberman of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
But should Lieberman be the 60th vote to pass a healthcare bill, Reid will attract widespread praise for keeping the Connecticut senator on the Democratic side of the aisle. Lieberman has implied he would have left the Democratic Conference if his chairmanship had been revoked. And it would have been hard to envision Lieberman voting for the Reid/Obama health plan after switching sides.
Lieberman says he wants to pass healthcare reform, though he has not embraced any leading Democratic plan.
Lieberman criticized the bill crafted by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), which does not call for a public option and is viewed as the most conservative bill put forward by a Democratic leader.
In an interview on Fox Business Network last month, Lieberman said, “I’m afraid that in the end the Baucus bill is actually going to raise the price of insurance for most of the people in the country.
“If you ask me, I’d say we should really focus on what’s called healthcare delivery reform,” Lieberman added. “To me, the first big step is to make some changes that really do bend the increasing costs of healthcare down.”
Pressed on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Lieberman emphasized his yes vote on Saturday to proceed to debate on healthcare reform
“I voted [Saturday] night, as 59 others did, to go along with debate,” said Lieberman. “But I want us to begin not only debating healthcare reform, but doing something about healthcare reform. I don’t think anybody thinks this bill will pass as written.”
Healthcare is not the only issue where Lieberman’s actions have raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
Lieberman announced shortly after the Nov. 5 shootings at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas that he considered the killings an act of terrorism, and therefore subject to his chairmanship over the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. While other relevant panel chairmen in the House and Senate refrained from holding a public hearing, Lieberman asked officials in the Obama administration to testify.
The administration declined, and Lieberman subsequently asked former government officials to appear before his panel.
Privately, the administration has expressed concern with Lieberman’s decision.
Asked whether anyone from the White House discouraged him from holding the hearing last Thursday, Lieberman responded, “Nobody’s said to stop. [Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike] Mullen was probably going to, but he just expressed his concern that we do nothing that would interfere with the criminal investigation, and I told him we wouldn’t.”
Publicly, the Obama administration has not uttered a critical word about Lieberman’s investigation. Such criticism could hamper Reid’s effort to secure Lieberman’s vote on healthcare reform.
Lieberman told The Hill he senses no tension toward him from Senate Democrats, although he conceded it might not be expressed to him directly. He also noted that Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has also recently expressed his thought that the Fort Hood shootings were likely a terrorist activity.
“Look, I’m grateful my colleagues enabled me to continue as chairman,” Lieberman said. “I hope that I’ve done a good job, including the Fort Hood hearings … But when the caucus welcomed me back into the caucus and enabled me to continue as chairman of the committee, I think they understood that I’d been reelected as an Independent, and that I wasn’t going to view issues through the prism of partisan politics, but that I’d do what I thought made sense — for my state, for my country. And that’s what I’ve done. I certainly didn’t sign on to walk the party line, whenever anybody showed me where it was.”
Lieberman also correctly points out that he was a key supporter of Obama’s stimulus package in February, along with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and then-Republican Arlen Specter (Pa.).
“That was arguably the most significant legislative accomplishment of the Obama administration thus far,” he said. “I was right there at the end, and incidentally that was by working with some Republican colleagues, who I’m now working with on climate change.
“I’ve never felt that I was signing away my freedom of thought.”
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst at The Cook Political Report, said Lieberman is simply “being Lieberman.”
“He takes legislative jurisdiction pretty seriously, so the Fort Hood hearings are not unexpected,” Duffy said. “Nor is his position on healthcare. When the leadership helped him keep his chairmanship, it was to help him as much as to keep him in the caucus. It’s probably a good example of diversity. “
A Democratic senator who requested anonymity says that means Lieberman’s status in the caucus is not in question.
“There are a lot of things we do that the administration doesn’t like,” the senator said, referring to the Fort Hood hearings. “I see this as his independence. He was elected as an Independent, and I think it reflects the broad, diverse base of our party … Yes, we have to govern, but diversity is a virtue and all 60 of us understand that — including Joe Lieberman.”