Lieberman faces a long, chilly walk to Saturday's healthcare debate

Senators are grumbling privately about having to work this weekend, but most have an easy road compared to Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.).

Lieberman, an observant Jew, plans to walk nearly five miles from his home and synagogue in Georgetown to make it to the Senate in time for votes on healthcare amendments that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

It will be a long and chilly trek for Lieberman, who estimates the journey from Kesher Israel, the Georgetown Synagogue, will take him about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Weather forecasts predict temperatures in the low forties and a significant chance of sleet and possible snow.

Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent lawmaker, was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Stamford, Connecticut. He eats kosher food and observes the Sabbath, which is Saturday in the Jewish faith.

Religious rules call for the Sabbath to be set aside for rest and worship, and prohibits work or the lighting of fires. Many Jews interpret these rules to bar the driving of cars since turning a key in the ignition is akin to kindling a fire.

“The whole idea of the Sabbath is to stop and be grateful for God’s creation,” Lieberman said in an interview.

But he said the healthcare reform debate is too important to miss. He explained that religious law makes an exemption for actions that are for the welfare of the community, and many Democrats — if not Republicans — think healthcare reform will help their communities.

“I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as healthcare reform,” he said.

Lieberman noted that observant Jews do not normally answer the telephone on the Sabbath. However, doctors who attend his synagogue are permitted to bring their cell phones and respond to calls from patients who need help.

“If a doctor gets a call that a patient needs them, they’re not only permitted but required to go out,” he said.

Reid announced Friday that the Senate would convene at 10 a.m. on Saturday and vote on amendments around 3 p.m. One of the amendments, sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), would limit how much insurance companies can deduct from their taxes for executive compensation.

Rumors circulated Friday that Lieberman might miss the votes because of his religious observance.

Lieberman said he has walked to the Senate about 25 or 30 times over the course of his career when important votes fell on the Sabbath.

He said he has answered his phone on Saturdays during times of national emergency. He is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Lieberman, who has had strained relations with Democrats in recent weeks because of his avowed opposition to the government-run health insurance program, asked Reid to schedule votes in the later morning or afternoon so he could attend synagogue.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) asked Reid to delay the opening of the Senate on Sunday so Christian lawmakers could attend church.

Reid has accommodated both requests, with afternoon votes on Saturday and the Sunday session set to begin at noon.

The debate is expected to wrap up for the weekend on Sunday around 6:30 p.m., giving lawmakers a chance to attend the Kennedy Center Honors. The evening event will celebrate the lifetime achievement of artists, including singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, actor Robert DeNiro and filmmaker Mel Brooks. Senators consider it a hot ticket.