Lieberman expresses regret to colleagues over healthcare tension

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) told Democratic colleagues at a White House meeting that he regretted the tension he’d created within the conference during the healthcare debate.

Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent who still caucuses with his former party, stopped short of apologizing.

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“I just said I know it’s been difficult for people and I regretted it, it’s been difficult for all of us,” Lieberman said.

Earlier in the day, Lieberman said he was likely to support the legislation now that Democratic leaders had agreed to accept his demands and remove a proposal that would have allowed those between the ages of 55 and 64 to buy into Medicare. The buy-in was offered as an alternative to the government-run health insurance proposal Lieberman and other centrists strongly oppose.

Liberals have blamed Lieberman, some publicly and many privately, for forcing Reid to drop the public option, which for many liberals had been a crucial piece of reform.

But most Democratic senators have been careful not to criticize the lawmaker, whose support is necessary to reach the 60 votes Democrats need to pass the bill.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), among the most vocal supporters of the public option, said it would be unfair to blame Lieberman for its apparent demise. Feingold said that responsibility ultimately rests with President Barack Obama and he could have insisted on a higher standard for the legislation.

“This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place, so I don’t think focusing it on Lieberman really hits the truth,” said Feingold. “I think they could have been higher. I certainly think a stronger bill would have been better in every respect.”

But Feingold added there are “obviously good things in the bill” and focusing on an individual member is not an “accurate portrayal of what happened.”

This is not the first time Lieberman has expressed “regret” for creating a stir by taking a controversial position against his Democratic colleagues.

Lieberman backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election and offended many in his party by speaking at the Republican National Convention. After Obama won the election, Democrats considered stripping Lieberman of his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairmanship.

But Obama and Reid persuaded Democrats to reject stiff punishment, Democrats voted to let Lieberman stay on as chairman and Lieberman held a news conference during which he expressed some regrets.

“There are other statements that I made that I wish I had made more clearly,” Lieberman told reporters after the Nov. 18, 2008, meeting in which Democrats voted to let him keep the gavel. “And there are some I made that I wish I had not made at all. Obviously, in the heat of campaigns, that happens to all of us. But I regret that, and now is time to move on.”

On Tuesday, Obama once again helped smooth over hard feelings between Lieberman and liberal Democrats, this time over the president’s top domestic initiative.

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At one point in what was at times a tense meeting, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told Lieberman how difficult it had been for him to watch liberals lose ground in the healthcare negotiations.

Lieberman remarked that the past few weeks hadn’t been much fun for him. Brown said he hadn’t had much fun either.

And, according to Lieberman, Obama then said, “Why don’t we all start having some fun and pass the bill?”

Senate Democrats described the president as upbeat even though some of the lawmakers were visibly angry and a few complained about the loss of the public option and the Medicare buy-in.

Obama stressed what he considered the positive aspects of the legislation, such as subsidies to help expand health insurance coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.

“The president pointed out the historic achievement of this,” said a Senate Democrat who attended the meeting. “He said this is a historic event and we need to get it done. The president acknowledged we may not like this, and we may not like that, but that there will be technical corrections and cleanup bills. But if this fails, that’s it.”

At the White House meeting, Lieberman told colleagues the health bill still contains provisions that he dislikes, but that on balance he thinks it will do much to help people.

One senior Democrat in the meeting interpreted Lieberman’s comments as an apology, although Lieberman did not actually say “sorry.”

“I don’t remember his exact words, but I took it as an apology,” said a Democratic lawmaker.

Lieberman sought to dispel that interpretation

“No,” he said. “I said, ‘I know that it’s been difficult, but this is the nature of the process and you have to give and take.’ ”

Lieberman noted that if Democrats controlled only 59 or 55 Senate seats, they would have had to work even harder to muster 60 votes for the health bill.

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Lieberman also pointed out Tuesday that he wasn’t alone in raising concerns about the Medicare buy-in proposal. During a news conference earlier in the day, Lieberman said that nearly a dozen centrist Democrats informed Reid that they had concerns, too.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a principle negotiator in the healthcare talks, agreed that other Democrats raised the same concerns as Lieberman about the Medicare buy-in proposal.

But Lieberman became the most high-profile opponent of the provision when he told Reid that he would vote with Republicans to filibuster the bill unless Reid jettisoned it.

During a Monday evening meeting, Reid told colleagues he would drop the provision, as well as the public option, from the bill. Lieberman did not speak at that meeting, colleagues said.

On Tuesday, Lieberman told reporters he is now inclined to vote for the legislation.

“I’m getting to the position where I can say what I wanted to say all along, that I’m ready to vote for healthcare reform,” he said.

This story was updated at 8:32 p.m.