Much ado about Lieberman, Stevens in the Senate

Oliphant and Hook are writers in The Times Washington Bureau.

Joe Lieberman’s longtime Democratic allies grew practically apoplectic as he backed John McCain for president, stumped for the Republican candidate and criticized Barack Obama.

So when Obama won and Democrats cemented their hold on Congress, liberal activists demanded the independent Connecticut senator be tossed out of the Democratic caucus, and some Democratic senators called for him to be stripped of his committee chairmanship.

But none of that looks like it’s going to happen.

Instead, when Senate Democrats vote this morning, they are likely to ask Lieberman to step down from chairing two subcommittees -- and allow him to keep running the homeland security and governmental affairs committee he now heads.


Sometime between the heat of the presidential campaign and now, the passion for retribution cooled dramatically. Much of that may have been because of the president-elect. Last week, Obama said he believed Lieberman should continue to work with the party.

One senior Democratic Senate aide said that before Obama made his feelings known, more senators than not thought Lieberman should “pay the price.” But, the aide expects “the caucus to follow [Obama’s] lead.”

As part of a deal, Lieberman might give up chairmanship of two subcommittees, one a panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the other of the environment and public works committee.

The compromise, should it occur, would provide an anticlimactic ending to one of the more stirring subplots of the presidential campaign.

Already unpopular with many rank-and-file Democrats after running and winning as an independent candidate in Connecticut in 2006, Lieberman stirred even more resentment when he not only campaigned for McCain but suggested that Obama was not ready to be president.

“I am one who does not feel that somebody should be rewarded with a major chairmanship after doing what he did,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in an interview with Vermont Public Radio last week. “But I felt that some of his attacks that he was involved in against Sen. Obama. . . . I thought they went way beyond the pale.”

After meeting this month with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about his future, Lieberman suggested that he could join the Republicans if he lost his chairmanship.

That too may have contributed to the Democrats’ more sober approach. There’s a real-world reason for not coming down on Lieberman too harshly. Even after the results of three still-contested Senate races come in, Democrats are likely to be short of the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority they have sought. Lieberman’s support -- and perhaps his ability to work with moderate Republicans -- could be crucial in moving some big-ticket pieces of legislation.

Another senator could also face a verdict today from some longtime political friends.

Republican senators may consider expelling Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) from the party’s Senate caucus, a prelude to his potential expulsion from the Senate altogether. Stevens was convicted on seven felony corruption counts last month.

His political future may be more decisively settled by the voters of Alaska, who seem poised to deny him another term. Stevens, a 40-year veteran of the Senate, is trailing his Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, in a close count that is not likely to be concluded until later this week.

Nonetheless, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has promised to force a vote on a resolution that would ostracize Stevens and strip him of his committee assignments, including his post as top Republican on the appropriations committee.

“This is an important moment for the Republican Party,” said Wesley Denton, a DeMint spokesman. “It’s important we clean our own house and not sweep this under the rug.”

Some Republicans say they are inclined to postpone the vote until after the outcome of Stevens’ reelection contest. Stevens was one of the most popular and influential of Alaska’s politicians until his conviction for falsifying financial disclosure forms. He has appealed.

The Lieberman and Stevens sagas come at a remarkably turbulent time for a body that typically changes little from session to session. Two of its members, Obama of Illinois and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), are moving on to the White House, the latter after serving in the Senate for 35 years. Several other well-known senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), are under serious consideration for Cabinet posts.

Two of the longest-serving members, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), are facing health challenges. Byrd, who turns 91 this week, has stepped down from leading the powerful appropriations committee. Kennedy, 76, who is battling a brain tumor, returned to Capitol Hill on Monday for the Senate’s lame-duck session.

Other familiar senators, such as Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) are retiring, and another, Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), lost her bid for reelection.

And the makeup of the next Senate remains in flux, with seats in Georgia and Minnesota, as well as the Stevens seat in Alaska, still undetermined. Democrats have picked up six seats since election day.