Lieberman shunned, oversight panel post in peril

Democrats say they were "disappointed" by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman's speech at the Republican convention.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., was virtually shunned by other Democrats when he returned to the Senate Monday, fueling increased speculation that his days as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and perhaps as a member of the Democratic Caucus, are numbered.

Democrats said on Tuesday that Lieberman will no longer attend Democratic Party lunches. "Sen. Lieberman has chosen not to attend Democratic Caucus lunches and that is his choice," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Lieberman's speech at the Republican National Convention last week, delivered to a national television audience in support of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, appears to have been the last straw for many Senate Democrats, as members and staff who previously avoided publicly criticizing the senator on Monday showed a new willingness to condemn his conduct.

The criticism started at the top. Reid, who before the convention had gone to great lengths to portray Lieberman as solidly Democratic on most policies unrelated to the Iraq war, took the unusual step of lashing out at his colleague publicly through his press aides, who indicated Reid "was very disappointed" in the speech.

Rank-and-file Democrats followed Reid's example Monday afternoon. On their way to and from a vote, they expressed their disapproval.

"I urged him not to give it," said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del. "I know that a number of my colleagues did as well. There were parts of it that I found disappointing."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D- Calif., called the speech "hurtful," while Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said, "To go ahead and bash our candidate, that went beyond where they needed to go."

Lieberman, who just eight years ago was the Democratic candidate for vice president, said Monday night he had not yet spoken to Democratic Senate colleagues, but noted, "I'm sure a lot of them are disappointed. But I am doing what I think is right and I am going to let the future take care of itself."

Any decision is likely not to come until after the election, in part because the Democratic majority in the Senate requires Lieberman to caucus with them. If he caucused with Republicans before the election, in which Democrats are expected to pick up seats, ties in the 50-50 Senate would be broken by Vice President Cheney, essentially putting Republicans in charge.

"I would say he's out, but there are a lot of things that have to be worked through," said an aide who works on committee issues. "It's not going to be an easy decision ... He's made it easier, but it's still hard."

While strong in his backing of McCain, Lieberman remains close to some Democrats and continues to contribute to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, giving close to $200,000 in the last two years through his campaign committee and PAC.

Whatever they might be plotting for January, Democrats will need his vote for the rest of this year. McCain will be hard-pressed to return for votes between now and the election, but so will Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. Democrats can also subtract Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., from the equation, as he is still recovering from treatment for brain cancer and is not expected to return until January.

That leaves Democrats and Republicans with 48 senators each, short of the 60 votes Reid needs to pass almost anything. "The majority is just too slim," one Democratic aide lamented. But the same aide said those considerations will change in 2009.

"Lieberman speaking at the GOP convention was really a slap in the face to the Democratic Party and those colleagues that have supported him," the aide said. "It's difficult to come up with a scenario where he remains chairman next year."

Republicans, meanwhile, are stepping up efforts to convince Lieberman to switch parties. Though Lieberman has said he will keep caucusing with Democrats this year, some Republicans said they hope Lieberman will join Republicans before the election.

Should Lieberman no longer be chairman next year, whether through ouster by Democrats or appointment to a McCain administration, Carper is likely to take over as chairman, staffers who work on committee issues said. Carper declined to say whether he would pursue the post. "For now, my hope is that he will remain the committee chairman," he said of Lieberman.

Though Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has seniority on the panel, Senate aides suggested he would likely choose and be encouraged by leaders to continue chairing the Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, who also has more seniority than Carper, would presumably stay on as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, putting Carper, who has been active as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Financial Management Subcommittee, in line for the chairmanship.

A committee spokeswoman and spokesmen for Akaka and Carper declined to comment.

Lieberman's speech was the latest example of the senator distancing himself from his party. After losing Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary in 2006 but still winning re-election as an independent, Lieberman endorsed the re-election bid of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in April 2007. Late last year he endorsed McCain, and has campaigned on his behalf.