Steadfast Lieberman Irks Democrats, Makes His Mark on Health Care

Published December 27, 2009

Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has emerged as a thorn in the side of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama, refusing to support any legislation which includes a public option, and ultimately using his key role to dictate the terms of the health care debate.

In an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation on December 13, Lieberman was asked what it would take to get his support for the bill.

“You’ve got to take out the Medicare buy-in,” Lieberman said. “You’ve got to forget about the public option.… We’ve got to stop adding to the bill. We’ve got to start subtracting some controversial things.”

After the interview, Lieberman met face-to-face with Reid, reiterating his intention to vote against the bill and support a filibuster if the Medicare buy-in and public option provisions remain intact. In the wake of the meeting, Reid removed both policy steps, achieving the 60 vote cloture threshold by effectively caving to Lieberman’s demands.

Democrats Peeved

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a longtime supporter of the public option, said Lieberman should resign as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee if he had supported a filibuster of the health care bill.

“He says he’s a principled guy, but there’s nothing principled about holding up a bill,” said Dean during a November 27 radio appearance on WABC. “If he was a principled guy he’d resign his chairmanship.”

According to a poll conducted by the activist groups Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America, 81 percent of Democrats said they would like to see the senator lose his chairmanship if he opposed the health care bill.

Yet after Reid bowed to Lieberman’s wishes, it was Dean who turned against the legislation.

“Honestly, the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill, go back to the House, start the reconciliation process, where you only need 51 votes and it would be a much simpler bill,” said Dean during a December 15 appearance on Vermont Public Radio.

Chairmanship at Risk

When it comes to Lieberman’s chairmanship, Michael Barone, author of the biannual Almanac of American Politics and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, points out Lieberman was allowed to keep his committee even after changing parties to win reelection in 2006. He also retained it after the 2008 presidential election despite supporting Republican candidate John McCain.

“Democrats have a principled reason—his support of McCain—to yank it if they want to,” said Barone. He points to a precedent in the House, where Democrats pulled the committee assignments of Rep. John Bell Williams following his support of Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election.

Scorched Earth

As for Dean, Mike Franc, vice president of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, characterized his statement as “his typical scorched-earth rhetorical style.”

“What Dean is saying is that opponents of legislation he wants to see enacted ought to fight with one hand tied behind their back,” said Franc. “A senator is obligated to use parliamentary procedure to further his policy agenda, and that includes Lieberman.”

Loren Heal ([email protected]) writes from Neoga, Illinois.