Aides to Senate Democratic leaders say Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman will be ousted as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee as payback for his Obama-bashing GOP convention speech — but only if the Democrats add four or five more seats to their slim Senate majority in November.
The Democrats’ anger with Lieberman has reached the boiling point, but it’s not yet clear whether his Senate colleagues are peeved enough to boot the party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee from the Democratic Caucus entirely.
The 66-year-old Connecticut independent has said he hopes to stay in the Democratic fold, although people close to him say he’s increasingly pessimistic about his prospects of doing so.
Lieberman returned to Capitol Hill Monday — his first day back since speaking at the convention — and was greeted by the resignation of his $120,000-a-year legislative director, Joe Goffman.
In a note to his colleagues, Goffman gave no reason for his departure — but indicated that he has no firm future plans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “had no intention” of disciplining Lieberman for merely backing John McCain, a Democrat close to the Nevadan said. But Reid became incensed, the Democrat said, by Lieberman’s attack on Barack Obama’s fitness to serve as commander in chief.
While Reid has publicly adopted a wait-and-see attitude on his longtime friend from Connecticut, he has told associates that Lieberman will lose his post “if we hit 55 or 56” seats, a gain of four or five freshmen in November, the person added.
Reid’s office had no comment Monday. But on Sept. 4, Reid spokesman Jim Manley accused Lieberman of distorting Obama’s record and warned, “The Democratic Caucus will likely revisit Lieberman’s situation after the November elections.”
Democrats currently hold a 51-to-49 advantage over Republicans, but only because Lieberman and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders caucus with them. Democratic leaders predict that dissatisfaction with the economy and the Iraq war will cost the GOP between three and seven seats this year — on top of the half-dozen seats picked up by Democrats in 2006.
“It just shows you how ticked off the Democratic leadership is with Joe,” said Jennifer Duffy, who monitors the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I would have expected the threshold for punishing him to be at around 57 or 58.”
Duffy predicted the threshold for punishing Lieberman “could go as low as 52” if he throws more brickbats at the Democratic ticket while campaigning with John McCain and Sarah Palin.
The hawkish Lieberman, who was reelected in 2006 as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to anti-war activist Ned Lamont, has been counseling Palin on foreign affairs ahead of her Oct. 2 vice presidential debate with Joe Biden.
Lieberman had suggested he wouldn’t attack Obama during his prime-time speech last week in St. Paul, Minn. When he mounted the podium, however, he launched into a sharp contrast of the two candidates.
“Sen. Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead,” he said. “But eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times.”
Despite the tough talk, Reid still hopes to keep Lieberman in the caucus. Nonetheless, stripping Lieberman of his chairmanship will set off a major Republican push to woo him, an effort likely to be led by his friends Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Of course, the day of reckoning could be avoided altogether if McCain wins and appoints Lieberman to a senior administration post.
“I think people are putting it aside for now, and they’ll deal with it after the election,” Lieberman told reporters shortly after the speech. “I’m not going to dal with it now because I’m focused on trying to help McCain.”
While their bosses fret the possibility of losing a Democratic seat, aides are baying for revenge at what they believe was a Lieberman betrayal. Mere mention of Lieberman’s name at a staff strategy session last week set off a wave of derisive laughter, according to an aide who was present.
For his part, Lieberman seemed to be fully aware of the impact his St. Paul broadside would have on Democrats.
“He knew he would be gone [from the caucus]. He was aware of that. He knew he was out when he decided to make that speech,” said a person close to Lieberman.
“It’s not imminent. He’s going to see what Harry and [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman] Chuck [Schumer] are going to do. But he’ll soon be out of both” his chairmanship and the caucus, the person added.