NPR logo Lieberman Takes Lead In The 'Me' Caucus

Lieberman Takes Lead In The 'Me' Caucus

All analogies between children and adults are inadvisable, but some are just irresistible.

If you have been watching the Senate Democrats lately, you cannot help thinking of them in terms of toddlers. Whether insisting on being the center of attention, threatening to hold their breath or wailing on long after bedtime, a handful of holdouts on the health care bill have made us all recall our personal adventures in baby-sitting.

This week, one whine has risen above the others, a solo rising from amid the choir. The familiar tones were those of Joseph Lieberman, an independent former Democrat from Connecticut, who chose to scuttle a historic compromise on health care insurance reached by other moderates and more liberal colleagues.

When he ran as the vice presidential candidate of his party (chosen by presidential nominee Al Gore) in 2000, Lieberman was very much an advocate of health care reform, as he was when he ran for president himself in 2004 and sought re-election in 2006 (losing the primary and winning in November as an independent).

But in the waning days of 2009, with the bill at a fragile moment, Lieberman emerged vowing to kill it over a provision that would allow people to buy into Medicare at age 55 rather than go without insurance. One advocate described the idea this way in proposing it in September: "By allowing citizens who are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid to buy in for a rate below the private market, the government can extend coverage to more of those who are currently uninsured."

That advocate was, remarkably enough, Joe Lieberman, who this week had little to say by way of explanation for his switch.

Didn't matter. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once again played the hapless hostage of the 60-vote rule. He knuckled under and agreed to take the provision out, prompting Lieberman to say that, with a few more adjustments, he could vote for the bill. The anger among his colleagues was palpable.

But all suggestions that the senator was doing the bidding of the insurance industry in his home state (and beyond) were dismissed by the man who made his name as the lecturing, hectoring, self-willed conscience of the Senate in the 1990s.

There has been a lot of water over the Democratic dam since then. Many more now recall Lieberman's outspoken support for GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 and his full-throated backing for the Iraq war under President George W. Bush.

Bitter as these episodes have been for Lieberman's relations with Democrats, he may still be smarting as much from the rejection of his own presidential ambitions in 2004. As the No. 2 man on the ticket that won the popular vote in 2000, Lieberman expected to be a major contender when Gore opted not to run four years later. Lieberman took Gore's place with great expectations, and his failure to gain traction was a shock to him. He bailed out of Iowa, where his prospects were bleak, to concentrate on New Hampshire, where he finished fifth with less than 9 percent.

Lieberman's isolation from his lifelong party reached a climax in 2006, when he lost his primary to businessman Ned Lamont and had to scramble back and win re-election as an independent. But in the Senate he has continued to caucus with the Democrats, who have allowed him to chair the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

And Lieberman is far from alone in playing the 60-minus-1 game. This week, when LIeberman said he was back in the fold, Roland Burris, the Democratic appointee of the dishonored, impeached and indicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, declared: "Until this bill addresses cost, competition, and accountability in a meaningful way, it will not win my vote."

It's tempting to provide a translation, such as: "This is my chance to hold out for something I want."

And why not? In weeks past we have seen one Democrat after another claim his or her hour of special pleading. We heard plenty from two in close-fought Southern states, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, the latter trailing in polls entering her re-election year. And we have been favored with endless videotape of Ben Nelson, the Democrat whose state of Nebraska is home to Mutual of Omaha.

Nelson has fixed on the issue of abortion and the possibility someone might have one using money provided (or freed up) under a provision — any provision — of the new legislation. Nelson is channeling his House-side colleagues who pushed a similar ban in the House, endangering the bill there.

The abortion funding issue is even more threatening to the fragile process in the Senate, of course, where Democrats need every vote they have to pass anything significant. That is because the Republicans, reduced to their smallest minority in the chamber in 30 years, have seized on their last weapon: the filibuster. They are willing to filibuster anything of note, forcing Democrats to gather 60 votes to stop the filibuster continually.

That is why the majority needed all 60 votes and a weekend session even to pass the omnibus appropriations bill. Not one Republican would vote for the basic measure that keeps the federal government functioning.

Given that degree of discipline on one side of the aisle, the inability of the Democrats to discipline their own offers stark contrast — and casts a dire shadow on prospects for the Obama program.

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