Democrats Appear To Agree To Lieberman's Demands
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It appears that Democratic leaders in the Senate have bowed to the demands of their independent colleague from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman. Over the weekend, Senator Lieberman put the Democrats on notice. They had to drop the main features of a compromise worked out last week or he would join Republicans to block the bill with a filibuster. Well, now Lieberman says he's close to backing the bill.
As NPR's David Welna reports, the senator has also angered a lot of people.
DAVID WELNA: Earlier this month, a news conference here at the Capitol featured two Senators: Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Democrat, who until last spring had been a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who used to be a Democrat. Specter is a big supporter of the Senate's health care bill and he pointedly nudged Lieberman about being a holdout on the bill.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): This bill may look so good to Senator Lieberman that he may be willing to make some accommodations.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): Very artfully done.
Sen. SPECTER: That's not - that's not a laugh line.
WELNA: As it turned out, not even a compromise struck last week by a group of 10 liberal and centrist Democratic senators could persuade Lieberman to make some accommodations. He rejected both its expansion of Medicare to cover uninsured people down to age 55, as well as its revamping of a public option so that users would be covered by private rather than government insurance.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: I thought I made myself clear all along. Obviously, I regret any misunderstanding.
WELNA: But as critics were quick to point out this was the same Joe Lieberman who told that Connecticut Post just three months ago that he'd been a supporter of expanding Medicare coverage to the age 55. Here's a clip from that interview.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: And what I was proposing was that they have an option to buy into Medicare early, and again on the promise that that would be less expensive than at the enormous cost�
WELNA: And here's Lieberman trying to explain that clip today.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: I finally got to see that on the TV last night and it looked to me like I was referring back to things I had supported in the past to make the point that though I was against the public option, I was not against health care reform.
WELNA: This afternoon, Lieberman went along with the rest of the Democratic caucus to the White House where President Obama tried to rally their unified support for the health care bill. Outside, a few dozen protesters organized by Moveon.org condemned Lieberman's hardball tactics.
Unidentified Group: Don't let Lieberman hijack health care. Don't let Lieberman hijack health care�
WELNA: Protester Donna Magee(ph) of Bethesda, Maryland, said Lieberman was acting solely on the interest of the big health insurance firms based in Connecticut.
Ms. DONNA MAGEE: I voted for him when he ran as vice president. And now he is completely turned the other way and is against all the things that we want.
WELNA: Speaking to reporters earlier today, Lieberman denied being in the pocket of Connecticut's insurers.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: I haven't received any pressure from the insurance companies and I mean it. Periodically, they'll talk to my staff about one thing or another, but I'm taking - I've never hesitated to take on the insurance companies.
WELNA: Meanwhile, the liberal Web site, Firedoglake.com has started a petition demanding that Lieberman's wife Hadassah be fired from her job as global ambassador for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a group seeking to cure breast cancer. Lieberman says he's deeply offended by such demands which cite his wife's past work for health insurance and drug lobbyists. Lieberman says he's acted in good faith.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: This has not been enjoyable time of my career. But I've done what I thought was right. And all along, I've said that I really wanted in the end to vote for health care reform because we need it. And I feel I'm very close to that point now. And I'm grateful for that.
WELNA: But Lieberman also acknowledges angering some in the Democratic caucus. West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller saw the public option he championed taken out of the health care bill at the behest of Lieberman.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): Anybody has the right to do that. I'm not saying it's a good thing. I'm not saying it's something that I've done. I've never done it. Maybe I should have.
WELNA: Rockefeller points to a stark reality: Lieberman can provide Democrats the crucial 60th vote they need to thwart a Republican filibuster. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is a good friend of Lieberman's. Graham says Lieberman has made himself the most relevant member of the Senate.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I think he's right for most Americans would expect senators to be and has to make up their own mind based on the facts. And, you know, Joe is like I say, he's aligned with the Democratic caucus. But he is an independent and I think he's leaving up to that label.
WELNA: And it's a label Lieberman says he wears with pride.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.