Sen. Lieberman's Future Democratic Relations

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Longtime Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman switched his party affiliation from Democrat to independent after he lost the Democratic primary in August. Which leads to the question: Will Lieberman be welcomed back by Democrats in the Senate if gets re-elected?

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And now one not-so-close race, this in Connecticut. Incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, is running as an independent after he lost the Democratic primary in August. And Senator Lieberman is beating the anti-war Democrat, Ned Lamont, who beat him in that primary. Senator Lieberman leading by double digits in recent polls. That got the explainer team at the online magazine Slate wondering what will the Democrats do if Senator Lieberman wins as an independent. Here with the answer, Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS: Actually, it looks like nothing will change. Lieberman says his independent affiliation won't matter at all if he goes back to Washington for the 110th Congress. According to Lieberman, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has promised him that he'd be welcomed back into the party if he got re-elected and that he'd keep all of his seniority and committee assignments.

In fact, when Democratic senators met for a weekly policy luncheon after the primary, Lieberman received an ovation.

If Reid and the Democrats follow through on that promise, Lieberman would be a member of the party for all intents and purposes. He'd caucus with the party, which means he'd get to attend and vote at party meetings. He'd remain the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and he'd get to hold on to his ranking on other assignments. The most significant difference between Joe Lieberman-independent and Joe Lieberman-Democrat would be the party affiliation printed in the newspapers.

The last senator to become an independent had a more dramatic effect on the upper chamber. In 2001, Vermont's Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party, and although he never formally joined the Democrats, he begun caucusing with them, which briefly gave the Democrats a Senate majority. Not everyone believes Lieberman's claim that he'd get to keep his seniority with the Democrats.

Minority Leader Reid won't confirm that he made that promise, and it's possible the decision would fall to a vote of the entire party caucus. If Lieberman were denied his rank, he might be tempted to caucus with the Republicans. But that would be very risky for him, since he's made it clear to his constituents that he's planning to stay with the Democrats.

CHADWICK: Andy Bowers is a senior editor for the online magazine Slate. That explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

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