Lieberman Keeps Homeland Security Chairmanship

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In a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, Sen. Joe Lieberman's colleagues voted to allow the Democrat-turned-Independent to keep his prized post as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizz talks about Lieberman's political future.

ALISON STEWART, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Here are the headlines for some of stories we're following today here at NPR News. Auto executives make their case on Capitol Hill for emergency financial aid. Representatives from the big three, GM, Ford and Chrysler say they need about $25 billion to stay afloat. And, President Bush announced several steps aimed at preventing travel problems during the holiday travel season. One would be to open more military air space to commercial flights. That could ease delays in bad weather. You can hear details on those stories and more later today on NPR News. Tomorrow on this show, Nebraska legislators intended to protect unwanted babies when they pass a safe haven law. But now even teens are being abandoned by their parents. We'll look at safe haven and the unintended consequences. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation form NPR News. Now, this morning in closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, Senator Joe Lieberman's colleagues voted in secret whether to allow the Democrat turned Independent to remain in the Democratic caucus and if he would get to keep his priced post as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Does he stay or does he go? Drum roll, please. By a vote of 42 to 13, Senator Lieberman stays. But, some may forgive but not forget.

Why do you think Democrats voted to keep him in his position? What's the value to having different voices with any political party? The number here, 1-800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. To fill us in on what this means for the new session in Congress, we're joined by Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. He's with us form the studios of the Christian Science Monitor here in Washington. Hi, Ryan.

Mr. RYAN LIZZ (Reporter, The New Yorker): Hey, how are you, Alison?

STEWART: I'm swell. Tell me, was this a surprise that he's going to retain the big position at Homeland Security?

Mr. LIZZ: Well, it stopped being a surprise. You know, yesterday when things started leaking out that this is the direction that the Democratic caucus was going in. But a week ago, I don't think anyone would have predicted this. It's seemed like that Committee chairmanship was really on the chopping block for Joe Lieberman. And the critical moment came when Barack Obama reportedly picked up the phone, called Senator Harry Reid and said you know what, I don't think, you know, I want you to do what you need to do to keep Senator Lieberman in the Democratic caucus.

And Lieberman had signaled that if he lost his chairmanship - the Homeland Security chairmanship, that he was probably going to walk out of the caucus and join the Republican Party or at least caucus Republicans. So that the Democrats decided to listen to one of the first decisions that President-elect Obama has had to make which is, you know, kissing and making up with one of his biggest critics during the presidential campaign.

STEWART: Now, was he penalized in any other formal way? After all he spoke at the Republican convention which many people thought oh, that's it. He's crossed the line. He's not just supporting a colleague and a friend. He's actually speaking at the opposing party's convention. There needs to be some sort of penalty - and I guess it's the right word. Did anything else happen?

Mr. LIZZ: That's right, and he broke his own rule. He originally said he would just say nice things about John McCain. In the end he said some very critical things about Obama at one point raising the question of whether Obama was a Marxist or not. And so, there was a slap on the wrist. He lost one of his sub-committee assignments. He had a seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee and the sub-committee there that he was the chairman of it's the - I believe it's the Private Sector and Consumer Solutions To Global Warming and Wildlife Protection. I mean, at least he won't have to say that anymore. So this was the compromise that they worked out. He would lose this minor position but keep the real gem, which is Homeland Security.

STEWART: So those are the formal ways in which this has been presented. Let's talk back room. Will he be penalized in any sort of informal way? Will he be the kid that nobody wants to sit with at lunch?

Mr. LIZZ: Well, you know, that is a good question. He has been that person ever since he endorsed John McCain. Now some of the stuff that has been reported since this meeting this morning is that Joe Lieberman actually apologized for some of the comments he made during the campaigns. Some of the comments, some of the critical comments he made about Obama. He said he went too far at times and he apologizes for that. He also said - he also made some heartfelt statements about being an outcast in his party in 2006 after he lost his primary to Democrat Ned Lamont in Connecticut. He said he felt betrayed by Democrats who supported Ned Lamont over Lieberman in the general election when Lieberman ran as an Independent.

So he sort of reviewed his sort of odd political history of the last few years and tried to put this recent episode in the context, this recent episode is supporting McCain and opposing Obama, in the context of what happened in '06. And, it sounded to me like he was almost trying to start over like he was signaling to the Democrats that after a wild ride, he sort of one them again. And ,you know, look, we now have three data points in the first few weeks of the Obama transition, that Barack Obama is somewhat serious about this, you know, trying to get pass some of the old Partisan politics.

He's looking at Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. He, you know, he tried - he made sure that Joe Lieberman's stayed with the Democrats and you know, he had a sort of heart-to-heart meeting with John McCain yesterday. So at least all the optics here are that Obama is trying to set a tone where, you know, where bearing the hatchet is important than holding a grudge.

STEWART: All right. We've got some callers on the line who may not agree with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: With (unintelligible) like Obama's plan let's talk to Michael in Fresno, California. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

STEWART: OK. I'm doing well. So you think it was a mistake not to remove Lieberman.

MICHAEL: I do. You know, I really do admire Senator Obama's policy on trying to, you know, meeting with Senator Clinton, meeting with Senator McCain, but there has to be situations where the party has a zero tolerance policy, because when he's going to want to get legislation passed he needs to know - he count on the Democrats and not have to worry about factions. Joe Lieberman went too far not once, not twice but several times against Barack Obama, and he is now the head of the party. So, I think that it is absolutely wrong, and the Democrats need to show some back bone. I mean, they just appointed Rahm Emanuel to be Chief-of-Staff, they need to reflect that kind of politics where you need to really - I bet pull in all the Democrats together. And Joe Lieberman is not a Democrat anymore, he's just not.

STEWART: All right. Michael out of Fresno, thanks so much. Does Michael have a point? Joe Lieberman is not a Democrat anymore, really?

Mr. LIZZ: You know it's a great question. He has continued to vote on most issues except some of the big national security issues with the Democratic Party, but I have to tell you watching him campaign with John McCain at some of these events this year, he certainly didn't look or sound like a Democrat. And certainly at the Republican convention it was hard to tell he was a Democrat. I think you've got thing of the - if you're Barack Obama, you want to think of the big picture. Do you want to start your presidency off on a note of expelling or punishing a member of the caucus that would lead to his - his leaving that caucus?

Do you want to start things off on that note or do you keep your eye on the prize? And, the prize is his passing his agenda? And, if you want to pass your agenda this Joe Lieberman remaining in the Democratic caucus help you accomplish that goal more than Joe Lieberman leaving and if you just look it from that sort of clear eyed perspective, I think you might realize - I think Obama realized keeping Lieberman on his team in a way that Lieberman is now going to owe Barack Obama in a major way is more valuable than punishing him and having him leave the party.

STEWART: Who else does Joe Lieberman owe a cup of coffee to? Who was on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIZZ: Well, it sounds like the guys that stuck up for him at this caucus meeting today were John Kerry and his old Connecticut colleague Christopher Dodd. And Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman have been friends for a very long time, but really had a falling out over the 2006 race when, you know, when all the good Democrats had to support the Democratic nominee which was Ned Lamont.

STEWART: I keep saying this goes back to - discussions with friends like you've think, you know, Joe Lieberman is probably somewhere just still mad about Ned Lamont.

Mr. LIZZ: Absolutely and he - you know, he brought it up to day, that tells you all you need to know. He actually brought that race up today, that was a searing experience for this guy. Imagine going from being your party's vice presidential nominee and two years later you are an outcast in that party. You're defeated in a primary and all of your Senate and colleagues in the general election support your opponent and not you. So you know, that led - I think that made it him much easier for him to support John McCain this time around. And maybe, I'm not, you know, I'm not saying this for sure, but maybe Lieberman now comes full circle and sort of with his tail between his legs tries to sort of make nice with his colleagues and becomes a little bit more of the Democrat going forward.

STEWART: We're speaking with Ryan Lizz, a Washington and correspondent for The New Yorker magazine, about Joe Lieberman today who was voted to still be able to pal around with - pardon that - to - with the Democratic caucus as well as retain his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Why do you think that both Democrats voted keep his position? What's the value to having different voices in any political party? Our number here is 1-800-989-8255, the email address is talk@npr.org. We're going to you Amika(ph) who was calling us from Kansas. Where are you, Amika?

AMIKA (Caller): I'm in the (unintelligible) Kansas.

STEWART: OK. So what's you thought on this?

AMIKA: Yeah. I just was going to say Joe Lieberman's reelection to the Senate in 2004 - 2006 and Obama's election this year around - was like an eye for an eye. But I think he would not be reelected to the Senate, but on the other hand- it's better that the Democrats allowed him to stay that way we don't look like, you know, the - this period the Democrat lost basically.

STEWART: All right, Amika, thank you so much. Does he have a point, Ryan?

Mr. LIZZ: Well, yeah and look - the Democrats now are closing in on that magic number the Senate which is 60. If three races outstanding - there's a chance they could win all three, they're at 57 Democrats right now and who's Lieberman?

STEWART: Remind people what those three races are?

Mr. LIZZ: Well, there's one in Minnesota and one in Alaska where they're still doing some counting and then there's one in Georgia where there's going to be a run off. There's a chance, you know, the things are looking are good for the Democrats in Alaska and Minnesota. And if Georgia's probably looking a little better for the Republicans, but you know, they'll probably get the 58-59 once those races are decided and that means they only have to pull over a one or two Republicans to pass - to have legislation that cannot be filibustered.

So you know, it makes - having Lieberman on the team not angry and sort of owing the Democrats, owing his leadership and owing Barack Obama is better from the point of view of someone who wants to pass through Barack Obama's agenda, then having him angry and sort of - and voting against Obama's agenda in voting with the Republicans. So I think it's - on Obama's part I think it's a pretty practical decision here and it shows that - it shows two things about Obama.

One, this sort of pragmatism keeping the eye on the ball, the long-term goal of passing the agenda. And two, to trying to put some meat on this sort of fuzzy idea that he talked about a lot during the campaign of getting beyond some of the old partisan politics in Washington, which often can just sound like, you know, like a politician, just rhetoric. But in this case, I think he's actually, you know, there's some meat here.

STEWART: Matt from Denver poses a question to us. Hi, Matt.

MATT (Caller): Hi. Yeah, it looks like this shows just how shrewd President-elect Obama really is. He's able to succeed in having dissenting voices in his administration. Here he'll have a politician basically beholding to him, and hopefully they'll be able to avoid a lot of mistakes of the current administration as one as speaking with just one voice. And I'll go ahead and take the response off the air.

STEWART: Thanks, Matt. Can you give us an example - a practical example, Ryan, where President Obama, let's say in a year can call in this favor.

Mr. LIZZ: It's a good question. I mean, look, there's a lot - Lieberman is - despite losing his position on the committee. Lieberman has been a leader on global warning. You know every piece of Obama's agenda, Lieberman is going to - you know, is going to be an important voice, energy independence, Iraq especially. And I think that'll be a big task of how much Lieberman feels like he owes Obama.

Remember, Lieberman is diametrically opposed to Obama's position on Iraq. Lieberman is very critical of Obama during the campaign. It will be very interesting to see if they come a little bit closer, so that may be a big important issue where Obama might want to call in a chit(ph) where he might say, look you need to tone down your criticism. This is the direction I'm going on Iraq.

STEWART: We're speaking with Ryan Lizz about Joe Lieberman getting to play nice with the Democrat. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart along with Ryan Lizz. We're talking about Joe Lieberman and the vote today to allow him to continue to the caucus with the Democrats as well as retain his post. He's chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. OK, I have sort of a 2.0 question.

Mr. LIZZ: OK.

STEWART: The vote was done in secret.

Mr. LIZZ: Yes.

STEWART: Now, things don't stay secret very long in the world of the Internet. Is it possible we could find out who voted which way?

Mr. LIZZ: You know it's secret internally as well. You know, so even the senators who were there don't know how their colleagues voted.

STEWART: Hmm.

Mr. LIZZ: So the only way to truly know is to ask these guys, and of course they don't have to be truthful. It's probably in their interest now to say they voted the way the vote actually came out.

STEWART: And my other 2.0 question is...

Mr. LIZZ: Yes.

STEWART: The net roots clearly are not going to be happy about this.

Mr. LIZZ: Yes.

STEWART: In terms of how the story has legs or keeps on going, how influential do you think the net roots will be in terms of making Joe Lieberman pay for supporting John McCain?

Mr. LIZZ: Look Joe Lieberman is the white whale of the net roots. The net roots that the - one of the great victories of the net roots is a pyrrhic(ph) victory in the end, but the Ned Lamont defeat of Joe Lieberman in the primary. Of course, Lieberman won as an independent after that. And so they've - and once Lieberman endorsed McCain, it made things even worse. And you know, they were pressuring Democratic senators to vote to strip Lieberman of this chairmanship. So, they put a lot on the line here, and I think a lot of people interpret this as the net roots not being as influential with Democrats as some folks think they are. And I don't know where they go or what they can do. There's not - you know, there's not a whole lot those guys can do now. They put a lot in this battle and Democrats decided not to go with them on it.

STEWART: All right, I'm going to go to Hugh in Oakland, California. Hugh, you have to make it really quick. You bring up a really interesting question.

HUGH (Caller): Yes, what happens if Mr. Lieberman decides not to follow Mr. Obama and decides he doesn't owe Mr. Obama any favors on Iraq? It said in The New York Times article today, Mr. Lieberman had also signaled that losing the chairmanship with the Homeland Security panel would be unacceptable to him. It sounds like he's negotiating from power, not weakness.

STEWART: What if Lieberman doesn't compromise? What do you think? Quickly, Ryan.

Mr. LIZZ: Well, if he doesn't - you know, there's nothing you can do. The decision has been made not to expel him.

STEWART: Yup.

Mr. LIZZ: And you're absolutely right. He can be his own man and decide that he doesn't owe Obama anything. And you're absolutely right about that. And it's a risk Obama takes.

STEWART: I like this one, to be continued. Ryan Lizz is Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. He spoke to us from the studios at the Christian Science Monitor here in Washington D.C. Nice to speak with you, Ryan.

Mr. LIZZ: Thank you, Alison.

STEWART: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart.

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Democrats Let Lieberman Keep Chairmanship

Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman will remain as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, after Democrats voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to let him to stay despite his support for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

"This is the beginning of a new chapter, and I know that my colleagues in the Senate Democratic Caucus were moved not only by the kind words that Sen. Reid said about my longtime record, but by the appeal from President-elect Obama himself that the nation now unite to confront our very serious problems," Lieberman said after the vote.

Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he was very angered by Lieberman's actions during the presidential election but that "we're looking forward, we're not looking back."

"It's very clear that the vast majority of the Democratic Caucus wants to keep Sen. Lieberman as chairman of his committee, member of the Armed Services Committee, and that was done. It's all over with. Joe Lieberman is a Democrat. He's part of this caucus," Reid told reporters following the verdict.

Senate Democrats voted 42-to-13 to allow Lieberman to hang onto his chairmanship. The vote happened behind closed doors on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, after Lieberman defended himself before his colleagues. The Senate's only other independent, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, is one of those who thought Lieberman deserved a stronger rebuke.

"I voted against that Lieberman resolution. I think it will be a disappointment to millions of people who worked very hard for Barack Obama, but now is the time to move on," he said.

Lieberman, who became an independent after losing the 2006 Democratic primary in his state, has continued to sit with the Senate Democratic Caucus, despite his vocal support for McCain and criticism of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. After Obama's decisive win, however, Lieberman's chairmanship of the prized Homeland Security Committee had been thrown into doubt.

But Lieberman's chances of keeping the post were bolstered in recent days, as President-elect Obama signaled Democratic leaders not to punish the Connecticut senator, who was Democrat Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000.

Obama reportedly told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada it would hurt the message of unity that he wants for his new administration if Lieberman leaves the Democratic caucus. Reid met with Lieberman last week and was initially inclined to strip him of the Homeland Security Committee chairmanship, according to a Senate Democratic aide.

Instead, Lieberman will have to forfeit the much less prestigious chairmanship of a subcommittee to the Environment and Public Works Committee. That move allows Lieberman to save face, as it comes amid a general reshuffling of Democratic subcommittee chairmanships designed to comply with long-standing caucus rules limiting the number of such posts.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are preparing for a bruising battle on Wednesday over who will control the Energy and Commerce Committee. Michigan Rep. John Dingell, 82, is trying to defend his leadership of the Energy and Commerce Committee against 69-year-old California Rep. Henry Waxman.

Energy and Commerce is likely to be an increasingly powerful committee in the new Congress, as it will have say over health care and energy legislation, expected to be cornerstone issues of an Obama White House.

The challenge to Dingell, the longest-serving House Democrat, has become more poignant in recent days, as he has long championed Michigan automakers that are now hat-in-hand before Congress.

The 50-odd freshmen in the House are key to the ultimate outcome. Few of them remember the heyday of Dingell's congressional career. Their vote in the caucus could go to the younger Waxman.

The incoming members are getting lobbied from both sides.

"I knew both of them and admired both of them," said Rep.-elect Dan Maffei (D-NY), who previously served in various staff positions on Capitol Hill. "It's a tough vote for all of us," he said of the expected showdown.

From NPR and wire reports

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