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At this time a year ago, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman was in the political fight of his life. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, who unlike Lieberman sharply opposed the Iraq war, had mounted a strong primary challenge. Though Lamont won that primary, Lieberman held on to his seat by running as an independent.
In Washington, Lieberman caucuses with Senate Democrats. But as NPR's David Welna reports, he's also kept a closely divided Senate guessing about what his next move might be.
DAVID WELNA: Full disclosure here, reporters have never been sure just what to call Senator Joe Lieberman since he beat a Democrat to keep his seat. Some have called him a Democrat, others an independent. Lieberman says he prefers independent Democrat.
Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent Democrat, Connecticut): That means that I was elected as an independent, but that I remained a Democrat. But I'm a different kind of Democrat as a result of what happened last year.
WELNA: Lieberman clearly remembers which of his colleagues supported him and which didn't. Only five or six Senate Democrats, by his count, campaigned for him in the general election.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: And I had some of my most disappointing moments in my political career last year. But ultimately, I also had the best, most vindicating, encouraging and inspiring moment when the election as an independent worked out. So it has been a liberating experience.
WELNA: Just how liberating? Well, consider Lieberman's appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation" earlier this month, where he shocked Democratic colleagues by suggesting the U.S. take what he called aggressive military action against Iran.
(Soundbite of CBS program "Face the Nation")
Sen. LIEBERMAN: To me, that would include a strike into - over the border into Iran where we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers.
Mr. SCOTT McLEAN (Chairperson of Political Science Department, Quinnipiac University): People responded to that with sort of shaking of the head, well, there goes Joe again.
WELNA: Quinnipiac University political science chair Scott McLean says Lieberman's Connecticut constituents already knew their senator, who's an Orthodox Jew, is one of the biggest hawks in Congress when it comes to the Middle East.
Mr. SCOTT McLEAN: Even when he suggests air strikes against Iran, you know, he has strong Republican support and a good chunk still of the Democrats. It's not as if Joe Lieberman has switched parties, it's always been that way with Joe Lieberman. He's always had strong Republican support in the state.
WELNA: And he's returned the favor to other Republicans. Last week in Washington, Lieberman raised eyebrows hosting a fundraiser for Maine's Susan Collins, a top Republican on the Homeland Security Panel he chairs. Collins clearly relishes Lieberman's apostasy.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I'm delighted that he helped the fundraising for me last week. Those attending said that never in their lifetimes had they ever seen a bipartisan fundraiser.
WELNA: New York Democrat Charles Schumer who's in charge of the drive to (unintelligible) Democrats one-seat Senate Majority next year, seemed clearly annoyed when asked about the Lieberman fundraiser.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): I'm not commenting.
WELNA: And Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, tried to sound conciliatory.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I mean, let's be honest. Since the last election, Joe has taken a more independent course. And so, I'm - I understand this completely.
WELNA: You're not dismayed?
Sen. DURBIN: Well, let me just say I'm a Democrat and I'll be supporting Democratic candidates, but I certainly understand what's going on
WELNA: What's going on, at least, according to Lieberman is that Democrats can still usually count on his vote.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: You know, I've continued, as I always have to vote, more often with the majority of Democratic senators than the majority of Republican senators, but obviously, on foreign and defense policy, I voted differently from most of the Democrats, certainly on the policy in Iraq.
WELNA: Indeed, Lieberman has repeatedly voted against Democratic measures this year aimed at winding down the Iraq war. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham is a close ally of Lieberman's on the war. He'd like to see Lieberman join his party's caucus and put Republicans back in charge of the Senate. But...
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I don't see Joe switching party affiliation. I think Joe will continue to play one of the most pivotal roles maybe in the history of the Senate. I mean, he is at a, you know, in a one-vote majority, basically, he's got a huge amount of influence. He's probably got more influence in his current role than if he jump ship.
WELNA: Still, Graham thinks Lieberman just might jump ship if he felt Democrats were getting, as he puts it, out of control on the war. I asked Lieberman if that's so.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: Lindsey is a wise young man. You know...
WELNA: Does he have a right on that comment?
Sen. LIEBERMAN: Well, that - I might want to be a little bit mysterious in my answer.
WELNA: Lieberman insists it's neither his desire nor his intention to switch parties, but he has not ruled it out either.
Sen. LIEBERMAN: The loudest voices is in the Democratic Party are taking positions not just on Iraq, but on the war on terror that I think are wrong and not consistent with the best tradition of the party. And right now that's where I choose to stay and fight.
WELNA: Have you been approached by any Republicans about switching?
Sen. LIEBERMAN: Mostly in just - I mean, one or two early on, in seriousness. I mean, and really quite sincerely if you ever really think about it, this is your decision, please come and talk to us.
WELNA: And with Senate Democrats planning to ramp up their oppositions to the war this summer and fall, Lieberman may find even more Republican suitors.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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