Lieberman: Enough Already?

Mention Joe Lieberman’s name to a Democratic activist these days and you’ll probably hear some variation of the question: This is what we get for letting him keep his chairmanship? It was last November, you’ll remember, that Senate Democrats opted to hand Lieberman—who had just spent nearly a year championing John McCain’s White House bid and savaging Barack Obama—the Homeland Security Committee gavel for another two years.

Obama himself was instrumental in the decision; it was supposed to be a nice way for the president-elect to show that he was serious about bridging partisan and ideological divides. Senate math was another factor: With Lieberman in the fold, Democrats edged closer to the magic, filibuster-killing number of 60 (a number they finally attained with Arlen Specter’s party switch and the end of the Franken-Coleman madness in Minnesota).

And now, a year later, Chairman Lieberman is doing more than anyone else in the entire Senate to derail the public option—the only component of any of the current health care reform bills, in the eyes of the left, that’s actually worth doing. He seems to have succeeded, too. It’s anyone’s guess what the final bill will look like, but no one now thinks a government-run insurance option will be part of it—not with Lieberman adamant that he’ll join a Republican filibuster to stop one.

Surely, then, this will be the last straw for Connecticut’s junior senator, and when the health care saga finally concludes, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats will strip Lieberman of his chairmanship and give him the boot. Right?

Fat chance. Lieberman is fairly well entrenched—at least for the near future.

First, he has a better relationship with Reid than most outside of Capitol Hill realize. It’s because Lieberman has actually been there for the majority leader most of the time since 2006 (when Lieberman was reelected to the Senate as an independent). Few of these votes attract any notice outside the Senate, but they are essential to Reid’s ability to keep traffic moving in the chamber. In 2008, for instance, Lieberman voted with Reid and the Democrats 81 percent of the time.

Republicans are working overtime to slow down the Senate with filibusters and other procedural roadblocks. Being able to count on Lieberman as the 60th vote—most of the time—matters greatly to Reid, and to many other Democrats.

Lieberman’s public approach to the public option is noteworthy. Yes, he’s made it clear that he’ll join a filibuster rather than let it come up for a final vote. But he also voted with the Democrats to kill the G.O.P.’s first filibuster—on whether a bill with a public option would even be debated on the Senate floor. That’s no consolation, obviously, to the Democratic base, but it was Lieberman’s way of signaling to Reid and other party leaders that he can still be useful to them—if not on health care, then maybe on the next issue that comes along.

Lieberman is also protected by his alliances with the chamber’s conservative Democrats. He may be the most vocal and absolute (non-Republican) opponent of a public option, but he’s also not alone. Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln are right there with him—and while all three of them rankle the Democratic base (almost) as much as Lieberman does, Senate Democrats aren’t about to discipline them for their disloyalty on health care. So how can they justify singling out Lieberman?

To be sure, there are plenty of Senate liberals who would like to be rid of Lieberman. But opinion within the Democratic caucus on the subject is complicated: Some absolutely want Lieberman gone, some absolutely want him to stay, and most are somewhere in between. As long as that’s the case—and as long as he’s helping to kill Republican filibusters 80 percent of the time—any push to dethrone him won’t reach critical mass.

Realistically, the earliest Lieberman’s status might change is after next November’s elections, which will probably introduce into the equation two new variables: a reduced Democratic majority and a new majority leader.

Losses for the Democrats in the 2010 midterms are inevitable. Exactly which Senate seats they will lose remains to be seen, but lose seats they will. This will weaken Lieberman’s hand considerably. As the Democrats’ 60th vote, he is the difference between action and inaction (sort of like he was in 2007 and 2008, when he was the Democrats’ 51st vote). But as the 55th vote, he’s nothing; his leverage will be shot. And the timing will be right to jettison him, too: Chairmanships and committee assignments are revisited after every election.

It’s also likely that one of next year’s Democratic casualties will be Reid himself. He is trailing—badly—in ’10 trial heats in Nevada, and the climate is wrong for him to make up much ground. Reid will try valiantly to win a fifth term, but he’ll probably lose. The new majority leader, then, will probably be Chuck Schumer or Dick Durbin.

By some accounts, Durbin was among those most eager to deny Lieberman the Homeland Security gavel last November—but gave in when Obama let his preference be known. And while he campaigned for Lieberman in his ’06 primary against Ned Lamont, Schumer has made the public option his pet cause this year—using the issue to demonstrate to Democrats his effectiveness as a legislative leader. He can’t be pleased at the lengths to which Lieberman has gone to kill it.

Chances are the new majority leader—if there is one next November—won’t be eager to make a deal with Lieberman. Nor will the White House.

Plus, by next November, Lieberman will be seriously thinking about his options for 2012, when his seat will be up. Winning a Democratic primary in Connecticut is out of the question: The same Democratic activists who are powerless to thwart him in the Senate will absolutely be able to deny him their party’s nod. And it’s very likely that Richard Blumenthal, the state’s mega-popular attorney general, will run as a Democrat. Lieberman would have no chance against him in a primary.

If he wants to run for reelection, Lieberman’s only real option would then be to join up with the G.O.P. and to run as their candidate in ’12 (or at least to strike an informal alliance with them, as he did in ’06). The aftermath of next year’s midterms would be the logical time for him to prepare for this.

When it comes to Lieberman and Senate Democrats, the divorce is probably coming. It’s just going to take a while until it’s official. Lieberman: Enough Already?