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Lieberman Backers Stay Firm, Despite GOP Buzz

As Washington buzzed last week over the possibility that Senator Joseph Lieberman could throw his support to the GOP, several of the independent lawmaker’s most loyal Democratic backers continued to voice support for him.

Lieberman — who lost in Connecticut’s Democratic primary last year to businessman Ned Lamont, but won as an independent in the general election — vowed during the campaign to caucus with the Democrats. But speculation about a potential party switch has swirled around the senator for months, due to the tenuous Democratic majority in the Senate. The rumor mill reached a fever pitch last week, after Lieberman told Time magazine that joining the GOP was “a very remote possibility.”

One Democratic insider who stuck with Lieberman after his primary defeat told the Forward that, even among Lieberman’s backers, there are some pockets of discontent.

“There are people who have been unhappy with his intimating about a party switch,” the source said. When asked if he regretted his endorsement of Lieberman’s independent bid in 2006, the source hedged, saying, “I would like to have that conversation with him before I answer that.”

Other Lieberman backers were more skeptical about a party switch, and resolute in their support for him, even while acknowledging they disagreed markedly with the lawmaker’s support for President Bush’s Iraq policy.

“I’m a proud supporter of Senator Lieberman, glad that I endorsed him for re-election immediately after the Connecticut primary, and of course before the Connecticut primary, for that matter,” said California Representative Brad Sherman. “I disagree with him on the surge and about some of the other aspects of the Iraq policy, but agree with him on virtually every domestic issue.”

Michael Adler, a Miami Democrat who serves as chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told the Forward that while he disagrees with Lieberman on the war, the issue had not dampened his support for the senator. “I don’t believe we should have litmus tests within the Democratic Party that on a single issue we have decided what is only and what is unholy,” Adler said.

Lanny Davis, 60, a prominent Democrat who served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton and has been friends with Lieberman since the pair’s student days at Yale, predicted a party switch “will never happen” since it would not be in Lieberman’s character to leave the Democratic fold over an issue of conscience like Iraq.

Stressing that he was speaking based on his own knowledge of Lieberman and not anything the senator had told him, Davis said he believed that a caucus switch could be prompted only by extreme disrespect from Democratic senators — of the kind he said was foisted on Lieberman by Lamont’s backers. Underscoring the gulf between Lieberman and even some of his staunchest supporters on the issue of Iraq, Davis said he disagrees “100%” with Lieberman’s support of the president’s surge plan. “We should do anything other than get out immediately of the civil war … and get our kids out of the crossfire,” Davis said.

But Davis said he would continue politically to back Lieberman, who is the godfather to his son, Seth, as long as he does not give the GOP control of the Senate. “That is the only place that I draw the line,” Davis said. “He’ll be my best friend for life … but I will never vote for anybody who votes for Republican leadership of Congress.”

Lieberman appeared to be attempting to diffuse the speculation last week, during a February 23 appearance at an education forum in Hartford, Conn. “I have no desire or intention to leave the Democratic Party or the Democratic caucus,” Lieberman reportedly told the crowd. “I hope and believe we’ll never get to that point, so I believe this latest flurry is much ado about nothing.”

Lieberman’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, told the Forward that the senator fits best within the Democratic caucus.

“Obviously, he disagrees with many people in the Democratic caucus about Iraq, however he votes with the Democrats over 90% of the time,” said Wittmann, a chameleon-like politico who has worked for both the Progressive Policy Institute and the Christian Coalition, and was hired as the senator’s spokesman following the election. “He agrees with Republicans quite a bit on national security policy, but he agrees with Democrats quite a bit on domestic policy, which essentially puts him in the tradition of John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman and Scoop Jackson.”

When asked if any circumstance could prompt Lieberman to leave the Democratic caucus, Wittmann demurred. “We’re not going to get into any hypotheticals,” he said, chuckling. “I’m sorry.”

Whatever his intentions, Lieberman has continued to chart a course independent of many Democrats on several high-profile security issues. Last month he joined Senate Republicans in opposing a resolution against Bush’s plan for a surge of American troops in Iraq surge. Lieberman also broke with many Democrats by supporting a homeland security bill that combines anti-terror money with disaster funds and calls for all states to receive an automatic 45% of homeland security funding.

The bill, which would increase New York state’s share from $1.67 billion to $2.2 billion, but is not as generous as a competing measure in the House, also drew criticism from one of Lieberman’s most prominent Republican backers, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

One Democratic insider who did not want to be named said that he had been initially surprised at how many liberal Democrats backed Lieberman’s independent bid for Senate last fall. But not anymore.

“I haven’t heard people who were Joe supporters before say, ‘I’m giving up on him,’ or anything,” the insider said. “They may not agree with him on [Iraq], they may even be disappointed with how strong he is on this … but if you were going to leave Lieberman, you would have left him in the primary.”


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