How Lieberman Kept His Post: "The Meeting Was Political Theater"

On Tuesday, the Democratic Senate caucus decided to let Joe Lieberman retain his chairmanship atop the Homeland Security committee. But by the time the Connecticut independent's future came to a vote, the outcome was for all intents and purposes a fait accompli.

Sources on Capitol Hill say there was little to no opportunity for Senators angry at their recalcitrant colleague to fully register their disagreements. Only one resolution -- one that kept Lieberman in his post but took away his position on an environmental and public works committee -- came to the floor, and it clearly had the support to pass. Senators could voice their displeasure or vote nay. But in the end, as one aide says, "the meeting was theater."

"The result was preordained going in," said the source. "Leadership worked out a resolution and presented it to the caucus, and it was clear there wasn't going to be any vote on stripping Joe of his gavel. At that point, the caucus wasn't going to stiff [leadership] so obviously."

And yet, in practical political terms, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also has his hands tied. President-elect Barack Obama had let it be known that he wanted Lieberman to remain in the caucus, while a variety of other factors undercut the cut-Lieberman-lose-movement.

"They had more than two and a half weeks to organize around this," said one high-ranking aide who favored Lieberman being stripped of his post. "And the fact of the matter is, Reid basically met with Lieberman 48 hours after the election was over. During that time it seemed like he was leaning towards stripping Lieberman of his committee chairmanship. But once that word came out, the only folks who were organized were the pro-Lieberman supporters."

The problem, the aide reluctantly ceded, was an absence of coordinated progressive leadership. While the pro-Lieberman allies were out in force -- led by Sens. Chris Dodd, Ken Salazar, Tom Carper, and Bill Nelson -- the Senators who wanted a harsher punishment held their cards tightly. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders ultimately let it be known that they wanted Lieberman punished, but they did so on a dead-news Friday. Meanwhile, no alternate resolution was bandied about, according to the aide, nor were there serious public objections to the resolution ultimately passed.

The lack of movement left many in the netroots community -- which had long soured on Lieberman and predicted the divisive role he would play in the general election -- fuming. What offense is more punishable, after all, than actively campaigning against one's own political party?

But the exasperation may have had hurt their cause. As one member of this community lamented: "Instead of being just critical of Lieberman, we should have made the case that another Senator could do the job at Homeland Security better."

The truth is that the progressive movement had been making just such a case for several years, starting with complaints that Lieberman had done a poor job investigating allegations of corruption and waste in the Bush administration. During the presidential campaign, moreover, the movement to remove Lieberman from the Homeland Security post was cast as much as a step toward Obama's "change" agenda as political payback.

But when the rubber hit the road and Obama effectively said that retribution was not an option, there was little to work with.

"When it came down to it, however, the people with the big megaphones -- the president elect of the United States and a handful of sitting US Senators -- were able to cast the dispute in the light of Obama's campaign messaging, and reduce the vote to an act of kumbayah," said Jane Hamsher, of Firedoglake. "There were no Senate leaders trying to oust Lieberman -- nobody is going to go against the most exclusive club in the world. We could've picked an unwilling hero I suppose ("ooh, wouldn't Frank Lautenberg make the awesomest Homeland Security Chair"), but unless you can make the argument that Lieberman is not doing his job, why would anyone care?"

In the end, it seems, there was more willingness to punish Lieberman than the final vote (42-13) suggests. But a bevy of factors got in the way, from Obama's intercession to the quick movement of the forgive-Lieberman forces. Finally, there was the realization that, perhaps, other fights were more important.

"There are so many gigantic problems to confront, dealing with Unctuous Joe is the least of our worries," said one aide. "It's annoying, but with the auto industry teetering, our economy rapidly slowing, an Administration that's the lamest duck I've ever seen, while I wish we could've just dealt with this more firmly, it's inside baseball that doesn't make a difference in people's lives."

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