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Joe Lieberman's revenge


Brian Beutler details the role Joe Lieberman played in leading the Democratic opposition to the public option, and possibly killing it altogether:

After Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) threw down the gauntlet on the public option, political observers and liberal critics had no shortage of theories. Lieberman was rebelling against the liberal base. Lieberman harbors animosity about 2006. Lieberman is an egotist and wants the spotlight. Any or all of these theories might be true, but they obscured the more important, strategic rationale for his decision: With a 60 member caucus, and little to no Republican support, every Democrat has a pocket veto of the health care bill. Lieberman's explicit threat to use his veto was, in effect, checkmate on the public option in the Senate, and created breathing room for other public option skeptics to create the bloc that is now negotiating away the public option entirely.

Lieberman, impressively, did this without ever articulating a factually, or even theoretically, plausible case against the public option. His arguments -- that the public option would raise costs, in contradiction to the CBO's estimates and the way the bill actually works; and that America has "never before said, in a given business, we don't trust the companies in it, so we're going to have the government go into that business," in contradiction to the existence of Medicare, Medicaid, fire departments, etc -- were bunk. Obvious bunk. Possibly even self-conscious bunk.

But that only strengthened his position. There was no reason to think Lieberman was confused on the public option. But it became quickly clear that he had decided, for whatever reason, to kill the thing. And what were liberals going to do to stop him? He hated liberals. It was possible he was killing the public option to get back at liberals. Lieberman could credibly lead the opposition to the public option because there was nothing supporters of the public option could do to Lieberman that they hadn't already done. After all, what's the worst they could threaten? To beat him in a primary?

That does leave one stick, of course. Lieberman's chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But my hunch is he'll keep that, too. As Beutler correctly argues, Lieberman understands full well the math of a 60-vote Senate. Just as Democrats need his vote on this bill, they'll need his vote on the next. And that uneasy alliance will hold until 2012, when Democrats try to unseat him.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 7, 2009; 11:42 AM ET
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Next: Exclusive: Medicare buy-in attracting interest in the public option negotiations


Toss him. If he doesn't vote for the most important thing between now and 2012, to heck with "60."

Thanks, Obama, for campaigning for him!

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 7, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

This is why leaving him with his chairmanship intact was a mistake. If the Dems had put him on "probation" after the election, either taking away the chair for a 2-year period or threatening to do so after 2 years if he didn't stay in line, then Joe wouldn't have the leverage he does.

Posted by: DJAnyReason | December 7, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

"Lieberman, impressively, did this without ever articulating a factually, or even theoretically, plausible case against the public option."

LOL. He doesn't have to. He is the only member in a party with a constituency of one. However, in a few years, if he seeks reelection, he will have to do some powerful weaseling to get reelected. Though the last poll I saw still has him around 35% dem support. I don't know if that is enough, but blows me away wanting to ask what is wrong with Connecticut?

Posted by: arnold104 | December 7, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

If the threat of striping him of his chairmanship is successful, the Democrats can use it over and over. Plus, if that works, it'll make letting him keep the chairmanship in the first place look wise, and make Reid look like a strong leader.

Meanwhile, if Lieberman doesn't vote for the bill, and decides it's worth losing his chairmanship over, then you have to ask yourself, is this guy really a more reliable 60th vote than Snowe or Collins. As Ezra points out, he'd literally be voting against the bill for no particular reason. Why shouldn't we expect this to happen again and again?

Posted by: eerac | December 7, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

If the Dems don't take strong action against Lieberman the base will stay home. It's that simple.

Throughout this process, I have been relentless in putting the blame back on Obama because that's where it belongs. Having a highly partisan vote on a very weak pro-industry bill was the worst possible outcome.

Posted by: bmull | December 7, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

"Just as Democrats need his vote on this bill, they'll need his vote on the next"

Huh? Dems won't need 60 with each and every vote from here on out. It's not like Ben Nelson's going to join in filibustering every single bill -- it may look "centrist" now, but it looks like an unpopular, 1995-Newt Gingrich-shutting-down-government move after a while.

Plus, Lieberman's in freaking New England, not exactly a seat the Dems should be worrying about. The less power and limelight he has, the better.

Removing his chairmanship will stop his loose cannon act in its tracks. Let him move further into Zell Miller territory, so Dems won't be unnecessarily preoccupied by his antics.

Posted by: Chris_ | December 7, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

All of these various motivations of these handful of moderates, of course, would be a moot point if we had Senate leadership, and a president, that didnt worship at the altar of the Senate's 60-vote majority as if its declared in the Bill of Rights.

Since thats the way it is, we all can fret about Ben Nelson blowing a hole in a women's right to choose, Lieberman deciding to go on a jihad against the public option, Snowe trying to invoke some absurd "trigger" as if to push insurance companies on punishment.....all of this because we're not governed by a majority of votes in the Senate, but 60 votes.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 7, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

If Democrats allow one revenge-seeking egotist to prevent the American people from getting health care reform, they deserve every bit of the disdain with which the American people will treat them. Why should anyone vote for them?

Posted by: janinsanfran | December 7, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

"Having a highly partisan vote on a very weak pro-industry bill was the worst possible outcome."

Exactly ( I understand the bill is "better than nothing," but the politics of this are terrible.

Posted by: Chris_ | December 7, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Remember though, this bill just needs to clear the Senate to get to conference, where it will likely meet considerable change, Then the real fight begins in the Senate.

Posted by: arnold104 | December 7, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

lieberman is a connecticut senator

aetna and cigna are connecticut companies

there is no surprise in lieberman working on behalf of the interests of his connecticut "constituents"

it is surprising that there is surprise in the media that joe lieberman is an obstacle that the dems have to deal with

it is surprising that writers or their editors continually frame leiberman, a quintessential maverick senator, as a leader

it is not surprising that public option supporter chris dodd, another connecticut senator, and a leader within his faction, is also working on behalf of the interests of his connecticut "constituents"

in another world, the connecticut senators, singly or jointly, could negotiate an "everybody wins" strong public opton alternative with the health insurance industry

Posted by: jamesoneill | December 7, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The deal was that Leiberman got to keep his committee chairmanships, the benefits of being in the majority party, and we forget about him speaking at the RNC; in turn, he gives us #60.

He has broken the deal.
He must be punished.

Healthcare, first, though.

Posted by: adamiani | December 7, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

There has been considerable discussion recently about how fifty-five or six senators can be thwarted by four or five. The answer is pretty simple. Thirty-one members of the caucus need to sign a letter to Reid stating that if any member of the caucus votes no in a procedural vote to approve the bill or the conference committee report, the caucus should meet immediately after the vote with the intention of stripping that member of all committee assignments and rankings. If any member cannot be counted on to support the procedural vote on the signature vote of the party, then they don't deserve any further perks, chairmanships, etc.

Posted by: jimjinphx | December 7, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

I actually think that Ezra is mistaken on the "they need his vote" in the future count. They can't have Lying Lieb do this blackmail on every vote. At some point, they need to throw him out of the Caucus. He promised to vote with the party on procedural votes if he got his Chair. He broke that promise. You simply can't allow that level of flat out lining and flipping the bird at the rest of the Caucus.

If he wants to go over to the GOP, that's fine. If it's 59-41, then it becomes clear that it's reconcilliation time on everything. And they start crafting their arguments on why everything can jump past the Byrd Rule.

If you don't show Lieb that there are consequences to his actions, then all the rest of the Senators like Nelson will start playing blackmail. They are not all going to jump to a GOP that's so extreme to the right at this moment.


Posted by: toshiaki | December 7, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Why should any dem senators defy their leadership on PROCEDURAL votes????? The Dem caucus is extremely generous in allowing dems to vote against actual legislation that their own leadership supports, but voting against allowing business to proceed, obstructing their own leadership, effectively empowering the repiglicans in their obstructionist jihad is unacceptable!!!!

The Dems are playing by the old comity of the Senate rules and the Repiglicans are playing by the hard knuckled rules of institutional gridlock. Senators that don't allow votes to occur in the Senate are effectively emasculating their own leadership. Perhaps the leadership should do some emasculating of these naysayers themselves.

Posted by: srw3 | December 7, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

*The deal was that Leiberman got to keep his committee chairmanships, the benefits of being in the majority party, and we forget about him speaking at the RNC; in turn, he gives us #60.*

These guys have known Lieberman for 20 years. They hang out with Lieberman and call him their "friend." To admit that Lieberman is doing something wrong or stabbing them in the back would be to admit that they have poor character judgment and aren't any good at choosing friends. And who wants to admit that, especially Senators?

One of the aspects of the Senate that is so fascinating is the amount of social leverage Senators have over each other. No one wants to risk their personal relationships with other Senators, the power goes to the person most willing to engage in deniable, passive-aggressive betrayals and power-jockeying.

Posted by: constans | December 7, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Jesse Helms was powerful precisely because he didn't give a flying f*ck what his colleagues thought of him. He was a sour and unpleasant person. He invented the idea of introducing something for the sole purpose of making other people vote against it so he could use those votes against them in the next election and destroy them.

Lieberman also doesn't give a ff what his colleagues think of him or what difficulties he creates for them or the Dem Party. He revels in the latter, actually. I really doubt very many other Senators actually like him. They may admire his chutzpah in a kind of perverse way. But it is hard for me to understand how they could actually like such a drip.

Posted by: Mimikatz | December 7, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Lieberman ought to look at his beloved Israeli health care system. It's quite similar to the Dutch or German systems where the doctors are private, the insurance companies are highly regulated and there is a public option. Ezra a primer is in order.

Posted by: MerrillFrank | December 7, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

What is so hard to understand here? They need his vote. Every member of the Democratic caucus has a veto. If they get his vote on this and kick him out of the caucus after, he can bring everything to a halt as long as the GOP hangs together, and how many of them are showing any indication that they'll vote against their caucus?

I can't stand Lieberman, but he has them by the balls and knows it. So does Nelson. Pass a bill, fix it later.

Posted by: steveh46 | December 7, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

If Liebermann doesn't vote with the Democrats, then, by definition, they don't have his vote. Therefore, he is *not* a 60th vote.

This is like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown.

I don't think I've seen a wimpier set of humans than the current Senate Democrats.

Posted by: dpurp | December 7, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

One wonders what would happen if the Democrat leadership responded to his self-aggrandizing opposition to doing the people's bidding by quietly letting him - and the leaders of Israel - know that if he wants to play hardball, they'll play hardball with Israel's annual check from the United States' government.

If we can't afford healthcare for actual US citizens, then we sure as hell can't afford to help Israel with whatever it is they need. End of discussion. Take that stand, and wait for the leaders of his "other" state to put pressure on him to start re-thinking his opposition.

Posted by: Marcus3 | December 14, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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