WASHINGTON — Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who this fall campaigned hard for Republican presidential nominee John McCain, got only a mild rebuke Tuesday from Senate Democrats.
On a 42 to 13 secret ballot vote, Senate Democrats agreed to let Lieberman keep the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, but sharply criticized him for comments he made about President-elect Barack Obama during the campaign.
Lieberman, who prior to running as an independent in 2006 was a lifelong Democrat, was stripped of a minor subcommittee chairmanship at the Environment and Public Works committee, but was allowed to keep the helm of the Armed Services Committee's AirLand panel.
The vote followed what Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., one of Lieberman's chief supporters, called a "robust debate."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was angry at Lieberman's actions, but also said "this was not a time for retribution." Aiding Lieberman was Obama's position that he wasn't inclined to see the senator punished.
Lieberman was contrite after the vote, telling reporters, "There are some (comments) that I made that I wish I had not. In the heat of campaigns, that happens to all of us, but I regret that, and now it's time to move on."
Some senators were unforgiving, citing Lieberman's October comments that Obama was "naive" about world affairs and that the Democratic party "is not the Democratic party of my dear friend Bill Clinton."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, recalled how Lieberman called an Obama vote against Iraq war funding a vote to put American forces in danger.
"That's outrageous what he said," Harkin said.
Leading the effort to support Lieberman were Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who argued that his state benefited from retaining Lieberman in a powerful position, as well as Salazar, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Tom Carper, D-Del.
They pointed out that Lieberman had been a faithful party member all his life and voted with the party most of the time. Lieberman, they pointed out, also helped lead the party as its 2000 vice presidential nominee.
His support for the Iraq war led to his defeat in Connecticut's 2006 Senate Democratic primary. Lieberman then ran as an independent and won the general election, garnering a huge majority of the Republican vote.
He caucused with Democrats in the current Congress. The Senate had 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents. The other independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont, also sided with the Democrats.
Had Lieberman caucused with the GOP, Republicans would've had the majority since Vice President Dick Cheney would've held the tiebreaking vote. Democratic Senators remembered that.
"But for Joe Lieberman's vote, I'd have been in the minority the last two years," said Dodd, who's been Senate Banking Committee chairman since 2007.
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