WASHINGTON — Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's chances of holding onto his committee chairmanship suffered a blow Friday when two key New England Democratic senators came out against him.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and his Vermont colleague, Sen. Bernie Sanders, said Democrat-turned-independent Lieberman doesn't deserve to keep his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairmanship because of his campaign attacks on President-elect Barack Obama.
Lieberman angered many Democrats by supporting Republican John McCain and criticizing Obama during the presidential contest.
Liberal activists are urging the party's caucus to strip Lieberman's chairmanship when caucus members meet next week. Senate Democrats are scheduled to meet next Tuesday to decide what to do.
"I am one who does not feel that somebody should be rewarded with a major chairmanship after doing what he did," Leahy, D-Vt., said in a Vermont Public Radio interview on Friday. "I never ask people, well you must vote for this person or that person. Everybody has to make up their mind."
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he hopes Lieberman will remain in the party caucus and work to regain the trust of those he has disappointed.
"To reward Senator Lieberman with a major committee chairmanship would be a slap in the face of millions of Americans who worked tirelessly for Barack Obama and who want to see real change in our country," Sanders said in a statement. "Appointing someone to a major post who led the opposition to everything we are fighting for is not 'change we can believe in.'"
The issue of whether to punish Lieberman is a sensitive one for Democrats, given Obama's calls for bipartisanship during the 2008 race. Lesser penalties are also being considered involving Lieberman's committee and subcommittee posts.
Some of Lieberman's attacks on Obama "went beyond the pale," Leahy said.
"I would feel that had I done something similar that I would not be chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress," Leahy said.
Lieberman, who was Democrat Al Gore's running mate in 2000, was re-elected in 2006 as an independent after losing his state's Democratic primary. He remains a registered Democrat and aligns himself with Senate Democrats.
Obama has told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada it would hurt the message of unity that he wants for his new administration if Lieberman leaves the Democratic caucus. Reid met with Lieberman last week and was initially inclined to strip him of the Homeland Security Committee chairmanship, according to a leadership aide.
Since then Reid has been working to find a compromise with Democratic supporters of Lieberman, including Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Dodd and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., have said it would be a mistake if any punishment by the party causes Lieberman to bolt to the Republican side.
Lieberman also spoke last week with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Key Republicans, including Sens. John Ensign of Nevada and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, have said they would welcome Lieberman to the GOP caucus.
Lieberman's presence in the Democratic caucus was essential to the party's control of the Senate because he gave them a 51-49 edge over Republicans. But Democrats expanded their majority in the Nov. 4 elections and won't need Lieberman to control the chamber when the new Congress convenes.