WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Lieberman appears increasingly likely to hold onto his prized chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee as he meets Tuesday with Democratic colleagues unhappy over his vocal support for GOP nominee John McCain during this year's presidential campaign.
Not long ago, Lieberman's hold on his chairmanship seemed to be slipping as Democrats sought to punish him for boosting McCain and criticizing President-elect Barack Obama during the long campaign.
Now, according to several Democratic aides who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, it appears that Lieberman will receive a lesser sanction, such as losing a subcommittee chairmanship on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Anger toward Lieberman seems to have softened since Election Day and there's strengthening sentiment that taking away his chairmanship might drive him from the Democratic caucus and send the wrong signals as Obama takes office on a pledge to unite the country. Lieberman has signaled it would be unacceptable for him to lose his chairmanship.
Lieberman, who was Democratic presidential nominee 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 with the party inside the Senate.
Lieberman faces a vote of his Democratic colleagues on a secret ballot Tuesday after making his case at a closed-door caucus. While he appears likely to emerge without harsh sanction, his presentation and the reaction of colleagues could affect the outcome.
Obama has reportedly 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 Senate Democratic aide.
"I was concerned and was upset about what happened earlier this year," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said on "Fox News Sunday." "But you know what? We turn the page."
On the other side are senators who feel that one of the requirements to be installed in a leadership position is party loyalty.
"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," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in a statement on Friday. "Appointing someone to a major post who led the opposition to everything we are fighting for is not 'change we can believe in.'"
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.
Also a factor is an army of liberal bloggers who are eager to see Lieberman drummed out. Their antipathy to him goes back to his vocal support of the war in Iraq and his 2006 re-election bid.
At the same time, Senate Republicans on Tuesday face a vote on whether to expel from their ranks Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican senator ever but convicted of seven felony counts last month. Stevens may very well not return to Washington anyway as he's fallen behind in an ongoing vote tally for a his re-election bid.
Among Senate Republicans there seems to be little enthusiasm for kicking Stevens when he's down. The common view is that he'll lose his race for a seventh full term and not be around next year anyway. The race could be decided after ballots are counted Tuesday.
But Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., vows to go ahead and force a vote on ousting Stevens from the GOP conference, which would strip him of his plum committee assignments next year if he is re-elected.
Also among the musical chairs is an avalanche of changes in Senate committee chairmanships sparked by Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd's decision to step aside at the age of 90. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is in line to succeed Byrd.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is poised to take over Inouye's chairmanship of the Commerce Committee; Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., is in turn ready to take over for Rockefeller at the Intelligence Committee, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., would chair the Rules Committee spot vacated by Feinstein.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is slated to take over the Foreign Relations Committee from Vice President-elect Joe Biden.