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Fate of Healthcare Reform Is in Joe Lieberman's Hands

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Joe Lieberman has the ability -- and powerful incentives -- to stop healthcare reform in its tracks. So why does everyone assume his cloture vote is in the bag?

Pundits trying to follow what David Waldman calls the "Eleventy-bazillion dimensional chess" of healthcare reform politics are immersing themselves deeper and deeper into the minutiae of practical politics: whether the White House is or isn't sincere about pushing for the public option; whether Baucus' mistreatment of Ron Wyden will cost him Wyden's support in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday; whether conservative Democrats resisting the "public option" can win re-election in states where a majority of voters support it; whether an "opt-out" compromise would provide conservaDems sufficient political cover that they could finally support reform.

Those details were critical to understanding the Senate Finance Committee's micro-maneuverings last week; they're indispensable to any halfway accurate whip count of the votes for and against healthcare reform should it survive a Republican filibuster and face an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor; and they're somewhat useful in calculating whether Democratic leaders will be able to muster 60 votes to invoke cloture and defeat a filibuster in the first place. But they all mean nothing unless Joe Lieberman votes against his personal political interests -- something Lieberman has never done before, and isn't likely to do now.

The conventional thinking goes like this: At least 51 Senate Democrats will vote yes on healthcare reform. (The House has more than enough votes, and Obama will sign any bill sent to him.) The obstacle, therefore, is the inevitable Republican Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome. The Senate Democratic Caucus has 60 members -- enough to overcome the filibuster (by invoking "cloture"), if all 60 hang together.

Until now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been a miserable failure at persuading all 60 to vote together on anything (he has said he prefers to "keep his powder dry," which in his view apparently means never firing a shot at anyone in any circumstances). But Congressional Democrats' fate in the 2010 midterms and beyond depend on obtaining some sort of healthcare reform, and un-named, high-level Senate sources have suggested Reid finally may be ready to get tough with key Democrats by threatening to strip them of key committee chairmanships if they do not toe the party line on cloture. In the rarified air of Senate status-seeking, losing a chairmanship is deemed insufferable -- so many are assuming that this threat will be sufficient to whip the entire caucus into line.

Because they are certain the caucus will hang together, many progressive observers are resisting compromises that otherwise might be needed to smooth the passage of reform in general and public option in particular. BlastOff!'s Sinfonian, for example, argues persuasively against an "opt-out" provision that would expose American citizens in dark-red states without adequate healthcare, and FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher (whose sophisticated, tireless work tracking the progress of healthcare reform has been better than anyone's) calls "opt-out" a "sell-out."

In principle, Sinfonian, Hamsher et al. are right: the White House and some Senate leaders have been far too quick to compromise in the name of "getting a deal," and any compromise that results in a bad bill should be resisted -- if sixty votes are in the bag.

But they also may be forgetting that the necessary sixty, in most people's calculations, includes Joe Lieberman (I-Hartford Insurance).

A short recap of recent history: Lieberman, who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, lost the Connecticut Democratic primary to a more progressive newcomer, Ned Lamont, in 2006. Rather than accede to the wishes of Connecticut's Democratic voters, Lieberman ran as an independent against both Lamont and an irrelevant Republican, and won re-election. Since then he has caucused with the Democrats -- but he has voted with Republicans on nearly all issues involving homeland security, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and foreign relations, and in last year's Presidential election he campaigned tirelessly for the Republican, John McCain, against his former Senate mentee, Barack Obama. In other words, he not only isn't a Democrat, he isn't even trying to look like one. He caucuses with the Democrats for one reason only: even despite his betrayals, Reid has let him retain his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

But Lieberman has a problem: re-election. His current term ends in 2012; he already has $1.4 million in the bank, and his re-election campaign will start spinning up for real next year. But will he run as a Democrat? No way -- Connecticut's Democrats revile him. Can he win as an Independent? Not likely; just two years after his re-election, 30% of those who voted for Lieberman in 2006 already regretted their choice.

But as a Republican, Lieberman might have a chance at retaining his Senate seat. Key G.O.P. leaders have said they would welcome him to their party, and Lieberman himself said last month that he was open to the possibility, "joking" that "I have all kinds of options."

If Lieberman flipped, the Republican establishment would ensure that he faced no significant primary challengers. In the general election, the former Democrat might have a hard time turning out ambivalent Republican voters -- unless he somehow became a Republican hero in the interim.

Which is where health care reform comes in.

All speculation that Lieberman will side with Democrats in opposing a Republican filibuster is based on the assumption that Lieberman would rather preserve his Homeland Security chairmanship than score points with Republicans (and with the insurance companies that both vehemently oppose reform and are the financial backbone of many Connecticut politicians, including Lieberman.)

But if Lieberman intends to become a Republican next year, he will lose that chairmanship anyway. And, with Democrats holding both the White House and solid majorities in both houses, Lieberman has no realistic chance of advancing his hawkish, pro-Israel foreign policy agenda despite being chair. Lieberman has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from jettisoning his chairmanship now and becoming a hero to the Right by singlehandedly stopping Barack Obama's signature domestic policy initiative in its tracks.

Lieberman himself is remarkably open about his fondness for Republican filibusters of progressive initiatives. In an interview with Fox News' Glenn Beck last year, Lieberman -- who, again, was still caucusing with the Democrats -- agreed that a Democratic supermajority capable of invoking cloture would be dangerous to America's safety. While he claims to support reform in general, he has repeatedly said he opposes the public option. He is noncommittal about the new "opt-out" proposal. And in a brief interview on October 8 with The Crooked Dope's Mike Stark, Lieberman clearly wouldn't reject the option of derailing reform altogether by supporting a Republican filibuster:

Mike Stark: But now you're standing against a public option. Will you join with the Republicans in filibustering if it comes to that?

Lieberman: I'm not sure. But I haven't changed. People around me have changed. I haven't decided that yet.

Jane Hamsher finds reassurance in the fact that Lieberman didn't flatly promise to support the filibuster -- holding out for the best possible deal, she puts the onus on those who think Lieberman won't do the right thing -- but of course Lieberman didn't flat-out promise to betray the Democrats. For one thing, he's in horse-trading mode, cutting his best deal with Republican leaders who, among other favors, Republican leaders could grant Lieberman the unusual boon of letting him retain his seniority if/when he joins their caucus instead of becoming the party's most junior member as normally happens when senators switch parties. For another, Lieberman's too smart to reveal his cards any earlier than absolutely necessary; if one or two G.O.P. senators unexpectedly defected to oppose a filibuster, Lieberman would be jettisoning his chairmanship unnecessarily by speaking too soon.

Most importantly, the language Lieberman used with Stark to justify his supposed indecision -- "I haven't changed, my party has changed around me" -- is the standard formulation used by every party-jumper, from Democratic turncoat Zell Miller to former Republicans-turned-Democrats Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter. It's clear where Lieberman's intentions (and loyalties) lie, and with a cad of Lieberman's magnitude, anything short of an unqualified commitment to an up-or-down vote might as well be a promise of betrayal.

The bottom line, then, is this: despite Senate Democrats' pathological, beaten-wife loyalty to Lieberman, Lieberman's political path bends toward the G.O.P. And the biggest prize he could bring to his new Republican friends would be the defeat of Obama's central policy initiative, and with it the heads of many vulnerable Democrats come the 2010 midterms. That is a prize almost entirely within Lieberman's power to give.

Which suggests -- and this is fodder for a separate post -- that Democrats would be well-advised to spend less political capital pandering to conservative Democrats like Tom Carper (D-DE) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who have no excuse for failing to fall into line on cloture if nothing else, and focus instead on immunizing themselves against Lieberman's probable defection by offering lush political incentives -- such as a new and cozy home in the Democratic Party -- to Lieberman's doppelganger, embattled Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, in exchange for her vote against her current (at least for now) party's inevitable filibuster.

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