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How Lieberman Stole Reid's Candy and Drank Snowe's Milkshake

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[Updated once twice below]

Several weeks ago, I tried to cut through the Gordian-knot politics of Senate Democratic vote-wrangling over health care reform by explaining the end-game math, which is that the Democratic caucus contains 58 Dems, one liberal Independent (Bernie Sanders, I-VT), and one unreliable, self-serving Vichy (Joe Lieberman, V-Hartford Insurance). That makes 59 possible cloture votes, one short of 60.

With 59 votes plus Lieberman, here's how Reid should have seen the endgame politics:

1. Lieberman only has a shot at re-election by pulling a Zell Miller and becoming a Republican. A guy who lost the Democratic nomination in his last election and supported John McCain in 2008 is 3/4 of the way there, anyway.

2. Because he's about to switch parties anyway, he doesn't care about threats to strip him of his chairmanships the way every true Dem does.

3. Lieberman has told everyone who'll listen (including Glenn Beck) that he loves Republican filibusters, hates the public option and might filibuster health care reform.

4. Lieberman could negotiate a lot of goodies from the GOP if he can bring them Obama's and Reid's heads on a platter by singlehandedly killing health care reform.

And, therefore,

5. Reid had little choice but to court Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who herself is on wobbly ground in her party (Jay Rockefeller described her as being under "brutal pressure" from her party's leaders) and whose reelection chances would be boosted by supporting the public option, by offering her incentives to oppose the same Republican filibuster that I predicted Lieberman would join.

That's why Obama was urging Reid up to the very last minute to choose a trigger rather than an opt-out: to keep Snowe in play in case Lieberman punked out. I believed (and still believe) that Snowe's cloture vote can be bribed with things other than triggers -- in addition to liberal earmarks, Snowe could be promised superb committee assignments and effective seniority if she becomes a Democrat -- but however it was won, her vote was needed.

Yesterday, however, Reid announced that the Senate bill would include a public option opt-out, not a trigger. Snowe had made it clear that that would be a deal-breaker, and apparently it was: although some see a little wiggle room, she's clearly on the GOP/obstructionist side again, at least for now.

When Reid made his happy announcement, I assumed he had cut a deal with Lieberman to guarantee his vote on cloture, because it would be foolish beyond foolishness to abandon Snowe without knowing -- knowing -- that Lieberman's vote was secure. And now we learn that Reid was foolish, and Lieberman's vote was not secure, and health care reform may well be dead. Lieberman said today:

"I also told him [Reid] that if the bill remains what it is now, I will not be able to support a cloture motion before final passage. Therefore I will try to stop the passage of the bill."

In other words: "I will join the Republican filibuster of the bill Reid announced yesterday unless you give me what I want."

How did this happen?

The GOP acted wisely by underplaying its hand: Until the Senate Finance Committee vote on Oct. 13, the GOP leadership was playing hardball with Snowe, even threatening to run a more conservative challenger against her if she broke ranks. But when she did break ranks, voting with Democrats to move the (miserable) Baucus bill out of committee, the GOP changed tactics and held fire, even calling her vote "no big deal." That was wise: not only did they keep Snowe in the party when, had they bare-knuckled her, she might have finally fled to the Democrats, but they also ensured that a Republican (albeit a moderate one) would be the most important player, the keystone, to the entire health care debate.

Snowe acted unwisely by overplaying her hand: After her Finance Committee vote, however, Snowe overplayed her hand by insisting that triggers were her line in the sand. We don't know for certain whether this happened -- the insider politics have taken place in a camera obscura -- but her stand meant that her power could be completely voided if just one or two progressive Democrats drew the same line by stating that they would procedurally block any reform bill that DID contain a trigger. If winning one Republican vote would cost one Democratic vote, then Reid would still be stuck at 59 -- unable to beat a filibuster -- and therefore would be better off boosting his own progressive credentials (and reelection chances) by throwing out the trigger and reverting to a more progressive position (the opt-out). Which, of course, is what he did yesterday.

Lieberman drank Snowe's milkshake: In the great and terrible movie There Will Be Blood, an unprincipled oilman explains how he slant-drilled to steal a neighbor's oil in these memorable words: "I drink your milkshake!" That's what Lieberman did: by laying low, half-promising Reid that he wouldn't block reform, and letting Snowe make herself irrelevant, Lieberman stole all Snowe's power. Forty-eight hours ago, Snowe could have extracted almost anything from the Democratic leadership in both Congress and the White House. Does Maine need more highway funds, a military contract, a research grant? Done! Does Snowe want to become a Democrat while retaining her seniority and chairing a major committee? Done! The world was her oyster.

Then 24 hours ago, Snowe became irrelevant -- and two hours ago, Lieberman seized the opportunity, sprang the trap he had set long before, announced his support for a filibuster, and thereby, instantly, became The Most Important Person In The Universe to Obama and Reid.

What will the Democrats give Lieberman, today, to win his vote on cloture? Anything. Anything at all. What will the Republicans give Lieberman, today, to destroy health care reform? Anything. Anything at all. Lieberman drank Snowe's milkshake; no wonder her tummy hurts, while his must feel mm-mm good.

Now there are cries for Lieberman's head -- but it's too late, and would be counterproductive, to punish him. When he backed McCain over Obama, Lieberman should have been jettisoned from the caucus -- but neither Obama nor Reid had the guts to do so, Obama because he believes pathologically in forgiveness and compromise, and Reid because he is a naif who looked into Lieberman's eyes and still believed he could count on Joementum's vote "on the big issues" or "everything but the war." But now it's too late.

Now Joe holds the fate of health care reform in his amoral little hands, and unless they can find a way to win over Snowe again (or possibly Snowe's colleague, Susan Collins), the Democrats had better outbid the Republicans to win his vote on cloture, or both 2010 and 2012 could be awfully tough on the Party of Hope.

Lieberman must be bribed, not punished -- as must Snowe and Collins and anyone else who can provide that 60th vote. Nor should we be mad at Obama, at least for this particular fiasco; in any case, he has at least three years left in office and must soldier on, hopefully wiser and a hell of a lot tougher.

Reid's head, on the other hand, should roll for this. He did the right thing yesterday, but apparently without laying the necessary groundwork first. Even freshman Congressman Alan Grayson could see that Lieberman was dangerous, but the experienced Reid did not? That's inexcusable. The post of Senate Majority Leader belongs to a cynic, not a naif. It should be held by a tough negotiator, not a lapdog. It calls for someone willing, in Howard Dean's memorable phrase, to "use his majority so he doesn't lose his majority." It calls for a leader with the simple common sense, the simple worldly wisdom, not to trust Joe Lieberman with the most important policy initiative of the most important Democratic majority since FDR. And Harry Reid -- as many have known all along -- is not that leader.
Senate Majority Leader Schumer, anyone?

Update: Lieberman's backbiting comes as a surprise to the White House. From a press gaggle aboard Air Force One Tuesday with press secretary Robert Gibbs:

Q Does the President think that it can work its way through without the support of Olympia Snowe?

MR. GIBBS: That's a better question for Olympia Snowe. I don't know what the dynamics are. I don't know what the vote count is in the Senate. That'd be a question, too, for Senator Reid.

Q Politico is reporting that Joe Lieberman is saying he'll join Republicans on a filibuster. Is Obama confident he can get the Democrats to beat back a filibuster in the Senate?

MR. GIBBS: I haven't seen the report from Senator Lieberman or why he's saying what he's saying.

Also, there's some confusion about what Lieberman is threatening to do. There are TWO procedural hurdles before a bill faces a final, up-or-down vote: bringing the bill to the floor, then closing debate on that bill ("cloture") so it can be voted on. Lieberman has said he will cooperate with bringing it to the floor, but will filibuster it once it's there. So don't be confused about whether or not Lieberman is threatening to filibuster the bill and deny it a simple majority vote: he is.

What's fascinating about Lieberman's "I'll support you partway" position is that this may be how he hoodwinked Reid: telling him that he will support bringing the bill to the floor, thereby giving Reid the impression that Lieberman would stand with the Dems in the crunch. If so, Lieberman didn't lie, he only told a half-truth -- and Reid fell for it.

Update #2: Lieberman, leaving a Democratic caucus meeting after today's announcement, confirmed to HuffPost his position that he would vote to bring the bill to the floor, then filibuster it if it contained ANY kind of public option -- even one only activated later by a trigger:

"What I said this morning and what I've said to Senator Reid is that I'm inclined to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed to a debate on health care reform, because I believe we need to have a debate on health care reform and I hope to be in a position to vote yes on health care reform. But, I've also said that if the current proposal remains as it is unamended, before the final vote on the floor, that I will not vote for cloture."

Lieberman added that he would not support a compromise put forward by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) for a public option that would be triggered into effect.

Lieberman also indicated he wasn't concerned about losing his chairmanship -- though whether that's because he no longer cares about it (as I've suggested) or because no one in the Democratic leadership has even threatened him with such punishment is unclear:

The Connecticut senator, who was nearly booted from the caucus less than a year ago for supporting the GOP's presidential candidate, said he wasn't concerned about retribution. Asked by HuffPost as he left the meeting if he was willing to give up his gavel -- his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee that he fought so hard to keep following the presidential election -- he dismissed the concern. "Oh, God no," he said. "Nobody's asking me that."

Strangest of all was this throwaway:

HuffPost asked him if there'd been much reaction from his colleagues in the Democratic caucus.

"Not really," he said, "because I think my colleagues know for a long time that I've been opposed to a government-created, government-run insurance company."

Since the same realpolitik considerations that govern negotiations with tyrannical actors like North Korea also apply here, it's wise for Senate Democrats to keep the lines of communication open in hopes of still winning Lieberman's vote on cloture. But no reaction at all? No "say it ain't so, Joe!" from anyone else in the caucus? That doesn't pass the smell test.

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