national, election 2008, politics
Douglas Healey/AP
Sen. Joe Lieberman (left) stands next to
Sen. John McCain during a rally at Sacred
Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Sunday Feb. 3, 2008.

Lieberman Could Be First Casualty of Democratic Power Shift

November 07, 2008 04:45 PM
by Christopher Coats
Flush with electoral success, the Democratic congressional majority is now turning its energy inward to address the leadership struggles emerging in both houses of Congress.

Shifting Congressional Leadership

While members jockey for prime leadership roles in the party’s newly expanded majorities—57 to 40 in the Senate and 254 to 173 in the House—some tension has emerged, especially regarding the future of estranged Democrat, Conn. Sen. Joe Lieberman.

The four-term Senator and former candidate for vice president split from the Democratic Party during the 2006 election when he was beaten in his state’s primary by Ned Lamont, only to win back his seat as an independent.

Voting with Democrats much of the time, the newly independent Democrat split further from the party when he became one of John McCain’s most vocal supporters during the presidential election, going so far as to speak at the September National Republican Convention.

After a McCain loss, Lieberman now faces the very real possibility of losing his spot as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

On Friday, Politico reported that Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has reached out to Lieberman, offering him a role in the Republican caucus should he lose his chairmanship, though the Connecticut senator has said he would continue to bargain for his position.

As he postponed any final decision about Lieberman’s future for another two weeks, the Senate majority leader, Nevada’s Harry Reid, reinforced his disappointment in the senator’s actions during the campaign.

“While I understand that Senator Lieberman has voted with Democrats a majority of the time, his comments and actions have raised serious concerns among many in our caucus,” the UPI reported.

Reports on Friday suggested that Reid might shift Lieberman's fate to a Democratic Caucus vote.

The Democrats have held a slight majority in the Senate since 2006, though they have needed the Connecticut senator on their side due to their narrow lead, amounting to a 51-49 split only when Lieberman and Vermont independent Bernard Sanders voted with them.

Although this usually gave the Democrats an edge, it also left them scrambling on issues of national defense, where Lieberman most often sided with Republicans.

Lieberman’s shift to the right has earned him scorn outside of Congress as well. In addition to the successful challenge from Lamont in 2006, a new site offers a petition to remove him from his leadership role, garnering over 50,000 names so far.

With some Senate races yet to be determined, the Democratic Caucus will not meet to make final leadership decisions for at least another two weeks.

Elsewhere in the Senate, Democrat victories and tragedies have produced possible leadership vacancies, sought after by senators new and old. On Friday, 90-year-old W. Va. Sen. Robert Byrd stepped down from his position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, likely setting in motion four changes in Senate committee chairmanships.

CQ Politics reports that Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye will replace Byrd, W. Va. Sen. Jay Rockefeller will replace Inouye as Commerce Committee chairman, Calif. Sen. Diane Feinstein will replace Rockefeller as Intelligence Committee chair and N.Y. Sen. Charles Schumer will replace Feinstein as Rules Committee chair.

Other prominent positions will need to be filled, as well. As Joe Biden leaves the Senate, he will vacate his post as chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, while the health and well-being of Mass. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who is suffering from a brain tumor, offers a open spots at the heads of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Meanwhile, on the energy front, California’s Rep. Henry Waxman made a direct challenge to Rep. John Dingell of Michigan for the leadership of the Energy and Commerce Committee , the oldest standing committee in the House of Representatives.

The fight may be attract the most controversy as the fierce environmentalist, Waxman, squares off against one of the automobile industry’s strongest advocates over stricter emissions standards.

Selected earlier this week to act as President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Ill. Rep. Rahm Emanuel will leave behind the role of Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the forth-highest position in the House.

Reaction: GOP sees possible deeper power shift

With discussions centering on a party restructuring following a rather dismal Election Day, Congressional Republicans are also seeing a shift of leadership, with a younger generation of congressmen and senators moving in to replace existing leadership. Virginia’s Eric Cantor has moved to replace Missouri’s Roy Blunt as Minority Whip after Blunt stepped aside on Wednesday, though Ohio’s John A. Boehner was able to hold on to his minority leader position for the time being.

The GOP’s ideological direction and power structure could shift further following the selection of the party chairman in January—a process that has already seen a number of state chairs express their desire to fill.

Reference: Who makes the choice?

In the Senate, all leadership decisions will be presented to the 19-member steering and outreach committee, which will see a shift of its own as member Joe Biden leaves for the White House. The committee is charged with appointing all chairmanships in the Senate and is also assigned to foster “dialogue between Senate Democrats and community leaders from across the nation.”

The House of Representatives hosts a similar body, currently chaired by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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