The political headline of the moment is that Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will filibuster the most recent compromise-healthcare-reform legislation hammered out in the Senate. While one hesitates to use the term "Judas" in reference to the Senator given his Jewish roots, the phrase is an apt one (though not for religious reasons) and one can not help but wonder what Lieberman's 30 pieces of silver are in this latest betrayal. Much of Lieberman's Senatorial power - from committee chairmanships to his preserved seniority within the caucus - stems from Obama's unusual willingness to forgive and forget the Connecticut Senator's endorsement of McCain in the 2008 Presidential race. It was then and now a decision that many in the Democratic Party thought would come back to haunt the President and now, with the healthcare vote down to the wire and Lieberman's announcement, it appears that it finally has.
Lieberman's promise of a filibuster is not merely grounded in some proposal that the Connecticut Senator finds objectionable; it's a rejection of a compromise that Lieberman himself already approved, albeit tacitly. As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post reports, "Lieberman was invited to participate in the process that led to the Medicare buy-in. His opposition would have killed it before liberals invested in the idea. Instead, he skipped the meetings and is forcing liberals to give up yet another compromise."
Certainly Lieberman enjoys a position of some power in the Senate - his membership in the caucus, at least in theory, puts the Democrats above the magical 60-vote-threshold necessary to halt a Republican Filibuster, yet there is a tone in the press releases and news conferences surrounding the healthcare debate that seems to invest Joe Liberman with a great deal more power than the single vote he actually wields.
In recent decades the Democrats have opted for the Big-Tent strategy of politics while the Republicans have undertaken a series of ideological purges from within their own ranks. Today we see the results of that. While the Democratic Party consists of waring factions of liberals, conservatives, blue dogs, and independents the Republican Party exhibits party discpline on a level rarely before seen in Washington. As a result the Democratic caucus is larger, but fractious. The leadership struggles for every vote and thus Lieberman, who should be relegated to the sidelines, finds himself courted by the Party if only because, while not a Democrat, he is not a Republican either.
The Democrats had their chance. Lieberman's break with the Party and his subsequent endorsement of McCain in the 2008 race gave the party leadership the opportunity to be rid of a Senator who has consistently been a thorn in the Party's side. Obama chose to forgive and forget. The President had, no doubt, his reasons for welcoming Lieberman back into the Democratic fold after the 2008 election. Certainly the Democrats looked to have a long legislative fight ahead of them and it wasn't until September of this year that the Democrats plus the Senate's two independents constituted a 60 vote super-majority.
Strangely, that super-majority is the problem.
As great as those 60 votes look on paper, the simple fact of the matter is that the Democrats don't really have them. What they do have is a fractious alliance of conflicting political factions none of which are terribly intent upon compromise. In short, what the Democrats have is the appearance of a super-majority, all the political expectations of a super majority, and none of the benefits.
It is that expectation of a super-majority that has given Lieberman his unusual position within the Democratic Senatorial Caucus. Had the Democrats 59 votes or 58 as they had at the start of the 2009 legislative session, expectations would be very different. 60 votes - even if they are only on paper - makes Democratic objections to Republican obstructionism seem absurd. The Democratic leadership has some options open to it which might address the constant threat of a Republican filibuster - reconciliation among them - but appearance of such measures undertaken by a party that, at least in name, already has a stranglehold on the Senatorial process, is far from politic.
As the screws tighten down on Harry Reid and the Democrats' self-imposed Christmas deadline for a health insurance bill draws closer, Lieberman's particular brand of politics looks less and less like business as usual on the Hill and more and more like deliberate sabotage. If Christmas come and goes and the Democrats don't have a healthcare bill to stuff in their stockings you can bet the Senate leadership will be looking for someone to blame.
Lieberman may threaten to leave the caucus but, if they cannot count on his vote, the Democrats will be better off without him.