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Jewcy Explainer: Why Joe Lieberman is a Lot Less Important Than You Think

There's a lot more wrong with Michael Powell's profile of Joe Lieberman in the in the New York Times today than Powell's misuse of the term "disinterested." (Really, the disinterested/uninterested distinction isn't that hard to grasp, though if it escapes … Read More

By / February 18, 2008

There's a lot more wrong with Michael Powell's profile of Joe Lieberman in the in the New York Times today than Powell's misuse of the term "disinterested." (Really, the disinterested/uninterested distinction isn't that hard to grasp, though if it escapes the Times' proofreaders, upholding it is probably a lost cause.)

Powell has essentially two points to make. One is that, since his defeat in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary and subsequent re-election as an independent, Lieberman feels personally liberated to express his true, long-held views. There's no arguing with this: If Lieberman used to consider himself a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, he's outraged by Chappaquiddick — well, that's his prerogative.

On the other hand, Powell's second point — that Lieberman holds the balance of power in the Senate in the furrows of his formidable brows, and that many Democrats are therefore biting their tongues and not saying what they really think of Lieberman — is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.

Presently, there are 49 Republican senators, 49 Democratic senators, and two independents, Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders and Lieberman. The independents caucus with the Democrats, giving the donkey party an effective 51/49 majority and the control of the Senate agenda and committees that comes with it. Powell's idea — and to be fair he's not the first and won't be the last reporter to promote it — is that if Lieberman flips and caucuses with the Republicans, the split will then be 50/50, and Dick Cheney, as President of the Senate, will break the tie, and Republicans will regain a senatorial majority.

Something like that scenario played out not too long ago. After the 2000 election, there were 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in the Senate, and Cheney was the tie-breaker. But in the spring of 2001, Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords, whose voting record was well to the left of many Senate Democrats, declared himself an independent, caucused with the Democrats, and made Tom Daschle the Majority Leader.

However, what made the Jeffords switch significant was a rule the Democrats passed on a strict party-line vote in January 2001, when the split was 50/50, but for a few weeks Al Gore held the tie-breaking vote. At the time, there were several Republican senators, including Jeffords, recent Barack Obama endorser Lincoln Chafee, and yes, John McCain, whom the Democrats thought they might be able to induce to switch parties. The rule the Democrats established with their temporary majority provided that, for the tenure of the 107th Congress, if the majority/minority senatorial caucuses were to switch, so would leadership of Senate committees and leadership of the Senate as a whole.

Once the 107th Congress expired in January 2003, so did the rule. Hence, if Lieberman were to re-caucus with the Republicans now, the relevant count for the remainder of the 110th Congress would still be the January 2007 count in which Lieberman caucused with the Democrats. Of course, the majority/minority composition of the Senate in the next congressional session depends on the results of this year's elections. And at the moment, the political futures markets favor the Democrats to win the presidential election 66-33.9 percent, and to retain control of the Senate 90-5.2 percent.

In other words, party-switching won't affect anything until at least 2009, and by then, it will likely be too late to matter. But why expect a New York Times political reporter to do five minutes of research before going to press with a feature premised on a glaring factual error?

So the bottom line is that Lieberman may be a bird uncaged and ready to take flight thanks to his experiences in 2006, but apart from Joe and possibly Haddasah Lieberman, nobody needs to care. It's doubtful that anyone can spend much time in Washington without being caught downstream of Lieberman's flapping jowls eventually, but no matter how furiously those jowls flap, they no longer exert any pull.

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