Lieberman on climate change, political and otherwise: ‘I’m just being me’

With a close Republican ally and a liberal Democrat who campaigned for his defeat in 2006, independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman expects to introduce revised climate-change legislation next week.

“My guess is we don’t take it up in the Senate until sometime in June, but I think we have a real shot at it,” Lieberman said. “To me, it will be one of the most significant things I ever have done.”

The proposal seems to put Lieberman in sync with President Obama and at odds with the Republican he backed for president in 2008, John McCain, who has called the effort “a joke.”

But don’t ask Lieberman, who was both a hindrance and a help to Democrats on the recent passage of health-care reform, where he fits these days on the political spectrum.

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Sen. Joe Lieberman speaks to students at Goodwin College (Mark Pazniokas)

“I may be unusual at this moment in our politics,” Lieberman said. “I don’t think I fit in any neat package in either party.”

One place where he doesn’t fit is the Connecticut Democratic Party. For the fourth consecutive year, he will be absent tonight from the party’s major fundraiser and social event, the Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey Dinner.

“Unfortunately, you will not be seeing me. Nothing has changed,” Lieberman said. “You know, I continue to have very good working relations with the Democratic colleagues in the delegation, the Democratic mayors, some of the state legislators who come to Washington. But I have no official interaction with the party.”

Lieberman’s estrangement from the party began in 2006, when he successfully ran for re-election as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. He has done little since to try to re-ingratiate himself, backing McCain against Obama in 2008.

Most recently, Lieberman infuriated Democrats by opposing a public option for health reform, but he ultimately voted for the scaled-back bill, giving Obama a major political victory.

In recent months, he also has sponsored legislation requested by Obama to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of expelling homosexuals who acknowledge their sexual orientation. His positions have been consistent, he said.

“I’m just being me,” he said. “I’ve been involved, I’ve been opposed to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ since ’93, when it was adopted. I’ve been interested in energy independence and global warming for more than 20 years.”

His co-sponsors on the climate change bill, whose framework was announced in a letter sent to the president December 10, are Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts.

They propose putting a tax on carbon fuels to create markets for alternative energy. They also would set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 17 percent in the short-term and 80 percent over the long haul.

“We all said to each other, ‘To get this done, we have to leave our comfort zone,'” he told an environmental sciences class Friday at Goodwin College in East Hartford.

Kerry visited East Hartford in 2006 to campaign for Lamont after Lamont defeated Lieberman in the primary. In 2008, Lieberman spent a lot of time on the road with Graham, campaigning for their mutual friend, McCain.

Of three co-sponsors, Graham has taken the most heat. He has been censured by Republican organizations over climate change. Many on the right have called global warming a hoax.

“He stood tall, and he’s hanging in there quite strong,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said the bill is necessary to encourage energy independence and investment in new technologies that will produce jobs.

At Goodwin College, Lieberman said the effects of climate change are readily apparent, in ways that  are subtle and dramatic.

“When I started on this long ago the worst consequences of climate change were not visible to the eye,” he said. “Today if you look at satellite pictures of polar ice caps, 25 years ago and today, it is startling how much smaller they are.”