WASHINGTON-If Democratic leaders are irked with Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s most recent policy positions or political remarks, they’re putting on a good game face. His chairmanship post is safe, they insist, and no one is worried he’ll defect to the GOP.

Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, recently announced that he had no intentions of campaigning for a Senate Democratic majority and that he would buck the Democrats on their signature pre-election tax-cut proposal.

Those comments, putting his erstwhile party at arm’s length and positioning Lieberman for an independent re-election run in 2012, irked Connecticut’s Congressional delegation and other state Democrats. But in Washington they elicited shrugs, and even some gushing praise, from his Senate colleagues.

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman: Hanging on to that chairmanship (Deirdre Shesgreen)

With Democrats prepared to lose seats, and possibly even their majority, it’s no wonder that party leaders want to keep Lieberman in the fold, even if the Connecticut independent is giving them heartburn behind the scenes.

“To those who question his loyalty to the caucus, I point to his voting record,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who as the Democrat’s No. 2 Senate leader, is in charge of lining up votes for the party’s legislative agenda. “With very few exceptions, he’s been a reliable voting member of the Democratic caucus.”

Still, Lieberman’s role in the Senate and in the Democratic caucus after the November elections is unclear. He may end up with more clout if the Democrats’ ranks thin, even as he plays up his independence and flirts with the GOP, but he may have to walk a careful line.

“It’s not like they’ve embraced him because they love him deeply,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said of Lieberman and Senate Democrats. “This is a marriage of convenience in some ways on both sides.”

For now, he said, both sides have an interest in staying together. But, he added, “Lieberman’s navigating through some interesting and tricky shoals here.”

As his 2012 re-election approaches, Lieberman has clearly concluded that he cannot win if he runs as a Democrat, so he needs to burnish his independent credentials and make nice with Republicans–or at least not creat ill-will, said Ornstein. At the same time, he needs to stay in the Democrats’ good graces as long as they are in the majority and have the power to dole out chairmanships.

Ornstein said that although some Democrats probably still “grumble” about Lieberman’s role in the caucus, this political alliance will likely remain intact as long as Lieberman keeps voting with the Democrats on major procedural and policy votes. But the marriage could break up, he added, if Democrats sense that Lieberman’s only in it for his post at the helm of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and if he begins siding with Republicans more regularly.

Lieberman, for his part, sees a new opening for himself in 2011, no matter who wins control of the chamber in the November elections. If, as expected, the Senate is more evenly split, Lieberman said his centrist credentials could give him more clout.

“The closer this Senate is, the more interesting-and the more opportunity for bipartisan coalitions to get things done,” Lieberman said. “And perhaps as an independent, I’ll have the opportunity to help bring those about.”

There’s no question Lieberman enjoys being in the middle of things, sought after for his vote and a source of political buzz. Last fall, Lieberman created a political firestorm when he signaled he would support a filibuster of health care reform if it included a public option. Amid the ensuing onslaught of liberal criticism, Lieberman told reporters, “I feel relevant.”

The need to feel relevant may be particularly acute for Lieberman, Ornstein said, because he was so roundly rejected by his party in 2006, as well as in his 2004 presidential bid. “To go from feeling your own party has rebuffed you to feeling like your votes matter so much,” the latter is a much better place to be, he said.

Lieberman raised the 2006 election unprompted in a recent interview by saying his loss to Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary was the “most painful day of my political life.” And the “most gratifying day” was going on to beat Lamont in the general election as an independent. In this role, he said he feels completely unshackled, not obliged to do anything because it’s in one party’s interest.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said there’s little question that some in the party will be irritated with Lieberman’s recent comments, including his saying that the only reason he would like to see a Democratic majority is so that he can keep his Homeland Security post.

Some Democrats will want to strip him of his chairmanship, McCaskill said, although she said she did not think that is a good idea herself.

Durbin said that while no one’s chairmanship is guaranteed, there is strong support in the caucus for Lieberman and his hold on the homeland security committee post is safe. Durbin also said he has “no indication” that Lieberman would switch his caucus affiliation to the Republicans if it looked like they were going to win the majority.

Lieberman, asked what he might do if Republicans are one vote shy of a majority and come knocking on his door with offers in hand, said he would not answer a hypothetical question. But, he added, “I’ll just tell you, I’m happy where I am.”

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