WASHINGTON–While some lawmakers would rather sidestep the emerging high-stakes debate over reducing the nation’s long-term debt, Sen. Joseph Lieberman wants to be center stage in this brewing battle. But he’s been having a hard time inserting himself into the political mix–at least until now.

On Thursday, Lieberman added his name–and his presence at a press conference–to an effort by several other senators to enact stringent new caps on federal spending.

The legislation, called the CAP Act and drafted by Sens. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, would set binding caps to bring down federal spending. The goal over the next decade is to reduce spending to 20.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product–the historical average.

Corker described it as a “fiscal straight jacket,” noting the bill triggers automatic across-the-board cuts on everything from defense to education to Medicare if Congress fails to meet the spending limits. He said it would result in a $7.6 trillion reduction in federal outlays over the next ten years.

Lieberman, for his part, didn’t just endorse the measure. He said he would not vote for an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling–a politically volatile issue expected to come to a head soon–unless the CAP Act, or something like it, was attached.

“America’s government has become like a boat that is taking on so much extra weight in debt that it’s beginning to capsize,” Lieberman said at Thursday’s news conference. “And unless we do something quickly to lighten that debt load and rebalance the boat, it’s going to sink to the bottom.”

By saying that he would not support an increase in the debt ceiling without spending restrictions attached, Lieberman virtually ensured that the CAP Act gains some immediate attention, if not legislative traction.

Lieberman’s comments put him in the middle of the next fiscal showdown, siding with House Republicans who have also said they will not support an increase in the debt ceiling unless it comes with significant new cuts to federal spending. Democrats have said this is a politically irresponsible path that plays chicken with the nation’s borrowing capacity and could wreak havoc with the economy.

Right now, the nation’s debt limit is set at just above $14 trillion. When the debt reaches that limit, expected in mid-May, Congress has to raise the ceiling; otherwise the government cannot keep borrowing money to fund federal programs. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others have said that would be catastrophic for the financial markets and the overall economy.

Lieberman conceded that it’s a delicate issue. “I know that there’s risk in voting against the increase in our debt ceiling,” Lieberman said. “But I’ve concluded that the risk of not doing something to force us to cut our debt is actually riskier for our country.”

He said he’s flexible on the fiscal framework that’s linked to a hike in the debt ceiling, but added, “I won’t vote for it unless something real is done that gives us confidence that in fact the debt will be reduced.”

Lieberman’s position could give him new leverage in the now-raging clash over fiscal reform. It’s a showdown that, until now, he’s watched mostly from the sidelines, despite his desire to play a leading role.

In an interview in January, just after he announced he would not run for a 5th term, Lieberman said he wanted to zero in on the debt problem and he hoped his status as an independent would help him bridge the inevitable divide on thorny questions over cutting entitlements and raising taxes.

There are “three overriding issues I’ll be really interested in trying to build bipartisan coalitions on,” Lieberman said then. At the top of the list: “The big threat facing American from within–in the debt.”

His eagerness to add his voice to the conversation was clear last week, when Lieberman sent out a statement praising House Republican Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s for having the “courage” to offer a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan. Lieberman’s statement arrived in reporters’ inboxes even before Ryan had finished his press conference unveiling the proposal-and as the Senate Democrats he caucuses with were blasting it for undermining Medicare and Medicaid.

Lieberman has since said he disagrees with some elements of Ryan’s plan and only wanted to commend him for putting a wide-ranging blueprint on the table. His press release in praise of Ryan in some ways only served to highlight his struggle to find a role for himself in the larger fiscal brouhaha.

Lieberman doesn’t sit on the budget or appropriations committees, so he doesn’t have a natural platform to talk about the issue. He said he would have loved to join the so-called “Gang of Six,” a group of senators, three Democrats and three Republicans, who are crafting a wide-ranging deficit reduction plan. But they weren’t taking any new members. “They wanted to keep it at six,” Lieberman quipped.

He had hoped to draft his own reform plan, in coordination with his long-time political ally Sen. John McCain, to take on Social Security–perhaps the most controversial component in the current clash. Any entitlement reform put forward by Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, and McCain, a staunch conservative, would have surely turned heads in the Capitol. But that effort seems to have fizzled, and for now anyway, it’s on hold.

Lieberman dismissed questions about whether he’s been frustrated by his inability to carve out a more forceful role in what has become the defining issue of the 112th Congress. But he conceded that he’s itching to make his positions heard, particularly since this could be his last chance to put his fingerprints on a major piece of legislation.

“There’s no question that there’s an extra dimension of urgency that I feel because this is my last two years here,” he said. “And I really want to feel when I leave that I’ve helped to put something in place that will get our government back in balance. I think ultimately it’s more important than just about anything else.”

Others in the delegation said they didn’t fault Lieberman for inserting himself into this arena, even if they disagreed with his positions and cringed at his words of praise for the GOP.

Said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District: “I think Joe got out front” on the Ryan plan, which Larson described as “draconian,” rather than courageous. But he said he thought Lieberman was trying to play a genuine, bridge-building role on a high-stakes issue.

“I think perhaps he’s recognizing that he’s winding down his stay in the United States Senate, and he’s probably looking for some areas that he’d like to be a part of and would like to play a constructive role in,” Larson said.

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