Washington — When Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, lost an important committee chairmanship after her party lost control of the Senate in 2001, her successor, Sen. Joe Lieberman, assured her she would still have clout.
“I’ll never forget … Joe leaning over to me and saying, ‘Don’t worry, Susan. All that will change is that you’ll pass me the gavel,'” Collins said. “Joe has always based his leadership on his belief that the great challenges America faces … transcend party lines.”
Lieberman retires this month after 24 years in the Senate, stripping Connecticut of a powerful champion and the nation of a uniquely enigmatic politician.
“I thought it was time for me to go,” said Lieberman, 70.
To many, he’s self-serving and calculating. To others, Lieberman is principled and patriotic.
Above all, Lieberman has been one of Congress’ most complicated members, beginning a career as a very popular Democratic New Haven liberal — but eventually antagonizing members of his own party by his support of the war in Iraq and his decision to endorse a Republican presidential candidate.
Yet Lieberman insists “overall I’m a John F. Kennedy Democrat. I was when I started in politics.”
In his last speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Lieberman gave thanks to God, country, family – and even the maintenance people in the Capitol
He urged new members to become involved in foreign affairs and urged Americans “to have the patience to see our battles through until they are done.”
He said many things had changed since he first came to Congress, mainly for the better.
“When I started in the Senate, the blackberry was a fruit and tweeting was something only birds did,” Lieberman said.
The Connecticut independent also said the greatest obstacle to the nation’s problems was the partisanship in Washington.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., followed Lieberman , saying his Senate colleague had an “unremitting, unstinting and unwavering commitment to make the world a better place.”
Lieberman said he was interested in politics as a child living in Stamford, where his father owned a liquor store, and wanted to be a U.S. senator since his graduation from Yale Law School.
He said the gridlock and extreme partisanship of Congress made it easier to quit.
“It might have been harder if this had been a more productive time in Congress,” he said.
Hyper-partisanship prevented Lieberman from winning approval in recent years of two bills that would have added to his legacy. One that would have strengthened cyber security and another that would have reformed the U.S. Postal Service.
But Lieberman called his greatest regret Congress’ failure to do anything about climate change.
“If we don’t do anything about it, it will only get worse,” he said.
Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th, won Lieberman’s seat in November’s elections, defeating Republican Linda McMahon. Lieberman declined to endorse anyone in that race because he did not want “to get back into the nastiness of today’s politics.”
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said she views Lieberman “as one of a dying breed of senators who care more about solutions than partisanship.”
But he angered many Democrats when he lost a Democratic primary against anti-Iraq War candidate Ned Lamont in 2006 and won re-election to his seat as an independent.
“I did what I thought was right,” Lieberman said. “Besides, I was kicked out [in the primary]. The Democratic Party left me.”
University of Connecticut political science professor Ron Schurin observed that “the fact that he could get elected as an independent is phenomenal.”
“He had wide appeal, and it goes back to his days as [Connecticut] attorney general,” Schurin said.
Despite dismay over Lieberman’s leaving the partly, Senate Democrats needed Lieberman to caucus with them to keep their narrow majority in the Senate. That also allowed him to continue to chair the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
He has frustrated both Democrats and Republicans by the unpredictability of some of his votes and the fact he does not fit neatly into any partisan political box.
Last summer, for instance, Lieberman voted against both a Democratic bill that would extend tax cuts on everybody but the rich, and a GOP plan that extended all the tax cuts, including those for the rich.
The reason: Lieberman thought middle class people should pay more taxes, as well as the rich, a heretical stance in this Congress. He said his votes were never influenced by ideological party position, instead he “judged an issue on its merit.”
“The votes that I thought were controversial and broadly known, I don’t regret,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman has been accused of flip-flopping. He opposed the Senate procedure known as a filibuster, which can block legislation unless its supporter can muster 60 votes. But Lieberman conceded that he used the filibuster when needed.
He also walked away from his opposition to racial quotas. Some immigrant advocates also criticized him for inconsistency on the issue: Lieberman said he supported an “earned right of legalization” for undocumented immigrants, but he backed tougher border controls and opposed the extension of food stamps and other benefits to children of legal immigrants.
But he never wavered in his support for the U.S. military or Israel.
Over the years, as moderates in both parties retired or quit, Lieberman because increasingly isolated, gravitating to fellow defense hawks, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C.
Lieberman calls the trio “the three amigos,” and his friendship with McCain was such that he endorsed the Arizona senator in December 2007 when McCain was running for president. Lieberman also made a speech critical of the Democratic candidate — Barack Obama — at that year’s Republican National Convention.
That sparked renewed outrage among Democratic voters in Connecticut, who were growing in number, and prompted an online “Lieberman Must Go” petition that collected 47,000 signatures.
“The greatest mark of respect was when Joe Lieberman supported me in 2008, and then when we form[ed] … the Homeland Security Committee, he was made the chairman of it [and] kept the chairman of it by his Democrat peers,” McCain said. “That’s a level of respect very few people ever have attained around here.”
Nancy DiNardo, head of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said Lieberman’s speech at that GOP convention guaranteed he would not be able to win re-election because he would not be able to replicate what he did in 2006, when he received about 35 percent of the votes of Connecticut Democrats.
“That was the tipping point for him,” DiNardo said. “That’s what really infuriated Democrats.”
His views changed … and the 2000 election
He was not always a hard-liner on defense. He founded an anti-war caucus when he served in the state’s General Assembly. But when he unseated former Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker Jr. in 1988, Lieberman had turned to the right on defense.
Graham said Lieberman will leave a “vacuum” in the Senate.
“I hope some Democrat picks up the mantle of being a good progressive who is hawkish on defense,” Graham said.
Lieberman said his “moment of greatest satisfaction” was the adoption of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission that was formed after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
But the most “exciting” bill, he said, was the one repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military.
“The reason for that is that our opponents thought they had defeated us,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman said he remains frustrated and angry over the defeat in the 2000 election of the Democratic Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket for the White House.
“Al Gore and I got half-a-million more votes,” he said.
That close, contested election resulted in recounts of ballots in Florida and was eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court for former Republican President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I’ll always feel their decision was wrong and unfair,” Lieberman said of the justices. “But life goes on.”
Lieberman ran for president four years later but failed to get enough support in the Democratic primaries.
He is spending his last days as a senator touring Connecticut and giving more than a dozen interviews to journalists. He also recently established a college scholarship, in his name, for Connecticut high school students. The scholarship will initially be funded with leftover campaign cash.
Lieberman said he plans to sell his home in Washington, D.C., and live full time in Stamford, where he can be close to his children and grandchildren who live in New York.
He is vague about what he will do in his retirement. He said he wants a salaried job somewhere “so I can take care of my family” and also work in the public sector, perhaps with a group fighting global warming.
“The best piece of advice I ever got is ‘don’t make decisions quickly, you’ll make a mistake,'” he said.
Twenty-four years in the Senate usually gives a lawmaker the clout that comes with seniority and important political connections.
But Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who will take on Lieberman’s role as Connecticut’s senior senator, said he and the rest of Connecticut’s congressional delegation will pick up any slack.
“Joe Lieberman has been a great advocate for Connecticut, but we have equally strong advocates within our delegation, and I will be fighting tooth and nail for … everything that Connecticut is due,” Blumenthal said.