John McCain, Joe Lieberman
Jeff Chiu  /  AP
Last month, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., right, campaigned with Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the National Restaurant Association in Chicago.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 8/3/2008 8:56:09 PM ET 2008-08-04T00:56:09

Sen. Joe Lieberman is at center stage in the Senate this week.

He is leading the charge for a landmark greenhouse gas bill which would force power plants, steel mills and other industrial operations to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

But at the same time he's front and center shepherding the bill, Lieberman is in a political no-man’s land, neither entirely out of the Democratic Party, nor exactly in it either.

The Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, Lieberman is the most prominent Democratic supporter of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

Some Democrats insist that Lieberman is not a Democrat at all, but there he was Tuesday at the weekly policy luncheon at the Capitol where Democratic senators plan their strategy.

And there he was 24 hours earlier sitting in the front row at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) when McCain addressed the group and bashed Sen. Barack Obama’s stance on Iran.

He followed up on Wednesday by taking part in a McCain campaign conference call with reporters criticizing Obama’s speech to the AIPAC conference.

Last month he said, “I worry that Sen. Obama has not had that experience (as McCain has) and therefore, ultimately, will compromise our security… and also our alliances.”

And Video: Polar bear is 'threatened' species he derided Obama’s statement last year that he would meet without preconditions with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

“That not only gives prestige to a terrible America- and Israel-hater, but it also threatens our allies in the region,” said Lieberman.

A Democratic outcast, a renegade, a maverick — call him what you will, Lieberman is positioned to both help elect the next president and enact a bill that would transform the American economy.

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Campaign doesn't deter cooperation
Both Lieberman and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, insisted Tuesday that there’s no awkwardness over Lieberman’s outspoken support for McCain and his criticism of Obama.

It has not impaired Lieberman’s ability to help lead the Democrats’ greenhouse gas crusade, they said.

The Senate is spending this week debating the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill (Sen. John Warner, R-Va. is the third co-sponsor), which at its core would create a complex system of trading carbon dioxide "allowances" between businesses.

“We just don’t come close to agreeing on that (the presidential race) or on the war, but on this we agree and we’re working very closely on it,” Boxer said Tuesday.

Asked whether the campaign elbowing makes it difficult for him to work with Democrats on the greenhouse gas bill, Lieberman said, “I don’t think so, I haven’t felt it.” Video: McCain addresses global warming

Boxer lavished praise on Lieberman as the debate began Monday, saying his role as a bill co-author and sponsor makes it a “tri-partisan” crusade.

She brought up Lieberman’s 2000 running mate, Al Gore, noting that the former vice president and Nobel Prize co-winner this year has just given his blessing to the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill.

But as of Tuesday night, none of the presidential contenders had showed up to take part in the Senate debate on a bill that, in some form, is likely to be sigend into law by the next president, no matter who that is.

The White House issued a statement this week saying that President Bush would veto the bill in its current form. That makes what was happening in the Senate mostly a dress rehearsal for next year's action.

Bashing Iran, praising McCain
Lieberman put his own gloss on the bill at one of the kick-off events Monday in a park across the street from the Capitol.

He reminded the crowd of green activists that the previous version of the bill was “the McCain-Lieberman bill.”

And he got in a shot at one his favorite targets, the regime in Iran. His bill would ultimately reduce reliance on imported oil and when that happened, he said, Americans “don’t have to worry about importing from the tyrants in Iran or Venezuela, or even Mr. Putin in Russia.”

Lieberman always takes the opportunity to tout McCain’s support for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“He was one of the first people to want to do something about global warming,” Lieberman told reporters Tuesday. “I know he wants to make sure we are more supportive than the bill now is on nuclear energy. But I have no doubt he’ll be supporting this bill.”

So why hasn't McCain yet declared his support for the bill?

“He’s not ready to say he’s going to support it until he sees more nuclear. But this is essentially the bill he and I introduced five years ago,” Lieberman explained.

Lieberman and Warner are working to make the bill more nuclear friendly — and thus more palatable to McCain — by introducing an amendment that provides funding for training of nuclear power plant workers and to encourage more people to become nuclear engineers.

The Lieberman-Warner amendment would also provide money to redevelop the manufacturing of nuclear power plant components in America. “We discover now that since we stopped building nuclear power plants, people in America don’t make the major components, you have to go overseas,” Lieberman said.

Antagonizing Democrats
Meanwhile in his 2008 campaign persona, Lieberman continues to antagonize the Democrats.

There’s the question of whether Lieberman will address the GOP convention in September. “Nobody’s talked to me anymore,” Lieberman said somewhat ambiguously, seeming to imply that some conversation about him addressing the convention had occurred.

Groups such as Democracy for America and People for the American Way are denouncing Lieberman for being slated to speak at a Christians United for Israel event next month hosted by evangelist John Hagee.

McCain renounced the Texas preacher two weeks ago after statements by Hagee from the 1990s came to light in which he had said Hitler's persecution of the European Jews fulfilled a divine plan to get the Jewish people back to Palestine.

While McCain has bailed out on Hagee, Lieberman hasn’t. He said Tuesday he would speak to Hagee’s group as planned.

“This is a commitment I made. I spoke to it last year and they asked me some time last year to come again this year,” Lieberman said. “I disagree with some of the controversial statements that Pastor Hagee had made that were discovered recently that I did know about. Most of them were from a time past.”

He added, “I do think it’s fair to judge somebody by the totality of their life’s work and he’s done a lot of good work. One of the good works he did was to create this group, Christians United for Israel, which not only supports Israel but is supporting the United States in the war on terrorism.”

Volatile relations with Democrats
Lieberman’s volatile relations with Democrats dates back to 2006 when he lost his Senate Democratic primary in Connecticut to challenger Ned Lamont, but handily won re-election as an independent.

Some Democrats who support Obama are hoping for Lieberman to get his comeuppance on Election Day.

“You know, eating your words later is always a painful experience,” remarked Obama supporter Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. referring to Lieberman’s attacks on Obama. “The less you say of that (criticism of Obama), the better, if you want to serve as a bridge builder” between Democrats and Republicans. 

If Nelson gets his wish and McCain loses on Nov. 4 and the Democrats gain more seats in the Senate, some Capitol observers wonder whether Democrats will make Lieberman persona non grata at their weekly policy lunches.

Will they go further and oust him from his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee?

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann asked Majority Leader Harry Reid last month whether there was anything that Lieberman “could do that would make you move to take (away) his leadership position away on Homeland Security?”

“Yes, of course,” Reid said, without saying what the firing offense might be.

“Joe has been very good on issues with some exceptions, on everything but the war,” he said. “But you know, I don’t have all Democrats on everything. So, it’s really unfair to pick on Joe on a few other things, the war we can pick on him all we want. I disagree. I think it’s wrong what he’s done and I told him that.”

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