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Lieberman a wild card in Iraq policy

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq, is positioning himself to become a key figure in discussions about U.S. foreign policy. [!]
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Voters seemed to be speaking loudly and clearly about Iraq last week when they elected war critics such as Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and James Webb of Virginia to the Senate.

Yet they also gave a fourth term to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the war, and in the narrowly divided Senate that will convene in January, the veteran Connecticut Democrat is positioning himself to become a key figure in discussions about U.S. policy in Iraq.

Yesterday, Lieberman -- who won as an independent last week -- spelled out his vision for a congressional working group of Democratic committee chairmen and senior Republicans to monitor the course of the war and work with President Bush to bring it to a successful end.

"We're not going to fix this and succeed in Iraq without working across party lines," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

As Congress returns this week to Washington for a post-election session -- the final stint with Republicans in charge -- Lieberman is already asserting his status as a self-described political freelancer, beholden to neither party.

Most-wanted man
He has pledged to "sign up" with the Democrats for the 110th Congress but has made it clear that his motives are at least partly practical. By organizing with the party, even though he lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, Lieberman will retain his 18 years of Senate seniority and rise to the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Both sides are seeking to please this political wild card.

Republicans and the White House are indebted to Lieberman for supporting the unpopular war throughout his tough election campaign. They view him as a valuable bridge to their Democratic adversaries on national security issues.

Many Democrats remain angry with their former vice presidential nominee for not bowing out after his primary loss to the more liberal Lamont. Still, they recognize that he is crucial to their one-seat Senate majority.

Pro-war in an antiwar state, Lieberman is one of the few prominent war defenders to survive a tough challenge on Nov. 7, and with his victory comes a measure of validation.

Opposed to troop withdrawal
Speaking in Hartford last Wednesday, Lieberman remained unwavering in his opposition to Democrats' calls for withdrawing troops from Iraq. "What we are doing now there is not working, but that doesn't mean in any sense that it is time for us to retreat," he said. "This is a test in a very difficult and dangerous hour in our history."

But his victory also was something of an aberration, and whatever the fate of Lieberman's proposed bipartisan group, which he pledges to introduce in January, his continued support of Bush's stay-the-course approach places him well outside the Democratic mainstream.

"The voters spoke on Tuesday that they're unhappy with the status quo," Lieberman said. However, he added, "I don't believe they want us to pick up and leave."

Leading Dems seek pullout
Yet Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats called yesterday for the Bush administration to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in the next few months.

The new Congress, said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), in line to chair the Armed Services Committee, "is willing to implement the people's will and to put some pressure on this president to change course in Iraq, forget the stay-the-course policy that is no longer viable." Levin said on ABC's "This Week" that redeployment should begin within four to six months.

The Senate will include nine new members who are Democrats or who will organize with the party, and most of them either opposed the war or demanded a radical change of course.

Webb, a former Marine whose son is serving in Iraq, advanced a detailed plan to wind down U.S. involvement in the war by moving troops to other points in the region, such as Jordan and Kuwait, while beginning multilateral diplomatic talks. Jon Tester of Montana called for "a clear plan to give the Iraqi military control of their own country and bring our troops home."

Brown and Sanders, who opposed the war as members of the House, are seeking troop withdrawals. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was less vociferous in her opposition to the war but laid out a two-year timeline "to transition to a multinational security force and redeploy our troops."

Shifting winds of Washington
Democratic leaders have promised a raft of initiatives as they take control of Congress, from a minimum-wage increase to alternative-energy incentives. But a major goal is to force Bush to reconsider his war strategy and his refusal to set a timetable for troop withdrawal. The current Republican leadership rarely challenged Bush in public, holding few of the hearings and floor debates that are mainstays of the legislative branch when it comes to major national events.

The ground could start shifting as early as next month. The independent Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), is expected to make a series of recommendations on the future course of the war.

Although some observers conjecture that the election results may have damaged the group's likelihood of reaching recommendations both parties can support, its report could become a catalyst for a free-flowing dialogue on the war.

"Democrats will say this is a bipartisan effort," said James B. Steinberg, a Democratic national security expert and former Clinton administration official. If the recommendations prove reasonable, he noted, "it's going to be hard to say no."

Jockeying for position
In the Senate, Levin and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) are certain to be major players in the war debate, along with the new Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a likely presidential candidate in 2008. Lieberman, according to Steinberg, is unlikely to be invited into the huddle.

"They're not going to turn the policy over to the guy who's the closest to the administration," he said.

Relations within the party are a bit touchy. Some Democrats hope that Lieberman's collaborative spirit does not translate into going too lightly on the administration by failing to scrutinize spending and policy priorities that fall under the homeland security panel's jurisdiction. Reid, who is expected to become Senate majority leader, spoke to Lieberman after his reelection and is urging his colleagues to forgive and forget.

"The only way we're going to be successful is to stay together," Reid said.

One scenario is that Lieberman could emerge as an interparty broker on Iraq along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.

"There's the potential there for some interesting coalitions," said Jennifer Duffy, who monitors the Senate for the independent Cook Political Report.