Perhaps the most important sign Barack Obama has given as to how he'll navigate the choppy waters of Capitol Hill as president is his support for Joe Lieberman amid calls from some Senate Democrats and liberal bloggers to take away the turncoat's committee gavel and, effectively, boot him from the party.
Obama's message: Unity, guys. As a party, we need to pick our battles wisely. Making a GOP martyr out of someone who votes with us 90 percent of the time shouldn't be one of them.
During his first week as president-elect, Obama treaded carefully around the post-election politicking that had his Senate colleagues preoccupied. He sent aides to help Jim Martin win the Georgia runoff, throwing himself into an early, uphill test of his coattails in a red state he nearly won. But he has had little to say about the unresolved races in Alaska and Minnesota. And shortly after a Chicago TV station reported that he was pushing for loyalist Valerie Jarrett to claim his Illinois seat, he emphasized that it was not his choice to make.
Obama's backing of Lieberman creates new problems for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been negotiating privately with the Connecticut senator and others over how to resolve this standoff.
In deciding whether to punish Lieberman, Reid has to consider several questions: Does Lieberman's disloyalty require such aggressive payback? What message does Reid want to send about party loyalty to his newly expanded caucus -- and the country? And perhaps most importantly, what impact would Reid's actions have on his party's control of the Senate and its ability to muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster?
Ultimately, it seems, Reid's decision will tell us whether he and his caucus are focused on the future or the past. Sure, Lieberman roiled some Democrats by campaigning for John McCain and Sarah Palin -- most notably, delivering a GOP convention speech that attacked Obama and appearing several times on the trail with Palin. But Obama won that race, decisively, on a well-received message of post-partisan magnanimity. Still basking in the glow of that victory, how would Democrats explain such a sharp-elbowed act of retribution against a rival who proved to have notably little impact on the outcome?
Retribution also seems to be at play in the House, where Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has mounted an aggressive challenge to claim the Energy and Commerce Committee gavel from Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the chamber's longest-serving member and a Democratic partisan, who nonetheless has locked horns with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders on environmental and energy issues. At issue: party loyalty.
For his part, Reid can afford to play hardball with Lieberman, who finds himself in an increasingly tight corner. During their recent meeting in Reid's office, Lieberman pushed hard to hold on to his Homeland Security gavel, suggesting he'd leave the caucus if he's demoted. But Lieberman surely knows that doing so could seal his fate back home in the increasingly blue state of Connecticut. Last week, voters there defied their junior senator and gave Obama 61 percent, one of his biggest margins in the country, while they booted New England's sole remaining House Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays, from office.
In the end, Reid may spare Lieberman, if only because, as he has said repeatedly, he considers him a "friend." Ironically, it was friendship, that sense of senatorial collegiality, that Lieberman said left him no choice but to endorse McCain.