The next Congress took shape behind closed doors Tuesday as Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate elected leaders and conferred on the fates of their frowned-upon colleagues.
Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Congress, won a reprieve from a GOP critic, who held off on a move to expel him from the Senate's Republican conference. Stevens was convicted of felonies for lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about $250,000 in gifts and other contributions he received.
Democrats, meanwhile, decided to let Sen. Joe Lieberman keep his chairmanship of a key committee but stripped him of a subcommittee chairmanship as punishment for his endorsement of Republican presidential contender John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama.
Lieberman's hold on his chairmanship grew firmer only after Obama urged Senate Democrats to resist retaliating, a move that put Lieberman in the president-elect's debt.
Still, Lieberman appeared relieved to have not been expelled from the governing majority.
"It's a resolution of reconciliation and not retribution, and I appreciate it," he said after the meeting, just before retreating to his hideaway office deep in the Capitol.
The future, indeed, was the theme of the parallel caucus meetings just off the darkened Senate floor. When the 111th Congress convenes next year, Democrats will control the legislature and the presidency for the first time since 1994 — but not enough to stave off Republican filibusters.
So on both sides, every vote is vitally important.
Clearly, there remained some bitter feelings particularly among Democrats who felt betrayed by Lieberman and it took some effort for some senators to stick to their forward-looking talking points.
"I think he made mistakes. Terrible mistakes. He said he made mistakes," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said as he exited a private meeting of Democrats and Lieberman in the intimate Old Senate Chamber. Asked whether he's happy to still have the Connecticut senator on the Democratic team, Lautenberg replied:
"I'm happy that we're past this crisis."
The leadership elections for next year were more suspenseful than the lame duck session of the outgoing Congress taking place in the Capitol. The parallel meetings of incoming and outgoing Congresses have made for some close quarters shared by old, new and vanquished members.
One very familiar figure returned to the lofty Senate, still fighting a battle of his own.
"It's good to be back in the Senate," Sen. Edward Kennedy, who has been coping with brain cancer treatment for six months, told reporters Monday as he arrived flanked by his wife, Vicki, and two dogs, Sunny and Splash.
The House and Senate are meeting this week for one last showdown with President George W. Bush over whether to rescue the troubled auto industry from sinking in a turbulent economy. The plan was headed for a stalemate even before it was introduced.
Beyond the stalled policy, Congress itself chugged to life for the first time since the Nov. 4 election that propelled two senators — Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden — to the White House and handed Democrats stronger House and Senate majorities.
Despite the developments, much of what Congress will look like and who will serve in it remains unclear.
Stevens, 84, got a reprieve Tuesday from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who made clear he intended to push for Alaska senator's expulsion from the chamber.
DeMint said he'll hold off on his move to expel Stevens from the GOP conference and strip him of plum committee assignments starting in January. He said some of his colleagues want to see whether Stevens wins another term before voting to sanction him.
Five races in the House and three in the Senate still have not been decided. And the roles of two mavericks and good friends are up in the air.
While Lieberman is something of a pariah inside the Democratic caucus, McCain's status is similar on the Republican side. Just as Democrats need Lieberman's vote, Republicans need McCain's to try to block the Democrats' agenda after Obama takes office in January.