Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut, emerged Tuesday afternoon from a meeting with his caucus as the center of attention -- again.
On his way in, he told reporters that if a public health insurance option was in the final health care bill, he would join a GOP filibuster to prevent it from getting an up or down vote. HuffPost asked him if there'd been much reaction from his colleagues in the Democratic caucus.
"Not really," he said, "because I think my colleagues know for a long time that I've been opposed to a government-created, government-run insurance company."
Lieberman stressed that he was not opposing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) effort to get a bill on to the floor -- one that includes a public health insurance option. Rather, said Lieberman, he would oppose a final vote on the bill by supporting a GOP filibuster if the public option remained in the bill. The difference is crucial, in that it allows the process to move forward. But it does present backers of a public option with the problem of getting 60 votes for a final vote to cut off a GOP filibuster.
Lieberman will face tremendous pressure from his caucus and the Democratic base to break with the Republican Party and allow a final vote on health care to go forward. Lieberman may be bluffing. Asked by HuffPost if he expects that he would have to cast the vote that he is currently threatening, he demurred. "That depends," he said.
But for now, he's drawing a bright line. "I do want to make clear, because at least one publication got this wrong," he said. "What I said this morning and what I've said to Senator Reid is that I'm inclined to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed to a debate on health care reform, because I believe we need to have a debate on health care reform and I hope to be in a position to vote yes on health care reform. But, I've also said that if the current proposal remains as it is unamended, before the final vote on the floor, that I will not vote for cloture."
Lieberman added that he would not support a compromise put forward by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) for a public option that would be triggered into effect.
The Connecticut senator, who was nearly booted from the caucus less than a year ago for supporting the GOP's presidential candidate, said he wasn't concerned about retribution. Asked by HuffPost as he left the meeting if he was willing to give up his gavel -- his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee that he fought so hard to keep following the presidential election -- he dismissed the concern. "Oh, God no," he said. "Nobody's asking me that."
Asked the same question in a separate huddle by another reporter, he said he'd leave his fate in his colleague's hands. "I'm at a point in my public service career that I'm just going to do what I think is right and makes sense. Nobody has said anything to that effect, and I leave it to my colleagues to decide.
Would Lieberman really be the vote that sinks health care reform? "I'd hate to. I really want to get to yes," he said.
Then why not vote to end the filibuster but vote no on the final package?
"Because that is not using the rights that I have as a senator under the rules of the Senate to stop something from happening that I think will be bad," he offered.
Is the heavy concentration of the insurance industry in Connecticut influencing his vote?
"It has nothing to do with it," he said.
Lieberman spoke with a scrum of reporters just off the Senate floor, took questions, and explained his reasoning -- which, as Marcy Wheeler notes, is not coherent. The audio of that conversation begins immediately after HuffPost asked him what reaction there had been from his colleagues.
UPDATE: HuffPost's Jeff Muskus caught Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) after a vote Tuesday evening and found the Budget Committee Chairman pondering whether Lieberman's move brings Snowe's trigger back into play.
Note that Lieberman opposes that, too, but Snowe herself said she has no intention of bringing it to the floor as an amendment. If Reid wants to compromise on a trigger, Snowe said, it's up to him. "This is in his pay grade, not mine," said a demoted Snowe Tuesday night.
Snowe said she has been talking with Nelson and other swing senators about their concerns, but declined to elaborate and said they are not acting as a concerted bloc.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a strong supporter of the public option, responded to Lieberman's threat with a feather touch. "Joe and I are good friends and there's a difference on this and it's his right to express it," Dodd said Tuesday night. "I'm still hopeful that before we complete this process, we'll have a lot more support for the public option, perhaps even from my friend from Connecticut."