With just a few days to go until the midterm elections, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has a 14-point lead over Democratic challenger Ned Lamont. Lieberman started his campaign as a Democrat but switched his affiliation to Independent after he lost the party primary in August. What will happen if he gets re-elected to the Senate?
It looks like nothing will change. Lieberman says his Independent affiliation won’t matter at all if he goes back to Washington for the 110th Congress. According to Lieberman, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has promised him that he’d be welcomed back into the party if he got re-elected, and that he’d get to keep all of his seniority and committee assignments. (When the Democratic senators met for a weekly policy luncheon after the primary, Lieberman received an ovation.)
If Reid and the Democrats follow through on that promise, Lieberman would be a member of the party for all intents and purposes. He’d caucus with the party—which means he’d get to attend and vote at party meetings. He’d remain the senior Democrat on the homeland security and governmental affairs committee, and he’d get to hold on to his ranking on other assignments. The most significant difference between Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., would be the party affiliation printed in the newspapers.
The change in affiliation wouldn’t make a difference even if the Senate were split down the middle. Let’s say the election resulted in the Republicans having a one-seat advantage. In general, the party with the majority can pass an “organizing resolution” of its own devising, which sets out the composition of each committee and who gets to name the chairs. (By tradition, the majority party in the Senate keeps the chair positions to itself and distributes the remaining seats in proportion to the makeup of the Senate.) But Lieberman would almost certainly vote with the Democrats on the organizing resolution and eliminate the Republicans’ one-vote edge.
The last 50-50 split occurred six years ago, and the two parties had to negotiate a difficult power-sharing arrangement—each committee was evenly divided, with Republicans getting the chairs (since they controlled the White House). But the balance of power changed when Sen. Jim Jeffords switched from Republican to Independent. Though he has held on to the “I-Vt.” label, he caucuses and votes with the Democrats and accepts committee assignments and seniority from them as well. (Democratic leaders had to offer him the chair of a committee to seal the deal.)
Independents don’t always caucus with a party. When socialist Bernie Sanders was first elected to the House, he didn’t attend policy meetings with the Democrats. But he did take their committee assignments, and he accrued seniority according to the Democratic rankings. (Now he does caucus with the party, and it looks like he’ll soon take over Jeffords’ spot in the Senate.)
Not everyone believes Lieberman’s claim that he’d get to keep his seniority. Harry Reid won’t confirm that he made that promise, and it’s possible that the decision would fall to a vote by the entire party caucus. If Lieberman were denied his rank, he might be tempted to caucus with the Republicans. That would be very risky for him, since he’s made it clear to his constituents that he’s planning to stay with the Democrats.
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Explainer thanks Barbara Sinclair of UCLA and Steve Smith of Washington University.