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Lieberman's Health Care Shift Gets Mixed Reviews

Sen. Joe Lieberman walks off the Capitol subway Tuesday, after discussing his opposition to expanding Medicare in the Senate's health care reform bill.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Sen. Joe Lieberman walks off the Capitol subway Tuesday, after discussing his opposition to expanding Medicare in the Senate's health care reform bill.

For a while this week, it looked like the opposition of Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, could doom the Democrats' attempt at passing health care. That changed when Majority Leader Harry Reid gave in to Lieberman's demands on the Medicare buy-in program and the public option.

In Washington, many Democrats and progressives were furious at Lieberman; some called for him to be stripped of his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. But for his constituents back home in Connecticut, it's more of a mixed bag.

'What Does Joe Want?'

The Tower Grill is a small diner just off Route 8 in an industrial area in Waterbury, Conn. During his political campaigns, Lieberman routinely stops at diners like the Tower for his "Cuppa Joe" sessions: scrambled eggs, orange juice and a chance to talk with state residents like Myrna Wantanabe.

But mention Lieberman's name this morning, and Wantanabe gets pretty caffeinated — and that's without any coffee.

"I would hope that this is the end of him politically," Wantanabe said. "I mean, I would truly hope that he is politically finished. I'm pretty angry, as you can tell."

Wantanabe is a member of Connecticut's Democratic Central Committee. She says Democrats in the state are furious over Lieberman's opposition to expanding Medicare coverage — an idea he championed as Al Gore's running mate back in 2000, and supported just three months ago.

"The word that comes to mind," Wantanabe said, "is a word that one of my fellow State Central Committee members used in discussing him — and it's 'duplicitous.' What does Joe want?"

Playing A Pivotal Role In Congress

Mark Pazniokas has covered Lieberman as a reporter for The Hartford Courant, both when Lieberman was serving as a Democrat and since his reelection as an independent three years ago.

Pazniokas says the answer to what Lieberman wants may be this: center stage. Pazniokas calls Lieberman "the luckiest guy in politics" because his vote has been so crucial to Democrats.

"In 2006 when he won reelection, the Democrats needed him to get to the magic number of 51 senators," Pazniokas said. "Now they need him for 60 votes, which is necessary to move business, to ward off filibusters. So who has that kind of luck? He is the guy."

But Lieberman, whose term is up in 2012, may not be the kind of guy Connecticut Democrats continue to stand behind.

Juggling Constituents' Wishes

Rabbi Joseph Ron Fish has always voted for Lieberman, despite disagreeing with the senator's support of the Iraq war. But not any longer.

Lieberman's stance on health care prompted Rabbi Fish to write a letter, signed by nearly 300 clergy across the state, calling on Lieberman to rethink his position on health care.

"He said that it was a matter of conscience for him. And for me this was a bridge too far," Fish said.

"As a matter of conscience, I felt that it was important for the senator to hear from me. A constituent, a person who also is guided by conscience, and a member of his religious community."

But not all Connecticut residents disagree with Lieberman.

"I think he's the only sane Democrat," said Bob Verrastro, a retired investigator for the State Labor Department and a registered Republican.

Talking as he finished his breakfast back at the Tower Grill, Verrastro said, "I'm a conservative. And Mr. Lieberman is a conservative Democrat — and he's had my vote, even running against Republicans."

Another diner patron, Gary Saam, a state social worker, said that Lieberman is doing the best he can to lower the cost of health care.

"He's trying to hold all sides accountable," Saam said. "I trust Joe and his instincts."

But state Democrats are worried — and Lieberman is not their only headache.

Sen. Chris Dodd's poll numbers are so low that some in the party, like Myrna Wantanabe, say he can't win re-election next year.

Despite his troubles, Wantanabe says she always has a pretty good sense of where Dodd stands on the issues. But, she says, that sense is something she lost a long time ago with Lieberman.

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