One Senator's Tone of Neutrality Stands Out Amid Partisan Din

Lieberman breaks with Democrats in campaign hearings

In crowded Capitol hearing rooms, the bright-burning television lights have lit up the furrowed brows of congressmen across the decades. In this glare of national attention, little-known senators often come to prominence.

It happened to the infamous anti-Communist Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin in the 1950s. It happened to Sens. Sam Ervin (D) of North Carolina and Howard Baker (R) of Tennessee during Watergate hearings in the '70s. This summer, in the Senate campaign-finance hearings, it could happen to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut.

In the charged partisan atmosphere of the Hart Office Building central hearing room, Senator Lieberman stands out among his peers for his independence. He has broken with fellow Democrats so often that some now label him the first and only "nonpartisan" panel member.

Lieberman's maverick streak first drew attention when he opposed fellow Democrat Sen. John Glenn of Ohio over whether FBI and CIA evidence showed that China plotted to influence American elections.

Senator Fred Thompson, the GOP committee chairman, had made this allegation in his opening statement. But Senator Glenn refuted it.

Disturbed by the contradiction, Lieberman asked for a new FBI briefing. When it was over, the Democrats agreed there was such a plan - though they held there was no evidence it had been implemented.

Lieberman also broke with Democrats to join panel Republicans in voting to grant immunity to several witnesses. The motion failed, although it was later approved. Last week, he was at odds with almost the entire committee, voting against immunity for other witnesses.

And although Lieberman's contrarian course has drawn attention from some, others aren't so sure of his independence: "You would almost think that he's trying to have it both ways," says political analyst Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report. "He takes a public stand against the administration, then backs the administration on a less public issue."

Lieberman explains simply, "I decided ... that this was the way I wanted to do it because I thought this was the right way to do it."

Lieberman watchers say the straight-shooting senator from New Haven is acting true to form. For instance, he broke with Democrats to support the Gulf War resolution. He has also taken on "trash TV" talk shows and stared down conglomerate Time Warner over "gangsta rap." He backed US intervention in Bosnia, NATO expansion, Israel, and nuclear submarines - built in his home state.

An Orthodox Jew whose father owned a liquor store in Stamford, Conn., Lieberman got into politics early, working for the state's venerable Democratic senator, Abraham Ribicoff.

The Yale graduate took on the state Senate's majority leader in 1970 and won with volunteer help from law student Bill Clinton.

Later, after serving as state attorney general for six years, he launched a long-shot but successful bid against liberal Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker. Lieberman is so religiously observant he refused to attend the party convention that nominated him to run for the US Senate - because it took place on the Sabbath.

Lieberman is currently chairman of the influential Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that then-Governor Clinton co-founded. In that role he's supported welfare reform, enterprise zones to revitalize urban areas, and product-liability reform.

"I think the guy is a real standup guy," Mr. Cook says. "It's not easy to be a centrist Democrat in the Northeast."

What do other committee Democrats think of his approach? "I haven't gotten any heavy guff, let's put it that way," he says. But they have sometimes asked what he's up to.

LIEBERMAN says committee Democrats have been understandably nervous about the probe, which has mostly been aimed at the Democratic president. But, he says, "I don't think we have anything to be defensive about.... Ultimately I think the public understands that both parties are involved in this, in the general systemic breakdown."

"So I just made a decision at the outset ... that the focus has to be what really did happen in 1996, both illegal and improper," he says. "That was the way to do it. You know, the truth will come out in the end."

Lieberman is one of the louder voices in Congress pushing campaign-finance reform. When the truth comes out, he believes it will push Congress to change the system.

"It's important to go after the scandal ... and all that," he says. "But underlying it, the broader story - and the one that invites us to reform the system - is how the system went out of control."

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