Lieberman Quits Co-Chairing Snowe’s Centrist Group, Teams With Alexander

Posted on December 20, 2006

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has relinquished his position as co-chairman of the Senate Centrist Coalition, halting talks with co-chairwoman Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) over the future of the organization in favor of creating his own bipartisan group with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Snowe, meanwhile, has begun working with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to refashion the Centrist Coalition into a group that includes more than just ideological centrists and which they hope will appeal to Senators from all over the political spectrum. As recently as early December, Snowe and Lieberman had said that they and their staffs were in talks over how to refashion the Centrist Coalition into a broader alliance of Republicans and Democrats who would work to end the vitriolic partisanship that has characterized Capitol Hill the past few years. More recently, Lieberman suggested to Snowe that she work instead with Landrieu, Snowe spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier confirmed. Lieberman spokesman Marshall Wittmann disputed the notion that Lieberman had cut off talks with Snowe about the Centrist Coalition. “You can continue working with one group while [creating] another,” he said. However, he did confirm that Lieberman would no longer co-chair the centrist group or its new incarnation. Lieberman, who rallied back from a stunning Democratic primary loss this year to win re-election as an Independent, appears to be charting a new course for himself as he assesses how to move forward as a self-described “independent Democrat.” In this instance, Lieberman has reached out to a more conservative Senator, Alexander, instead of continuing to work with Snowe, who is one of the most liberal-leaning Republicans in the Senate. Aides to both Snowe and Lieberman insisted that there is no tension between the offices and that the two groups will not be in competition with each other. Aides to both Senators said that both would participate in the other’s group. “There are plenty of partisan venues, so there should be a proliferation of bipartisan venues as well,” said Wittmann. “The point is to create as many venues for bipartisan discussion as possible.” Still, Wittmann’s comments seemed to suggest that his boss did not believe the Centrist Coalition was the best place from which to build farther-reaching bipartisanship. Some Senators “may not want to go to the first group because they don’t identify themselves as centrists,” said Wittmann. He added that even though Snowe and Landrieu’s stated goal is expand the group’s membership to non-centrists, “a lot of people identify that with the brand of that organization previously.” Snowe already has stated that she wants to rename the Centrist Coalition for precisely that reason. Ferrier acknowledged that the two have a difference of opinion about how to craft a bipartisan group that encourages Republicans and Democrats to work together to craft legislative solutions and compromises. “Sen. Snowe has a slightly different idea and concept of how to move forward,” Ferrier said. She added, “Sen. Snowe wants to work with Sen. Lieberman to make sure his group is a success, and hopefully Sen. Lieberman will be a part of the group that Sen. Snowe is kicking off with Sen. Landrieu.” Indeed, on Monday, Snowe and Landrieu sent a letter to 26 Senators asking those who are interested to gather at 4 p.m. Jan. 11 at a location to be determined to discuss how to move forward with a newly constituted bipartisan coalition. The letter was sent to centrist Senators as well as conservatives who have shown a willingness to work across party lines in the past. The list included Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). Snowe and Landrieu specify in their letter that the new group would be focused on discussing “current and upcoming issues on which we may want to work together.” But the first meeting is intended as a planning session to decide on a name and frequency of meetings, said Ferrier. While still in the preliminary stages of development, the goal for Lieberman and Alexander is to create a group of Republicans and Democrats that primarily get together to socialize. However, Wittmann said legislative issues would likely be discussed as well. They plan to call it the Bipartisan Members Group. Wittmann said the “important difference” between the two groups is that people attending the Lieberman-Alexander gathering “would not necessarily come into the group to come to agreement on issues.”