Lieberman got off easy

Barack Obama perhaps didn’t directly intervene to save Joe Lieberman’s chairmanship but it certainly didn’t hurt when the President-elect said he would be "happy" to have the Connecticut senator and party apostate continue to caucus with the Democrats.

Democrats were furious when Lieberman showed up at the Republican convention to endorse John McCain and even more furious when he said dismissively of Obama that he was "an eloquent young man" but unprepared to be president. He then actively campaigned with McCain.

But passions cooled after the election and more practical political considerations took over. The Democrats’ edge in the next Senate, including Lieberman, is now 57 to 40 with three races undecided. They don’t need him as badly as they did with a one-seat margin but they still need him to muster 60 votes to break a Republican filibuster.

The Democratic caucus met behind closed doors Tuesday — without Obama who resigned from the Senate Sunday — to consider a number of options regarding Lieberman, including expelling him from the caucus or stripping him of the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security committee and take the chance he’d leave the party on his own.

But Obama passed the word that reprisals would be inconsistent with his message of bipartisanship and a willingness to work with opponents. It was a magnanimous gesture — and also quite shrewd. Why mess up the transition by picking an unnecessary fight?

In the caucus, Lieberman did not apologize for endorsing McCain but did say he regretted some of the things he said in the heat of the campaign. His fellow senators then voted 42 to 13 to condemn those statements but allow him to keep the Homeland Security chairmanship and the chairmanship of an Armed Services subcommittee. His only punishment, hardly a harsh one, was to lose his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee and with it the chairmanship of the cumbersomely named subcommittee on Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection.

Chairman Lieberman owes one to the President-elect.