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Lieberman won't rule out GOP caucusing

Would make change if he felt uncomfortable

WASHINGTON -- Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said yesterday that he will caucus with Senate Democrats in the new Congress, but he would not rule out switching to the Republican caucus if he starts to feel uncomfortable among Democrats.

Lieberman, a Democrat who won reelection as an independent, also said he wants to be called an Independent Democrat.

A strong backer of the Iraq war, Lieberman was returned to office on Election Day with strong GOP support. He ran as an independent after he lost the Democratic primary in August to Ned Lamont.

He said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he will begin his new term as a Democrat because it would make him part of the congressional leadership. The senator is in line to become chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"I'm going to caucus with the Democrats both because it's good for my constituents in Connecticut, because I retained my seniority, I become a committee chair, but also I want to continue to work to bring the party back to its historic traditions of strength on national security, foreign policy, and innovation and progress in domestic policy," Lieberman said.

He said that because voters returned him to Capitol Hill as an independent, "I am now an Independent Democrat -- capital I, capital D. Matter of fact, the secretary of the Senate called my office and asked, 'How do you want to be identified,' and that's it. Independent Democrat," the senator said.

With many Senate Democrats having campaigned or raised money for Lamont, as the party's nominee, Lieberman acknowledged that it might be "a little awkward" for him back in Washington.

"They played by the traditional partisan political playbook. And I can't say I enjoyed it, but we're all grown-ups, we've got a job to do, and I'm going to do my best to get that job done," Lieberman said.

Democrats will hold a 51-49 edge in the Senate, so Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, could find himself courted by Republicans.

He was asked about the possibility that he might switch caucuses if he became uncomfortable as Democrats sought to enforce party discipline, particularly if the GOP offered to keep him as a committee chairman and respect his seniority.

"I'm not ruling it out, but I hope I don't get to that point. And, and I must say, and with all respect to the Republicans who supported me in Connecticut, nobody ever said, 'We're doing this because we, we want you to switch over,' " he said.

"I believe that the American people are considering both major political parties to be in a kind of probation, because they're understandably angry that Washington is dominated too much by partisan political games, and not enough by problem-solving and patriotism, which means put the country and your state first," Lieberman said.

In 2001, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont abandoned the GOP and aligned himself with the Democrats, putting them in control of the evenly divided Senate. The switch made him a hero among Democrats and a traitor among Republicans.

Lieberman said Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia listed himself as an Independent Democrat in the late 1970s. Before that, the last senator to use the designation was in the mid-19th century, he said.

"I am going to Washington beholden to no political group except the people of Connecticut and, of course, my conscience," he said.

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