Retiring US Senator Joe Lieberman, who infuriated Democrats when he turned independent and backed Republican John McCain for president, urged colleagues Wednesday to overcome partisan gridlock and forge fiscal compromise.
In his farewell address to the Senate after serving for 24 years, the enigmatic Lieberman, Al Gore’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, said that despite current “daunting challenges,” he was optimistic about America’s future after having worked through tumultuous periods in US history.
But he warned of the potential for perennial crisis if the parties do not stand down from their state of near-permanent political warfare.
“I regret to see as I leave the Senate, that the greatest obstacle… standing between us and the brighter American future we all want is right here in Washington,” Lieberman, 70, told the chamber three weeks before he steps down as senior senator from Connecticut.
“It’s the partisan polarization of our politics which prevents us from making the principled compromises on which progress in a democracy depends,” he said, alluding to the fight over how to avert tax hikes and deep spending cuts that kick in on January 1 unless Congress enacts new deficit-trimming legislation.
“We need bipartisan leadership that will break the gridlock in Washington.”
Lieberman looked back on a controversial career that saw him serve first as an idealistic Democrat inspired by John F. Kennedy, then shift to the center as an independent who earned a reputation as a hawkish supporter of the Iraq war.
“During my time here in Washington we’ve had our first female secretary of state… and our first African-American president,” Lieberman said.
He contributed to the history-making, becoming the first Jewish vice presidential nominee from any major US political party — “and incidentally, thanks to the American people, grateful to have received a half million more votes than my opponent on the other side.”
Though they won the popular vote, Gore and Lieberman ultimately lost the contested 2000 election to George W. Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney.
“But that’s a longer story,” Lieberman said to laughter in the chamber.
Lieberman, a staunch Israel supporter, angered Democratic faithful with his full-throated support for the US occupation of Iraq. He mounted a failed presidential bid in 2004, then lost his Senate primary in 2006.
He declared himself an independent that year and beat the Democratic and Republican nominees to secure reelection.
He continued to be a generally reliable Democratic vote in the Senate, emerging as a champion of efforts to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays serving openly in the US military.
In 2007, as an independent, he earned the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, after helping lead the call for creation of the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
But he outraged many liberals when he endorsed McCain in 2008 rather than Barack Obama, and spoke at that year’s GOP convention.
It became clear that Lieberman was growing increasingly isolated, and in 2011 he announced he would not seek re-election.
“I thought it was time for me to go,” he said in Wednesday’s Connecticut Mirror newspaper.
On foreign policy and security Lieberman was well to the right, authoring legislation that would strip citizenship from Americans suspected of having joined militant groups like Al-Qaeda.