Joe Lieberman's New Launching Pad

From his high-profile committee, he can lob bombs at Bush--and redefine himself

In a speech last March in Washington, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman delivered such an impassioned argument for giving religion a greater role in society that one member of the audience could hardly contain himself. John J. DiIulio Jr., the Bush appointee who heads the White House Office of Faith Based & Community Initiatives, jumped to his feet and yelled: "Joe Lieberman for President!"

DiIulio's enthusiasm isn't matched by the rest of the Administration, of course--especially since the Democratic senator from Connecticut seems intent on positioning himself for a possible White House bid in 2004. Lieberman says he won't throw his hat into the ring unless his former running mate Al Gore declines to seek the Presidency again. But the senator recently set up a new fund-raising committee and has been crisscrossing the country on behalf of Democratic candidates. "I'm not jumping through any doors," he says. "But I'm not closing them, either."

Artfully put. But the key question for corporate lobbyists, who remember Just Plain Joe as a pro-business advocate dedicated to advancing the New Economy and safeguarding the interests of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, is this: Will he shed some of his moderation now in a drive to appeal to Democratic interest groups?

So far, the evidence is that Lieberman will try to have it both ways. He will continue to deliver his moral sermonettes and back some business-friendly items--while adopting elements of Gore's big-stick populism to batter Bush. Whether he emerges from this process as the New Democrat he once was remains an open question.

The Senate's recent switch to Democratic control could prove particularly fortuitous for Lieberman. As the new chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, he can convene hearings, issue subpoenas, and grab the spotlight on virtually any topic. Not surprisingly, his initial targets are Bush's political vulnerabilities.

"WE'RE IN A CRISIS." First up is an investigation into why the Bush-backed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been slow to ease California's energy distress by adopting temporary price caps on wholesale electricity. While interfering in the market is hardly in sync with Lieberman's New Democratic philosophy, he is now co-sponsoring a bill to do just that in the West. "In most cases I am skeptical, if not negative, about price caps," he says. "But not in this case. It's not a true market, and we're in a crisis."

He also plans a probe of whether Administration officials overstepped their bounds in rolling back a spate of Clinton environmental regulations. Down the road, there may be hearings on voter reform and consumer-protection issues such as radiation hazards from cell phones.

In the past, Lieberman has championed free trade, product-liability reform, and cuts in capital-gains taxes. In an interview with BusinessWeek, the senator said he still holds those positions. Corporate lobbyists, however, point out that his current agenda at Governmental Affairs hardly jibes with the priorities of the business community. Now, "he says he wants to conduct oversight hearings with utility and gas producers?" says Dan Danner, chief lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Lieberman insists that his instincts remain in the fiscally conservative, socially moderate zone of the Democratic spectrum. "I've gone forward on the same course I've been on for a long time," he says, adding that he never changed his position on issues such as school vouchers, about which he and Gore parted company. Instead, he just kept quiet about their differences.

Of course, Lieberman isn't the only Senate Democrat coveting the White House. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Majority Tom Daschle of South Dakota all consider themselves Presidential timber. Still, Lieberman's chairmanship of such a high-profile committee will ensure him more attention than all but Daschle.

Can Lieberman use his new bully pulpit to woo the Democratic base while staying true to his centrist instincts? While he expresses regret for some of the populist rhetoric emanating from the Gore campaign last year, the senator still has to appeal to the minority and special-interest voting blocs that are so crucial to Democratic success. That means walking a tightrope that stretches all the way to 2004.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

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