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Joe Lieberman's Big Picture

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, December 18, 2009

When Joe Lieberman said he would probably support the health care legislation -- now that the public option and Medicare buy-in are being stripped out -- the Democrat-turned-independent should have rightfully faded from the headlines. But the senator from Connecticut made sure that didn't happen by telling CNN that he might run again as a Republican.

That should have surprised no one. A mere five days after he won the 2006 election by promising voters in his very blue state that he would act as a Democrat, Lieberman said, "I'm not ruling out" becoming a Republican. It's hardly news that Lieberman is a trimmer of the first order.

But one must marvel at any speculation on Lieberman's prospects for re-election in 2012. He clearly has no future in Connecticut politics. Democrats despise him. And while Republicans may have enjoyed his zany dance around the Democrats' efforts to appease him, Lieberman isn't quite doing their bidding, either -- certainly not if he provides the 60th Senate vote needed to pass something they badly want killed.

No, another six years in the Senate can't possibly be in Lieberman's stars. But moolah, quite possibly. Mucho moolah.

The insurance industry has given $1-million-plus to Lieberman's Senate campaigns. The insurers have been very good to Lieberman, but they may not be done yet. That thought plus his dimming favor back home leads to the following question: Is Lieberman pulling a Billy Tauzin?

A Louisiana Democrat-turned-Republican, then-Rep. Tauzin wrote the Medicare drug benefit that forbade the federal government to bargain on price with the pharmaceutical makers. That legislation could cost more than the Democrats' overhaul of the entire health care system. Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker famously called it "probably the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s."

As Tauzin wrote the bill to the drug makers' liking, the Bush administration threatened to fire Medicare's actuary if he revealed his true estimates of the cost. Having sold out his country and its taxpayers, Tauzin then left elected office for an estimated $2.5-million-a-year job with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Everything Lieberman has done in this health care brawl suggests a similar career path. While many assumed that he was trying to defeat the legislation, nothing could be further from the truth. The insurance industry wants the reforms because they mean millions of new customers, many young and healthy, subsidized by taxpayers. But they didn't want the public option, which might impinge on executive pay.

Three months ago, Lieberman told newspaper editors in Connecticut that he would not vote for a bill containing a public option. But to demonstrate his concern for the uninsured, he talked up a Medicare buy-in for those 55 or over. When that idea actually landed on the table, Lieberman turned against it, citing his concern for the taxpayers. (Had taxpayers been foremost in his mind, he would have backed the public option.)

The insurers were happy to see the public option replaced with a Medicare buy-in, but in their perfect world, there would be neither. Lieberman has been making their world perfect. So it's not outrageously cynical to imagine his being rewarded for that service outside the confines of the Senate.

Let it be said that the evolving health care legislation bill deserves passage. Unlike the Medicare drug benefit -- which was funded entirely with borrowed money -- this legislation would be paid for. Covering uninsured Americans is a moral imperative, and the bill does contain some health care cost savings, though not nearly enough.

When the time comes to seriously address America's medical costs, Joe Lieberman could be fighting again. Chances are decent, though, that it won't be as the senator from Connecticut.

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