The health care reform debate raging in the Senate this week once again thrust Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, onto center stage. Defying the top priority of a Democratic president whose election he opposed, Lieberman has promised to filibuster any reform measure that includes a public option — and this week changed his position on lowering the age for Medicare eligibility.
On Tuesday The New York Times called him Capitol Hill’s “master infuriator” and wrote that he “makes some Democrats want to spit nails these days.”
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Lieberman’s controversial positions could add to his political problems at home.
“His re-election, if he’s even running again, is certainly not assured — quite the contrary,” Sabato said. “It’s also possible that Lieberman plans to retire in 2012, which frees him up now to do exactly what he wants in the Senate — which is precisely what he is doing,” Sabato said.
Meanwhile, pundits are mining the Jewish community for signs of conflict between the Orthodox senator and a heavily liberal Jewish electorate.
Their reports miss a key point: with a few exceptions including the Reform movement and the National Council of Jewish Women, major Jewish organizations have been conspicuously absent from the health care brawl. Liberal Jewish constituents in Connecticut may be fit to be tied about Lieberman’s deal breaker role in the Senate, but most major organizations have stayed clear of the fray.
Not so B’nai B’rith International, a group that has faded from the view of many observers of the Jewish scene.
In fact, the health care debate has been a shot in the arm for the venerable Jewish group.
“It’s something that has really energized our membership because they are so directly affected by rising medical costs,” said B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President Dan Mariaschin.
“The entry point for our involvement was the impact on seniors; it fits in well with our senior housing and advocacy programs. But the connective tissue is that this is a problem that affects all of us.”
Mariaschin declined to criticize Lieberman, a favorite of older Jewish voters that are a big part of B’nai Brith, but said his group is actively supporting the idea of a public option — something Lieberman vigorously opposes.
“As a broad-based membership organization, not everybody in our constituency is marching in lockstep on the issue,” Mariaschin said. “That’s OK; we need to have this debate nationally, and in our own house.”