John Talks Joe

John McCain talks to The Daily Beast about why Lieberman, pivotal to tomorrow’s health-care vote, is undecided, explaining he "doesn't hold a grudge" and has an "unerringly accurate" record.

11.20.09 1:57 AM ET

John McCain talks to The Daily Beast about why Lieberman, pivotal to Saturday's health-care vote, is undecided, explaining he "doesn't hold a grudge" and has an "unerringly accurate" record.

What does Joe Lieberman want?

“Well, I think Joe obviously marches to his own drummer,” his close friend Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, told me Thursday evening in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. “And that seems to me, from my look at his record, unerringly accurate.” With that, he chuckled.

The cussedly independent senator from Connecticut—who shed his lifelong Democratic Party identification in 2006 after losing his primary to an anti-war liberal and then winning the general election, painfully, athwart the opposition of his Democratic colleagues—is once again the burr under the saddle of the body politic. Especially now that the Senate is ready to vote Saturday on whether to let the 2,000-plus page health-care bill proceed to the floor.

“He says he’s against the public option and any bill that carries it, he’ll veto it,” explains McCain. “There’s no subterfuge in what Joe is saying.”

Lieberman—who already outraged his former fellow Dems last year by evangelizing for Republican nominee McCain while trashing Barack Obama in the presidential campaign, an act of perceived treachery for which many wanted to punish him—is vowing to derail health-care reform if it includes a government-administered public option.

And he could do it—easily—with a single word.

Lieberman can just say “no” on cloture, thus denying Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada a 60-vote supermajority to stop the inevitable Republican filibuster. And the betting is that Lieberman will indeed vote with the Republicans—for a variety of motives, observers say: some political, some ideological, some personal—and in so doing he will probably give cover to other center-right Dems who might otherwise hesitate to defy their leadership and join in the bill-killing.

Both McCain and a Senate leadership aide told me that public-option skeptics such as Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu,and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson might take comfort, and possibly cues, from Lieberman’s contrary behavior. “There’s a lot of respect for him on both sides of the aisle, so therefore what he does when he takes a position, there really isn’t a credibility problem,” McCain argued. “So he sometimes turns into the lead blackbird.”

Thus, all of Washington is collectively asking: What, please God, does the lead blackbird want?

“I think he has been very clear,” McCain told me. “He says he’s against the public option and any bill that carries it, he’ll veto it. There’s no subterfuge in what Joe is saying. He’s saying, ‘The public option would be bad for America and I can’t vote for it.’”

But even McCain can’t fathom the detailed changes and compromises that might satisfy his friend. Would Lieberman tolerate a trigger, activated at some point in the future based on rising private-insurance premiums and declining coverage pools, of the kind floated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe?

“I honestly just don’t know,” McCain told me. “I just don’t know what his relations are with Reid, who has taken over this bill for himself.”

Lieberman was unavailable for comment, and a top Lieberman aide told me that all this trigger talk was “too vague and elusive” to be taken seriously.

On Saturday, Lieberman seems committed to voting with the Democrats—with whom he continues to caucus—to allow Reid’s bill to come to the floor. But if the public option isn’t ultimately stripped out, he’ll likely block efforts to end the debate.

“He knows the important vote is the vote to cut off debate,” McCain said. “Frankly, the [Democratic senators] who are a little less straightforward will vote against the bill on final passage, and Reid will still only need 51 votes. And then they’ll go home and say, ‘Well, I voted against the bill!’ When the key vote is the cloture vote on final passage, and Joe has announced that he will not vote for cloture in the critical part of the process.”

As for Dems who end up voting for cloture but claiming to their constituents that they actually opposed the bill, McCain and his fellow Republicans are ready to call them out—especially those who are up for reelection in 2010. “It certainly isn’t the place,” he said, “where they could have made a difference.”

As for Lieberman, the Senate Dems are publicly love-bombing him, telling anyone who’ll listen what a wonderful guy he is, and sending emissaries like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Senate pal, to take his temperature. But privately the Dems are reserving the dire option of removing him from the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee—just in case he turns out to be not so wonderful, after all. (Lieberman narrowly escaped that outcome earlier this year, but was saved by none other than President Obama, who declared that there were no hard feelings for the McCain apostasy and the senator should keep his chairmanship.)

McCain, for his part, doubts the Dems have the nerve.

“I would remind you that there may be other issues between now and November 2010 when they will need 60 votes,” he told me.

Although it is widely assumed by Senate Democrats that Lieberman continues to nurse a grudge against colleagues who supported left-leaning millionaire Ned Lamont after he beat the senator in the 2006 Democratic primary—and that this alleged grudge is the psychic subtext for some of Lieberman's actions—McCain insisted otherwise.

"Joe doesn't hold a grudge—he just doesn't," McCain told me. "Let me just give you an example that's really astounding. In that 2006 primary, Chris Dodd [Lieberman's Senate colleague from Connecticut] was campaigning with Joe Lieberman, and then Joe lost the primary, and the very next day Dodd was campaigning with Ned Lamont. And yet Joe has rapidly endorsed and is supporting Chris Dodd for reelection in 2010. Some individuals might be a little reluctant after that.”

“Joe is not."

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.