07/19/97 - 05:37 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Lieberman emerging as the maverick at hearings

WASHINGTON - Many big Senate hearings, after the partisan sound and fury wanes, produce that rare Capitol Hill specimen: an independent politician who thinks for himself.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's hearing into campaign fund-raising abuse is only 2 weeks old, but this summer's role-filler is clear - Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a gentle maverick who behaves like neither White House water-carrier nor Republican pit bull.

For TV viewers, Lieberman, 55, is the one with the wavy white hair who smiles a lot - and draws icy stares from Democratic colleagues as he fires a hardball question at a witness.

Lieberman is the moderate Democrat who at midweek squinted into the cameras and said the committee chairman, Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., basically was right that mainland China indeed had a plan to buy influence in the 1996 elections.

This behavior does not make administration officials warm and fuzzy, but it attracts offstage admiration from Lieberman's GOP colleagues.

"I think he has substantiated the incredible reputation of a person who does what is right first," said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. "I've worked with him on a number of issues, and his first position has always been one of principle."

Lieberman gets the admiration of Republican staffers.

"I'm going to name my next dog after him," said committee spokesman Paul Clark.

GOP staffers compare Lieberman and his "lone wolf" style to the incisive questioning a quarter-century ago by the Senate Watergate Committee's top Republican, Howard Baker of Tennessee.

Lieberman takes an aw-shucks attitude about that. He says old Connecticut friends more often compare him to another tough-questioning Republican on the Watergate Committee: Lowell Weicker, the man whose Senate seat Lieberman took away in 1988.

"I'm trying to call it the way I see it," said Lieberman. "I didn't just decide to be different or separate myself. As we pressed forward, I decided I wanted to be this way because it's the right way to do it. I didn't want to yield to the temptation to become either prosecutor or defense attorney."

His centrist approach in questioning witnesses is in stark contrast to the style of almost every other committee member. GOP colleagues go for the jugular trying to prove the administration was corrupted by foreign funds in 1996. Democrats either moan about the partisan nature of the hearings or ask witnesses unrelated softball questions designed to avoid the subject.

So who is this new contrarian?

The son of a liquor store owner, Lieberman got into Yale and had a book published while still a student. An Orthodox Jew, he keeps the Sabbath so strictly he refused to attend the party convention that, on a Saturday, first nominated him for the Senate. Lieberman, who served as Connecticut's attorney general for six years, always has followed his own moral compass.

He was one of only six Democrats to support cuts in the capital gains tax. He became one of the Senate's biggest backers of conservative Jack Kemp's urban enterprise zones. He applauded George Bush's use of force against Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, and joined nine Senate Democrats supporting Bush's use of force in the Persian Gulf.

To Lieberman, the most important thing about these hearings is not their effect on political fortunes but the potential in reforming the current system of financing national campaigns.

The hearings, he warns, must "build a record that gets us to campaign finance reform ... They are our best hope at this point of telling the story of the way our campaign finance system in this country has gone out of control.

"If we don't change this system in this session of Congress, this year or next, the presidential election in year 2000 will be a fiscal madhouse, a kind of national auction."

McCain, his Republican friend, predicted other committee Democrats "will follow his lead" in bipartisan behavior, but there's scant evidence.

Lieberman doesn't sit in on Democratic strategy sessions to coordinate "defense" questioning roles and run through potential witness damage to the party cause.

His standard denials when asked what he calls "the guff question" aren't all that convincing: "I haven't gotten any guff at hearings - let's put it that way. There was some discussion when I voted for immunity (for a certain witness) once. I was asked, 'Why are you doing this?' But I don't think the Democrats have anything to be defensive about."

Lieberman thinks the two parties got off to a bad start when Republicans were secretive about identifying the recipients of the first wave of subpoenas.

"There was a sense of circling the wagons," he said. "It got into a tit-for-tat situation - distrust, then more distrust."

He is a little disappointed by the behavior of both sides: "I had hoped we would pull ourselves above it. This is not a normal hearing. It is about politics, so there's a lot of nervousness. After all, we're not investigating fraud at the Defense Department."

Despite all the praise for his just-the-facts demeanor, Lieberman is not sanguine about the future of the hearings.

"There is a danger of turning this into a whodunit, an espionage movie, or a detective story. Whether there's a Chinese government connection, or foreign money ... that might be appropriate focus for a period of time, but that's all just one part of the problem, the most serious symptom of a greater disease. The foreign money and the illegal money is a scandal - but what is legal money in this system is the big scandal."

By John Hanchette and Penny Bender, Gannett News Service