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Lieberman gets warm welcome from Senate Democrats

WASHINGTON --Sen. Joe Lieberman, who won re-election as an independent, got a warm reception - and even a standing ovation - from Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday who gathered for postelection meetings.

"Obviously, I've been changed by the election, so now I'm an independent Democrat, but everybody was very warm and welcomed me back," Lieberman said. "I look forward to working with them."

Lieberman, who wants to be identified as an "Independent Democrat," said he was welcomed back to the party fold at a luncheon caucus by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who likened Democrats to a family and said families occasionally go through crises.

"I thanked them," Lieberman said, adding "It's been a hell of a year."

He is in line to become chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Asked by reporters if he had received a standing ovation from colleagues at the luncheon, Lieberman responded: "Honesty compels me to tell you that I did."

Democrats will need Lieberman's vote to maintain the 51-49 Senate majority they secured in last week's elections.

Lieberman has pledged to caucus with Democrats even though the party opposed the independent campaign he launched after losing an August Democratic primary to businessman Ned Lamont.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who campaigned in Connecticut for Lamont, said he and fellow Democrats were not holding any grudges against Lieberman, who won a fourth term last week.

"We're all pros," Kerry said. "We're all adults and we're friends ... We're glad he's caucusing with us, and you move on."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who backed Lieberman in the primary but supported Lamont in the fall race, said he still considers Lieberman a friend and colleague.

"Life goes on," Dodd said. "We've got the people's business to attend to."

Lieberman, however, stressed that as an independent, he is not beholden to any political party.

"I do feel that I'm beholden to no particular political group, that my responsibility is to the people of Connecticut and my own conscience," he said. "What this means will be defined as we go along."

Added Lieberman: "I'm not going to threaten on every issue I'm interested in to leave the caucus."

Lieberman won strong support from Republican and independent voters in Connecticut. He also got fundraising help from prominent GOP figures such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and kind words about his pro-Iraq war views from President Bush.

Lieberman said he has not ruled out the possibility of switching to the Republican side should Democrats chafe at his independent ways.

"Sure, it's possible, but as I said, I hope we never get to that and I don't expect we will," he said.

Lieberman said no Republicans have tried to convince him to switch parties.

"Not a single Republican senator or political operative has called to ask me if I would consider switching and organizing with the Republicans," he said. "I really appreciate that and they respect who I am and that I gave my word."

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