WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the rebuked Connecticut Democrat, returned to Capitol Hill yesterday for the first time since last month's humiliating defeat in his home state primary. And if it's possible to embrace someone without actually touching them, that's what his used-to-be friends in the Senate did.
In Hollywood, they call it an air kiss.
"It's great to be back, glad to be here," a smiling Lieberman said, stepping off an elevator and heading to a luncheon with fellow Senate Democrats, who, as only polished politicians can, chatted and chortled with him over roast beef and chicken while deftly ignoring the reality that most of them consider him politically radioactive.
It was quite a turn of the tables for the three-term senator and once popular vice presidential nominee, whose endorsement of the Iraq war lost him the Democratic nomination to political upstart and multimillionaire Ned Lamont.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Lieberman relaunched his campaign as an independent. Most of his Democratic colleagues promptly deserted him, setting the stage for an awkward moment as they all reunited yesterday afternoon in the Senate's LBJ Room for their back-to-work lunch after Congress' summer recess.
A notoriously clubby bunch, the senators managed to cheerfully glide through the meal, even giving Lieberman a round of applause. Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada personally welcomed back the beset incumbent - although he later scooted off to meet with Lamont, who was in town raising money and drumming up support.
"Many of us are very fond of Joe," California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said warmly, just before reminding everyone she isn't endorsing him, either.
Beneath the outward appearances, the political climate among the Senate Democrats was cool enough to set Jell-O. Lieberman has become the poster boy for what liberals in his party deplore - Democrats who refuse to strongly challenge Republican policies, particularly the Iraq war. Some party activists are pressuring him to drop out of the race. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York lent Lamont one of her strategists.
A determined Lieberman has refused to bend. In his first vote yesterday, he joined Senate Republicans in defeating a Feinstein-sponsored amendment that would have prohibited the sale of so-called cluster bombs to other nations until the Defense Department adopted rules aimed at preventing their use near civilian populations.
Indeed, Lieberman might have had a better time around the corner at the GOP's luncheon, with senators who worked to beat him up in the 2000 presidential campaign but now regard him as political martyr for his steadfast support of the war.
"Frankly, I'd be glad to have him sit with the Republicans," Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi told reporters outside the Senate chamber. "I think what happened to him is a tragedy."
Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, who has worked with Lieberman on homeland security issues, said she would "be delighted" to go to Connecticut to stump for him. When she saw him after the long recess, she said, she gave him a big hug.
Support from Connecticut Republicans - as well as from the state's large contingent of independent voters - may be just the thing that gives Lieberman the additional six years in the Senate that he seeks. He's been stressing that his re-election bid is "about people, not politics," and a recent poll he commissioned showed him with a double-digit lead over Lamont (the little-known GOP candidate in the race barely registered).
As part of his effort to reach voters directly, now that he can no longer count on party resources, the Lieberman campaign unveiled a new Web site and blog yesterday, while the candidate spent the morning pressing the flesh at a diner in Hamden, Conn., before traveling to Washington.
Still, legislative business will require him to spend much of the next month in a setting where he is opposed by former friends and embraced by former enemies.
"It's excruciatingly awkward," said University of Pennsylvania political scientist Don Kettl. "The usual 'my good friend' will wear thin very quickly "
Lieberman, though, seemed unruffled by his new work environment.
"Oh, that's just politics," he said, in what must have been the day's most indisputable sentence.
Faye Fiore and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.