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Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-Conn.) support of John McCain’s presidential campaign was well known. His contribution to Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) was not. (By Melina Mara — The Washington Post Photo)

By Paul Kane

Here’s a story of the Thanksgiving spirit, forgiving and forgetting senatorial style.

When Democrats gathered last week to decide the fate of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a pair of senators-elect, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, stepped up to offer symbolically important speeches.

Having ridden the wave of support for President-elect Barack Obama, Udall and Merkley spoke out in favor of the spirit of reconciliation and moving on from the campaign, in which Lieberman was one of the highest profile supporters of the Republican presidential ticket.

But no one in the room knew, as Merkley spoke, that Lieberman had supported Merkley’s opponent, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). Lieberman, through his Reuniting Our Country PAC, gave Smith’s reelection bid $5,000 on Oct. 10, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Lieberman’s support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the presidency was well known, punctuated by his nationally televised speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul criticizing Obama as not prepared to be president. His endorsement of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has served as the top Republican beside him at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also was well known in Democratic circles.

But not even Merkley knew of Lieberman’s backing of Smith in their critical Senate race, until Capitol Briefing alerted his staff today.

“We were surprised to hear this news, but it’s time to put the election behind us. Jeff Merkley is looking forward to working with all his new colleagues on an agenda that will put our nation back on track,” said Julie Edwards, spokeswoman for Merkley.

Lieberman’s support of Smith came the same weekend he wrote an op-ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press defending Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) for his work as chairman of an investigative subcommittee on Lieberman’s homeland security committee. The same day he wrote a check to Smith, Lieberman’s ROC PAC gave $5,000 to Rep. Peter King, the Long Island Republican. In radio and TV appearances the final days of the campaign, Lieberman also frequently said that a Democratic majority of 60 votes, a filibuster-proof level, would be a bad thing.

Lieberman’s $5,000 check was clearly not a difference maker for Smith, as Merkley still won by more than 50,000 votes. And Coleman is clinging to a razor-thin lead during a recount of his race against Democrat Al Franken.

But the internal Democratic caucus debate over Lieberman’s fate almost always focused on Lieberman’s criticism of Obama, not on his support of Republicans in Senate races. Edwards, Merkley’s spokeswoman, has said that Merkley also expressed how much Lieberman’s actions in the presidential race angered him. He did not encourage other Democrats to vote one way or the other, but did talk about moving on from the bitter fights of the campaign.

Then, on a 42-13 vote, Democrats supported keeping Lieberman as chairman of the committee with broad oversight of the Obama administration and removing him from the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Lieberman’s office acknowledged his donation to Smith, but noted that he worked hard for other Democrats as well. “While the Senator’s political action committee donated to a very few Republicans, the Senator’s pacs donated and raised over a half million dollars for wide range of Democratic candidates and organizations in this past election cycle,” Marshall Wittmann, his spokesman, said.