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Ex-Democrat Lieberman to leave U.S. Senate, calls for bipartisanship

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Democrat Joe Lieberman used his last speech on the U.S. Senate floor on Wednesday to call for bipartisanship and get in a last dig over the controversial result of the 2000 election, when he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Lieberman, 70, announced in January 2011 that he would retire when his fourth term ends next month rather than seek re-election. He reflected on his career in remarks that lasted for about 20 minutes, recounting landmarks in his career and changes in society since he became a U.S. senator in January 1989.

"When I started here in the Senate, a blackberry was a fruit and tweeting was something only birds do," Lieberman said.

The four-term Connecticut senator was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1988. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, but withdrew from the race and John Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, became the party's nominee.

Known for hawkish foreign policy views, Lieberman lost Connecticut's Democratic primary to an anti-war rival when he sought a fourth term in the Senate in 2006, forcing him to run - and win - as an independent.

Lieberman, 70, remains strongly allied with the Democratic Party, but more recently also has been well-known as one of the "Three Amigos," with Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The trio has had a strong influence on U.S. foreign policy debate partly because it has representation from both parties. Lieberman at times angered some fellow Democrats for siding with Republicans, for example by refusing to vote with other members of his party in 2007 to set a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

Democrats also became furious with Lieberman in the 2008 election for backing McCain, the Republican nominee, rather than the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama.

"It's the partisan polarization of our politics which prevents us from making the principled compromises on which progress in a democracy depends, and right now, which prevents us from restoring our fiscal solvency as a nation," he said.

PRAISE FROM REPUBLICANS

As Republicans in Congress and Obama's White House debate how to address the country's budget problems, Lieberman made a passionate appeal for the country not to focus exclusively on domestic politics.

"The American people need us, the Senate, to stay engaged economically, diplomatically and militarily in an ever smaller world," he said.

Lieberman is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, former chair of the committee and its top Republican, praised Lieberman's bipartisanship. "He has demonstrated his willingness, time and again, to risk his political career to do what he believes is right for America," she said.

Lieberman said in his career he was proudest of achievements including helping pass the Clean Air Act in 1990, creating the commission investigating the September 11 attacks and the Department of Homeland Security, reforming the intelligence community and repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military.

He also noted that he was the first Jewish American nominated for national office by a major party.

In 2000, the Democratic ticket of Al Gore and Lieberman won 500,000 more votes than Republican George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney. But Bush won the White House in the electoral college, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against allowing a recount of votes in Florida.

"And incidentally," Lieberman said in his speech, "(I am) grateful to the American people, grateful to have received a half million more votes than my opponent on the other side, but that's a longer story."

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Stacey Joyce)

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