Jeffords going home to Vermont to reveal decision
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- James Jeffords, the longtime maverick U.S. senator from Vermont, has decided to leave the Republican Party, according to sources, but he decided Wednesday to travel home to the Green Mountain State to deliver the news.
"I want to go home to my people," Jeffords told CNN.
"If I were making a significant change like that, I'd want to go to Vermont, too," said Democrat Patrick Leahy, Vermont's other senator.
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, cautioned that until Jeffords' switch "is final, it's not final."
The senator plans to fly to Vermont on Wednesday night and will make his announcement in the state capital, Montpelier, sometime on Thursday, according to a statement from his office.
Democratic sources said Jeffords will become an independent.
The move would swing the balance of power to the Democratic Party in the evenly divided Senate. Sources said Jeffords has indicated if he becomes an independent, he will vote for Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota to be Senate majority leader, shifting party control.
The Vermont native, 67, met separately Tuesday with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, after which he would not reveal whether he was switching parties. Asked if he informed the president of his decision, Jeffords said, "I let him know the status."
Jeffords' aides told CNN this morning the senator also has informed Lott and Daschle of his decision.
Two sources familiar with the senator's thinking said he informed his staff Tuesday he will switch parties and his staffers tried to talk him out of it.
According to those sources, Jeffords has "totally made up his mind," but that his senior staff was involved in intense discussions in hopes of persuading Jeffords to reconsider.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, has been the party's point man on negotiations with Jeffords. Reid has offered Jeffords the chairmanship of the powerful Environment and Public Works Committee if he were to leave the Republican Party.
Separately, a senior GOP Senate aide said he expected Jeffords to leave the party but was hopeful he would delay the effective date until after Congress passes Bush's two top domestic priorities -- the $1.35 trillion tax cut and education reform.
This approach would allow the GOP to retain control of the conference committees involving the House and Senate that will write the final versions of the tax cut and education reform bills that will land on Bush's desk.
Passage of that bill was expected by mid-afternoon Wednesday. A Jeffords aide told CNN the Vermont senator would vote for the bill.
If Jeffords were to switch immediately, Senate Democrats would gain control of appointing members to the conference committees, forcing House Republicans to negotiate with Senate Democrats over tax cuts and education reform.
Such a shift would not necessarily spell defeat for the two bills, but it could slow their progress and possibly force changes in policy.
House members watch intently
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, reflected Wednesday morning on the possibility of a sea change in the Senate, and he figuratively wagged a finger at the Bush White House and the congressional GOP majority.
"If this happens, it is to me the beginning of moderate Republicans figuring out that there is no place for them in the modern Republican Party," Gephardt said.
"This sends a clear message that while the Republicans talk of bipartisanship, they fail to do anything in a bipartisan way," Gephardt said.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, predicted some Republicans in the House would take note of Jeffords' action, and as a result progress on the tax bill and some of the president's other priorities would likely be slowed.
"The more light that shines on this, the longer it is going to take," Rangel said. "There are some responsible Republicans in the House who are going to take a long, hard look at the way they have been treated by the Republican leadership."
The House Republican leadership, too, is watching developments with a keen eye toward the immediate future.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, referring to Jeffords' reported move and the dynamics in the Senate, said: "It's the narrowest of margins over there. It's difficult to get things out of the Senate. It would be very unfortunate if that happens, but I'm going to wait and see."
Jeffords often a maverick
Reflecting the politics of his state, Jeffords has been one of most liberal Republicans in the Senate since he was first elected in 1988.
Vermont's other senator is Patrick Leahy, a Democrat. Its sole House member is independent Bernard Sanders, who often describes himself as a socialist.
Both commented Wednesday on the possible thinking of their colleague. Leahy supported Jeffords' desire to make his announcement on his home turf. Sanders said Jeffords was taking the welfare of his state into consideration.
"I think the senator has looked out at the political landscape. Perhaps we'll see the country go much farther to the right than he is comfortable with, and he is prepared to stand up for Vermont and America and do the right thing," Sanders said.
Jeffords is chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over health and education legislation. He holds a seat on the Senate Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over tax and trade matters. Before election to the Senate, he served in the House for 14 years.
Many Republicans believe Jeffords single-handedly sank Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut -- forcing the White House to negotiate with moderate Democrats on a smaller cut.
Republicans have been whispering since then about making Jeffords pay a price for disloyalty. One possibility would be to kill the Northeast dairy compact that allows Vermont dairy farmers to charge more for milk.
Republican sources, meanwhile, said they are courting Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia to switch to their side. Miller had been expected to release a statement immediately after Jeffords on Wednesday, but the status of that now is unclear; aides did not disclose its contents. Miller was tapped to take the Georgia seat after Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell died last year.
"You can imagine the pressure that's on him, the things that are being suggested to him," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, about Miller, who often votes with Republicans on major issues.
Still, Democrats are having a hard time suppressing their elation at the possibility of taking control of the chamber for the first time since 1994.
"There is an ascending sense of expectancy" among Democrats, said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, who would become the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
CNN's Kate Snow, Jonathan Karl, Judy Woodruff, Major Garrett, Dana Bash and Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this story.
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