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GOP, Democrats react to expected Jeffords move

By From Jonathan Karl
CNN Capitol Hill correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said Thursday that if Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont leaves the Republican Party, the balance of power in the Senate will shift immediately to the Democrats, while Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the reported defection is still not certain.

"Until it's final, it's not final," Lott told reporters Wednesday.

Jeffords is widely expected to say he will become an independent, but to vote with the Democrats, effectively turning control of the Senate over to the Democratic Party.

The veteran Vermont politician had planned to make an announcement about his party affiliation in Washington Wednesday, but decided to delay the statement until Thursday in Vermont.

The Senate, meanwhile, is abuzz over the news.

John Edwards, a Democratic senator from North Carolina, predicted the "change will have a dramatic impact on President Bush's agenda."

Bush, he said, "will have to deal with us. He's had to deal with us a little up to now, but he'll have to deal with us a whole lot more."

Olympia Snowe, a fellow moderate Republican from New England who has worked with Jeffords on several issues, called the apparent defection "sad."

"I'm disappointed," said Snowe, a Maine senator.

Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who has served in the Senate for 23 years, said the move "seems incomprehensible. There's no way to explain it or justify it. It just doesn't make sense."

Never before has news of a Senate party change had such a dramatic impact, Cochran said.

"Others have changed parties, but most of the consequences of those changes have been personal to the senator," he said. "This is a wholesale shift in power. It affects not just committee chairmanships, but also the confirmation of judicial nominations, even the ratification of treaties."

Alabama Republican Richard Shelby is a senator who made the switch from the Democrats to the GOP in 1994 and isn't surprised to hear about Jeffords' apparent plans to leave the party.

"In fairness, he'd be probably more of an ideological fit" with the Democrats, Shelby said.

Shelby thinks such a change could serve to "galvanize" Republicans for next election.

"Things happen and things work out," he said.

The reported departure of Jeffords from the GOP also has prompted speculation that conservative Democratic senator Zell Miller of Georgia may be tempted to switch to the Republican Party.

"All eyes are on Georgia," said one Democratic strategist. But several sources close to Miller say he will not switch parties. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and John Breaux of Louisiana, other conservative Democratic senators, also said they will stay in the Democratic Party.

Breaux joked that he "offered to become a Republican, but they said they didn't want me."

• Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi
• Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, R-South Dakota

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