Jeffords delays announcement on potential party switch
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont decided Wednesday to delay an announcement until Thursday about whether he will leave the Republican Party, and will travel to his home state to give the news.
Jeffords, a longtime Republican maverick, had been expected to announce Wednesday that he would leave the Republican Party and become an independent, sources had told CNN. The move would change the balance of power in the evenly divided Senate and send shock waves through Capitol Hill.
The sources said Jeffords has said that if he becomes an independent, he will vote for Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle to be Senate majority leader, shifting control of the Senate to the Democratic Party.
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 that the senator also has informed Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Daschle of his decision.
Two sources familiar with the senator's thinking said he informed his staff Tuesday that he will switch parties, and that his staffers were trying 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 switch parties but was hopeful he would delay the effective date of that switch 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.
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 Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, reflected early in Wednesday morning on the possibility of a sea change in the Senate, and he wagged a finger at the Bush White House and the current 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 that 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."
Reflecting the politics of his state, Jeffords has been one of most liberal Republicans in the Senate since he was first elected in 1988.
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 is expected to release a statement immediately after Jeffords; aides were not disclosing its contents.
"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 nearly always votes with Republicans.
"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 Jonathan Karl, Judy Woodruff, Major Garrett, Dana Bash and Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this story.
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