Jeffords bolts GOP; Democrats poised to take over
BURLINGTON, Vermont (CNN) -- Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party as expected Thursday, becoming an independent and throwing control of the Senate to the Democratic Party for the first time since 1994.
Jeffords made the announcement Thursday morning at a hotel ballroom in Burlington, Vermont. The announcement had been put off for a day as moderate Republicans asked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, to create a new moderate leadership position in the Republican Party to keep Jeffords from leaving.
"For the past several weeks I have been struggling with a very difficult issue," Jeffords said. "Increasingly I find myself in disagreement with my party," he said.
"I will leave the Republican Party and will become an independent," Jeffords said, prompting cheers and thundering chants of "Thank you Jim!" from supporters both inside and outside the room.
Jeffords said he would caucus with the Senate's Democrats "for organizational purposes." His defection breaks the party deadlock in the upper chamber, which had been evenly divided.
There will now be 50 Democrats in the Senate, 49 Republicans and one independent, Jeffords. The Republicans will have the support of Vice President Dick Cheney, of course, who as president of the Senate will be able to cast tie-breaking votes.
"I have changed my party label," Jeffords said, "But I have not changed my beliefs."
Those beliefs, more often than not, have trended moderate to liberal, unlike the base of the national Republican Party, which has become steadily more conservative, especially on social issues.
The longtime Republican, who is 67, told the Burlington assemblage he felt he had no choice but make the switch after he assessed President Bush's fiscal 2002 budget, and his plan to overhaul the public education system.
Jeffords said Republicans were creating a paradigm in which the success of public schools was to be measured on "how many people are moved out" of local schools -- a reference to the GOP plan to create a voucher system that would provide parents with payouts to transfer their children from failing schools.
The Bush budget, Jeffords said, does not provide any new funding for the education initiatives Bush has prescribed.
"A new direction without funding is no direction at all," he said.
Jeffords said his switch would not become effective until the president has signed a final tax bill into law. The Senate passed its version of the tax bill Wednesday, with Jeffords' support, and House and Senate negotiators are now working to bridge the deep gaps between the two versions of the bill.
President Bush has asked that a tax bill reach his desk by Memorial Day, next Monday.
Jeffords said he has informed Bush, Cheney and Lott of his decision, and described all three as "good people with whom I disagree."
While saying the rendering of his choice has taken the weight of the world off his shoulders, the Vermonter said his "heart hung heavy," because some of his staffers, and his GOP colleagues, would now see their lives turned upside down,
Speaking of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who has only held his position since January, Jeffords said he felt deep regret.
"The chairman of the Finance Committee has dreamed of being chairman all his life," Jeffords said. Of his discussions with his fellow moderates who begged him not to leave the party, he said, "It was the most emotional moment of my life. I could see the anguish."
The White House was left wincing by the Jeffords developments, as it overshadowed approval in the House of the Bush-backed education bill and passage in the Senate of tax cuts.
President Bush, speaking to members of a Catholic charity in Cleveland late Thursday morning, said he respected Jeffords' decision to bolt the party, but he "respectfully" disagreed with the reasons for the choice.
"This morning a distinguished U.S. senator chose to leave the Republican Party and become an independent," Bush said, opening his remarks. "I respect Sen. Jeffords, but I respectfully... I couldn't disagree more," he said.
Bush defended his agenda, which he promoted through the 2000 presidential campaign, and with which Jeffords said he had tremendous philosophical differences.
"Our agenda for reforming America's public schools and for providing tax relief for every taxpayer represents the hopes and dreams of 'Main Street' America," Bush said.
"I was elected to get things done on behalf of the American people," Bush added, "And to work with both Republicans and Democrats, and we're doing just that."
Inside the White House, the new reality of the altered balance of power in the Senate began to set in. "It just shows how we have much less influence in controlling the agenda than many people think," one White House official said.
Daschle: Jeffords 'courageous'
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Thursday afternoon that Jeffords' "courageous" move ushered in an era of "tripartisan" party politics in the Senate.
"Sen. Jeffords' decision now produces some changes," Daschle declared. "The historic 50-50 Senate now becomes history. This will be America's first 50-49-1 Senate."
Daschle pledged to work with President Bush and with soon-to-be Minority Leader Lott to formulate a popular agenda, but said Democrats would want to concentrate on a number of core issues.
"This senate will be called upon to resolve fundamental questions about education, energy, the environment, choice, possibly the future of the Supreme Court and many other issues," he said.
A spokesman for Lott said earlier that he did indeed authorize Republican moderates to offer Jeffords a leadership position. Lott also offered to extend Jeffords' chairmanship of the committee that has jurisdiction over health and education legislation, which expires in two years.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said he and his colleagues passed the information on to Jeffords at a meeting off the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon. Specter said Jeffords responded that he would "have to think about it."
But when asked if it was enough to change his mind, Jeffords replied, "I don't think so."
Other senators described the afternoon meeting as an "emotional" and "constructive" discussion about the future of the moderates in the Republican Party and Jeffords' situation.
Democrats went to the Republican leadership to start preliminary discussions on transition of power.
A source close to Jeffords said he delayed his announcement as a courtesy to his moderate Republican colleagues.
Democratic sources say Jeffords has said he will vote for Daschle to be majority leader.
Sources close to the senator said he had been feeling more and more isolated by the Bush administration, especially after he was not invited to a White House event honoring a Vermont teacher as "Teacher of the Year."
In one of his final acts as Republican, Jeffords voted in favor of a 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut -- a pared-down version of President Bush's $1.6 trillion plan.
Many Republicans believe Jeffords single-handedly sank Bush's proposed tax cut, forcing the White House to negotiate with moderate Democrats on a smaller cut.
Republicans had been whispering about making Jeffords pay a price for disloyalty because of his previous opposition to Bush's full tax cut. One possibility would have been to kill the Northeast dairy compact that allows Vermont dairy farmers to charge more for milk.
But during the afternoon meeting, moderate Republicans tried to persuade him to stay.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Specter said they told Jeffords he would be more equipped to get the things he fights for, such as funding for special education, if he remained a Republican.
"The Democrats aren't going to get that for him," said Specter.
Other sources said the GOP lawmakers offered him other ideas on staying. Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, called it a "thoughtful" and "historic meeting" that led to a discussion about the Republican Party and his place in it.
"We shared our intimate thoughts about the Republican Party ... that millions of moderate Republicans all across the country look up to him," Warner said.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, said the meeting was about as "constructive a meeting as we could ever have," but he conceded Jeffords "made no commitments but he did say he would think about it."
Snowe added: "It was wonderful and heartfelt. We told him he had a lot of friends who care about him and the issues he has embraced over his career."
Jeffords was re-elected to the Senate last year. He was first elected in 1988. Reflecting the politics of his state, he has been one of most liberal Republicans in the Senate.
Jeffords is chairman of the committee that has jurisdiction over health and education legislation, and 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.
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