Democrats regain Senate power with Jeffords' bolt
BURLINGTON, Vermont (CNN) -- The Senate prepared for a change of power and President Bush faces a new political landscape after Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party on Thursday, becoming an independent and throwing control of the Senate to the Democrats 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.
"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.
The longtime Republican, 67, said he felt he had no choice but make the switch after he assessed President Bush's fiscal 2002 budget and the president's plan to overhaul the public education system.
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.
Bush has asked that a tax bill reach his desk by Memorial Day.
The White House was left wincing by the Jeffords developments, which overshadowed approval in the House of the Bush-backed education bill and passage in the Senate of the tax cut bill.
"This morning a distinguished U.S. senator chose to leave the Republican Party and become an independent," Bush said Thursday in Cleveland, where he spoke to members of a Catholic charity. "I respect Sen. Jeffords, but I respectfully ... couldn't disagree more."
Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, soon to become majority leader, pledged to work with Bush and with Lott to formulate a popular agenda. But he said Democrats would want to concentrate on a number of core issues. (Daschle profile)
Republicans had hoped to reverse the impact of Jeffords' move by convincing conservative Georgia Sen. Zell Miller to leave the Democratic Party. But Miller said he won't switch to the GOP.
"Nobody's going to push or drive me out of this old house I've lived in all my life," Miller told CNN on Thursday.
Miller bucked the Democratic leadership to back the Bush tax cut and John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general. In particular, he said Democratic opposition to tax cuts "plays terrible out there in the Wal-Mart parking lot."
He said he "kind of struggled with the same sort of feelings" that drove Jeffords to leave the Republicans, but decided to stay.
Lott, speaking soon after Daschle, acknowledged the Republicans would soon be in the minority, but said he and the GOP members of the Senate considered that an "opportunity."
A spokesman for Lott said earlier the senator authorized 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."
Jeffords was re-elected to the Senate last year. He was first elected in 1988 and served in the House for 14 years before that. Reflecting the politics of his state, he has been one of most liberal Republicans in the Senate.
Besides chairing the committee on health and education legislation, he holds a seat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax and trade matters.
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