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Jeffords leaves GOP, throwing Senate control to Democrats

Sen. James Jeffords makes his announcement Thursday  

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 from supporters in the room.

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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.

"It just shows how we have much less influence in controlling the agenda than many people think," one White House official said.

A spokesman for Lott said he did indeed authorize Republican moderates to offer Jeffords that 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."

CNN's Bill Delaney says U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, (R) Vermont, continues to draw voter support in light of his party change (May 23)

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Jeffords: Pragmatist faces a political decision

Other senators described the afternoon meeting, seen as a final attempt to keep Jeffords in the GOP, 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, 67, said he will not change his mind about leaving the Republican Party, but he delayed his announcement as a courtesy to his moderate Republican colleagues.

Democratic sources say Jeffords has said that if he becomes an Independent, he will vote for Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, now the minority leader, to be majority leader, shifting control of the Senate to the Democrats.

"This is historic," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, in anticipation of Jeffords' switch. "It gives us the opportunity to set the agenda."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush, who met with Jeffords on Tuesday, hopes the senator "will remain a Republican" but will be respectful of any decision Jeffords makes.

Sources close to the senator said he has 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 possibly one of his final acts as a 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.

CNN Congressional Correspondents Kate Snow and Jonathan Karl, CNN White House Correspondents John King and Major Garrett contributed to this story.

• Republican National Committee
• Democratic National Committee

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