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Jim Jeffords: Republican, Democrat or Independent?

Aired May 23, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Jim Jeffords: Republican, Democrat or independent? Tonight: What will he do and what will it mean for the Senate and for the Bush agenda?

Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE. Jim Jeffords did not drop the other shoe today. Instead Senator Jeffords will be in his home state of Vermont in Burlington tomorrow presumably to announce that he is leaving the Republican Party. The word is he will become an independent. Assuming he no longer votes with the Republicans to organize the Senate, the Democrats will take control immediately. Never before in American history has one senator's defection so transformed Washington's balance of power.

Does it doom President Bush's program? What is the fate of judicial nominations, including Supreme Court choices? And why in the world is Jim Jeffords abandoning his life-long allegiance to the Republican Party after 34 years of public office -- Bill Press.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Senator Sessions, welcome.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: Good to be with you.

PRESS: Before leaving for Vermont tonight Senator Jeffords met with some of his Republican colleagues. There were some last minute attempts to persuade him he ought to stay where he is. I'm sure you have talk to some of them since that meeting, so can you tell us the status? In your mind, is this still an open question? Is there is still a chance he could stay with the Republican Party, or is it a done deal? Out the door?

SESSIONS: Bill, in my opinion it's still a possible open question. I think he could very well decide to stay. But I think his inclination was to go. And that will be a decision he will have to wrestle with, go back into the Vermont hills maybe, and clean air, and clear his mind. But it has been a busy tough time here battling over education, battling over taxes, and I think it would be good for him to think about it.

PRESS: Well, I...

SESSIONS: We certainly want him to stay, and have encouraged him in every possible way.

PRESS: All right. I want to ask you about the green hills of Vermont, because certainly he has got -- been weighing his options, and the senator's got to look at his constituency. On CNN earlier today, Sam Hemingway, who's a reporter for "The Burlington Free Press" spoke about the political inclinations of the people of Vermont. Please listen.


SAM HEMINGWAY, "BURLINGTON FREE PRESS": The majority of voters in this state are independents, and so Jim, his elections, most of them have been at the benefit of -- he's benefited from that independent vote, so the fact that he now says he is going to be an independent by definition, by title, isn't going to go -- isn't going to be a big problem up here. ,


PRESS: So no downside in Vermont -- it might even help him to be an independent in Vermont, right?

SESSIONS: I don't think it's going to threaten him politically to be an independent. I think he can survive as an independent. His questions will need to be several, one of which is: Where can he be most effective? He really has been effective within the Republican Party. He has insisted on certain things, being at almost every bill we pass, and has gotten a lot of things in there because we needed him and wanted him. So he may lose some effectiveness as an independent.

NOVAK: Senator John Edwards, welcome. You, like most of your Democratic colleagues, have evinced no doubt that Jim Jeffords is going to give you a vote which will give the Democrats the majority control of the Senate.

And, our reporter, Jonathan Karl, contacted you today and I was a little startled with what you told him. You told him this, you said, take over immediately, you said -- quote -- "The president 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 lot more."

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), NORTH CAROLINA: I didn't say it the way you just said it, Robert.


PRESS: You weren't that mean?


NOVAK: I've been around a little bit. You know, there was a time, senators, when very junior senators didn't talk to the president of the United States that way. But you people really think now you've got him by the short hairs, don't you?

EDWARDS: No, far from it. No. We respect the White House.

NOVAK: Then why did you say that? EDWARDS: Because I think what it means is this is a very positive development, not for Republicans, not for Democrats, not for politicians in Washington, but for the American people, Bob. Because what it means is we now have a Republican House of Representatives, a Republican administration, and it appears, at least at this moment, that it may be a very slight margin for the Democrats in the Senate.

I think what that means is we are going to have to deal with each other. That is a positive thing. I think it's more likely to result in mainstream views, mainstream legislation, which in fact, is where most of the American people are.

NOVAK: Now, unless I missed something, there is not a single vote in the Senate that is changed as a result of Senator Jeffords.

EDWARDS: Exactly.

NOVAK: But by this, it was referred to on one of the network news programs as a "quirky person." Now I would never call a U.S. senator "quirky," you know that. But this other network called him quirky, because of one senator's decision, all the power goes to you. No more power sharing, no more evenly divided committees, committees will all be controlled by very liberal Democrats.

Does that -- is that something the American people can buy? Because Jim Jeffords was offended by something or another, that the whole power equation changes in the U.S. Senate?

EDWARDS: Well, the first thing I would say is there are a lot of moderate Democrats in the Senate, as there are a lot of moderate Republicans, including Jim Jeffords. And I think this is actually, as opposed to being quirky, I think this is in fact a principled decision, assuming he follows through with it by Senator...

NOVAK: What's the principle?

EDWARDS: Senator Jeffords, I think, represents a state, and we just heard something about it a minute ago, that's very independent- minded. I think he himself is very independent-minded, and a lot of the things that he cares deeply about, Bob, public education, health care issues -- I think that what he's done is made a judgment that he can best advocate for those issues by being an independent.

As to what it changes in terms of what we do on the floor of United States Senate, you said it exactly right, no votes have changed. What has changed is we have an opportunity now to bring to the floor issues like patients rights, which John McCain and I have been working on very hard trying to get to floor. I think there will be a balance in the issues that come to the floor, the issues that Jeff and others in the Republican Party care deeply about will continue to come to the floor, but I think there will be more balance in what comes to the floor now.

PRESS: Senator Sessions, if the Senator Jeffords decides to make this change none of us will know exactly what pushed him over the line or what all the elements that went into that decision. But he did say he was not going support the president's $1.6 trillion tax cut. And after that we know that there were people in the White House who questioned his loyalty.

He was told that they might withdraw their support for the dairy farmers in the state of Vermont. He was not invited to that Teacher of the Year Ceremony where one of his teachers from Vermont received that award at the White House. He was bad-mouthed by Karl Rove. And Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, actually called political reporters in Vermont, basically undercutting his support out there.

I mean, wouldn't you have to admit that when the Senate is 50-50, the White House made a huge, huge mistake in dealing so shabbily with one of their own.

SESSIONS: Bill, that is mostly being said by Democrats, I think. I don't see that Jim Jeffords is saying that. As a matter of fact, he told the president he had no problems with him personally. And the dairy compact is something I support, but a lot of people don't. But, I don't think that is the issue. I think it is just a wrestling with his conscience on where he is politically, where his state is, and where he can be most effective.

PRESS: Well, if you are not going to blame the White House, then let me ask about maybe somebody else who ought to be looked at, because one of the things that was talked about with Senator Jeffords before he left town was maybe they would create -- they said hold off for 24 hours, Senator Specter and others asking him to do that, so maybe we can create, here in the Senate, what they called a "new moderate leadership position."

What took Trent Lott so long to recognize that there might be a moderate Republican who wants a little attention? Why does he just want all the conservatives running the show? Isn't this Trent Lott's big loss?

SESSIONS: Well, all of us, all the leadership in the Republican party, if he switches will lose some influence in power.

PRESS: But doesn't Trent deserve the blame?

SESSIONS: Well, I don't know. Trent has worked hard with Jim Jeffords. They are good friends. They sang together. They developed a personal relationship doing that. And, they had a unique relationship. Jim was constantly on the edge of the Republican votes on spending and matters of that kind. And, Trent realized there is no way you can force a senator to do anything.

You have to appeal to their best instincts. Sometimes they will go with you and sometimes they don't. And Jim has marched to his own drummer. He's a man of independent spirit and we will miss him if we lose him. I hope we don't.

NOVAK: Senator Edwards, Jim Jeffords, why after 36 years as a liberal Republican, all these years in the Senate, supposedly he has been very angry for a long time, why now? Now this program on CROSSFIRE we say things that are not said elsewhere. But I'm going to tell what I hear on Capitol Hill, and you tell me if you agree with me.

The reason is that if, god forbid, Senator Strom Thurmond were to pass away, he is a 98-year-old man and you people are brutally keeping him in roll call after roll call, look like you are trying to bring him to the very edge, if poor Senator Thurmond were to pass away, you would get the control and the importance of Jim Jeffords's switching would be gone instantly. So this was the moment where he had to strike. Isn't that the correct analysis?

EDWARDS: Oh, I think that is very unlikely. I can't get inside Jim Jeffords' mind, Bob. I don't know why he made the decision he is making or why he's making that decision now. I actually agree with Jeff about Jim himself. We both know him personally. I think he is a good man, I think he's a principled man, and I think he's doing what he thinks is best for the state that he represents, and the issues that he cares about.

NOVAK: You know, the media, which doesn't always do a very good job, keeps talking about how nice it is for him to be an independent, that there are a lot of independents in the state of Vermont and there certainly are. But, why is it that he has to be -- vote with the Democrats to organize? Why is it that all the good things the Republican party has done for him, he is a committee chairman, why is it that it is not enough for him to be an independent, that he has to turn over the power to the likes of John Edwards?

EDWARDS: Well, I think, my guess is when he weighs Democrat versus Republican and which side best represents his position, I think he sees that he, on issues like health care, education, the issues that he feels passionately about, that he is more in line with the Democrats.

My suspicion is that is he will, as you said, no votes have changed, he'll probably continue to vote with the Republicans on some issues, but I think on the whole, particularly on the issues that he feels most strongly about, has been most personally involved in, he sees himself more aligned with the Democrats.

PRESS: OK, senators, we are going to tale a break, and when we come back we are going to talk about something that may very well change. If Senator Jeffords makes this switch, what effect that will have on President Bush's nominations to the federal bench? More CROSSFIRE coming up.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. And of course Senator Jeffords could remain one of the singing senators. He'd just have to sing a different tune, maybe. And President Bush might have to consider a different strategy, especially when it comes to judges. If, with Senator Jeffords' help, power shifts to Democrats in the Senate, are the president's nominations to the federal bench dead on arrival? And should Ted Olson, nominated to be solicitor general, go back to practicing law?

Two senators weigh in tonight: Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Democrat John Edwards, of North Carolina -- Bob.

NOVAK: Senator Edwards, Ted Olson is a distinguished lawyer. He's been endorsed for the solicitor general of the United States by President Clinton's lawyer, Bob Bennett, by Lawrence Tribe, the liberal legal scholar who opposed him in the Gore versus Bush lawsuit, but for just meanness' sake the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee all voted against him nine to nine.

Now under the power sharing rules, the Republican leader Senator Lott could bring that nomination to the floor, but he won't be the majority leader. Daschle will be the majority leader. So is this going to be the brave new world of Democratic rule, that because of Jim Jeffords' defection, you're going to bottle up a very qualified nominee for solicitor general, Ted Olson?

EDWARDS: Oh, no. I think that the evaluation of Ted Olson as I hope we go through these judges, the same kind of criteria will apply to them, is whether they're qualified, whether they're prepared to do the job, whether we feel good that they will do the job they need to do for the American people, and at least in Ted Olson's case, whether he's been completely accurate and forthright with his testimony before the committee.

NOVAK: Now you are a lawyer, one of the richest trial lawyers in the state of North Carolina, I have been told, and so you know a lot about the law, and I can't believe that you have vetoed a highly- qualified judge for the court of appeals for North Carolina, Judge Terry Boyle, the first Republican who would serve on the court of appeals for that -- what is that, the 4th circuit...

EDWARDS: Fourth circuit, yes.

NOVAK: ... fourth circuit -- since 1928. And now that you are in power in the Senator or appear ready to be, are you just going to have payback time, you're just going to say Terry Boyle, chief judge of the district court, you can't be in because you are a Republican?

EDWARDS: Oh, no. Far from it. First of all, I haven't vetoed anybody, Bob. What we're trying to do is, I have been working with the White House to find a constructive process to get qualified people on the court. Actually it's been very positive, the discussions I have had with Judge Gonzalez, White House counsel. I think we are making great progress. I think we will probably get some qualified people from North Carolina on the court.

NOVAK: You want a Democrat to go with Terry Boyle. Let's speak plain English. Is that right?

EDWARDS: No, no. What I want is for a period of eight years, we had all the judges from North Carolina who were nominated in the previous administration didn't get a hearing. As a result there are openings from North Carolina...

NOVAK: So, it's payback time.

EDWARDS: No, it's not payback time. What it is, is we have to have some balance in this process. We have account for the fact that for eight years nobody even got a hearing. But I don't think what we ought to be doing is just blocking people and obstructing. I think what we ought to be doing instead is finding good ways to put qualified people on the court. I think we can do that, and Judge Boyle is certainly in the mix that I have been talking about with the White House.

PRESS: Senator Sessions, while we get away from Senator Edwards, back to Senator Jeffords if we can for just a second. And I think this decision, whatever it is says more about the Republican Party than about Senator Jeffords. I'd like you to listen to a point that minority leader Dick Gephardt made today and see if you think he's right on target.


REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: It's obvious that there is no room for moderates in today's inside-the-Beltway Republican party. And that, to me, is a sad comment on the state of the modern Republican party.


PRESS: I mean, isn't that bottom line? He just felt he wasn't welcome in his own party.

SESSIONS: Absolutely not, Bill. That is just a House member who does not know anything about the Senate making a political comment. And I'm really offended that he would say that. Jim Jeffords is a great friend of all of ours. We've got quite a number of moderates in our caucus that do well and are very effective representing their interests in their states, and that's just not true.

PRESS: Well, I think, I agree with you, and Senator Edwards, that Senator Jeffords is a very thoughtful man. He cares a lot about the environment, he cares a lot about education, particularly special education. And yet he really felt he was just being ostracized. You don't want to hear what a Democrat says. Let me read you what a Republican Senate staffer's told "The Wall Street Journal."

He was quoted in this morning's "Wall Street Journal," said -- quote -- "When the stakes are as high as they are, you don't treat the guy like a pariah. It's a rookie error. In this case, truly the party is leaving him."

Like Ronald Reagan said, "I didn't leave the party. The party left me." And it did leave Jim Jeffords behind.

SESSIONS: I don't know that that's true, but perhaps they should have been more sensitive, maybe all of us should have been more sensitive to what Jim was thinking. I serve on the Education Committee with him. He is very, very committed to education. He is strongly of a belief that the federal government should do more things than I favor, for example, for education, and be more involved in state, local K through 12 education.

So there're some differences of opinion, but I have never seen a harsh word about Jim Jeffords in another Republican.

NOVAK: Senator Edwards, Jim Jeffords has rained on President Bush's parade today. Of course you'd never know it to watch television, but they passed -- the Senate -- the tax bill by a very large margin. I believe you voted against it, didn't you?


NOVAK: You usually do vote against the bipartisan moderate proposals, sir, you know with all due respect to you, but isn't that the question...

EDWARDS: When did I stop beating my wife, anyway?


NOVAK: But isn't that the truth of -- the honest truth -- that you are the person who is in the minority in the Senate. It's not Senator Sessions, that you're -- what did you have -- 35 votes against it, was all that you had against it in the Senate today and on the tax bill. So you are saying that you don't want to give the American people a tax cut, and that's blurred out by the fact that Jim Jeffords, for whatever quirky reasons, decides he can't be a Republican any more.

EDWARDS: That's is not true. I voted for a $1.2 trillion tax cut, but at that point it was just an outline. It had no substance or meat in it. What is wrong with this tax cut, Bob, is No. 1, it endangers Medicare. It creates a significant danger to Medicare and potentially endangers Social Security.

Secondly, there are serious fairness problems in this tax cut. If what we are trying to accomplish is a fair equitable distribution of the tax cut, then there ought to be more benefits in the middle class, more benefits in the lower class. And I'm sorry, the last thing I would say is if we want to stimulate the economy -- and I know a lot of arguments are being made that we need to stimulate the economy -- that's where the tax cut benefits need to go. It's where it makes the most sense.

And we have to be straight with people. Nobody knows what is going to happen five or 10 years from now.

NOVAK: It sounds like you're for a redistribution of income, which was Karl Marx's proposal.

EDWARDS: Far from it.

NOVAK: Senator John Edwards, thank you very much.

EDWARDS: Thanks, Bob.

NOVAK: Senator Jeff Sessions, thank you. And I don't think Bill Press is going to defect to the Republicans, but we will be back with closing comments anyway.

PRESS: Stay tuned.


NOVAK: Bill, Jim Jeffords is the most liberal member of -- liberal Republican member of the U.S. Senate. He's one of the most liberal members, period. And if the Republicans had not lost five seats in the last election so that it's 50-50, then most of the colleagues, if he were changing parties, would say good riddance. We're glad to see him go, but the fact is that if there were a five- seat Republican edge and it wasn't a matter of turning power over to the Democrats, he wouldn't be leaving. He's using this to enhance his own strategic power. I mean, let's be realistic about it.

PRESS: But it's interesting. You said, "Good riddance." Somebody in the White House today told one the network reporters I was watching tonight, when they asked him about Jim Jeffords, he said, "Good riddance."

That's the attitude, Bob, that drove this guy out of the party. I think he's a man of conscience. He's a man who really cares about issues, and let me just tell you something, just to get Jesse Helms off the Foreign Relations Committee is worth it.

NOVAK: ... the chairmanship, he's still on committee.

PRESS: Off the chairmanship, I'm sorry, is worth it. Go, Jeffords, go.

NOVAK: You know, Jim Jeffords may be where he belongs. It's just a shame that he has caused such chaos and havoc in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. government to be where he belongs.

PRESS: Bob, I love it. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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