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Jeffords Announces Decision to Leave Republican Party

Aired May 24, 2001 - 11:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Two days of speculation, a flurry of one-on-one meetings, and a big dose of soul-searching all came down to one moment, as: James Jeffords announces that he is leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. The U.S. senator from Vermont announced his decision in Burlington this morning. You saw it live here on CNN.

Our correspondents are all over this important political story. Our Candy Crowley is in Burlington. We have our John King at the White House. And our congressional correspondent Kate Snow is on Capitol Hill.

Let's start on Capitol Hill with Kate first. Kate, we expect to hear from Trent Lott very soon.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Expecting to hear from the Republicans. Not a great day for them on Capitol Hill. With Senator Jeffords announcing that he's going to become an independent, leave the Republican Party, and that the power will shift to the Democrats.

One important note. He did say that he promised that the president that he wouldn't make the shift effective until after the tax cut makes its way through Congress. That is now pending. He said once that reaches the president, then he will become effectively an independent.

But already staff here on Capitol Hill talking about how this transition will work with Senator Tom Daschle leading the Senate now as Senate majority leader rather. Every committee will have to change. Every committee's leadership will change. A Democrat will be put in charge.

And already, indications of the changing agenda. CNN is told by an aide to Senator Ted Kennedy, who will now become the chairman of the Education Committee, that he plans to bring up the Patients' Bill of Rights bill that he has been working on for quite a while right after Memorial Day recess. That will be item number one on the Democratic agenda.

It is not a bill that President Bush supports. It is cosponsored, by the way, by Senator John McCain. Senator McCain also putting out a statement already today talking about Senator Jeffords' decision and getting into a bit of second guessing. Some strong language from the senator. He said that while he was sorry to see Senator Jeffords go, he had some strong words for Republicans who might have mistreated him.

Here's what he said: "Although we have lost our majority in the Senate," referring to the Republicans, "I do believe Senator Jeffords' departure can have a positive impact on how our party responds to members who occasionally dissent from party orthodoxy. For his votes of conscience, he was unfairly targeted for abuse, usually anonymously by shortsighted party operatives from their comfortable perches in K Street offices and by some Republican members of Congress and their staff. Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to respect honorable differences among us," McCain says, "learn to disagree without resorting to personal threats, and recognize that we're a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on issues of the day.

"Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party," said McCain. "And it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up." Some very strong words from Senator McCain.

Also, Representative Dick Gephardt, the minority leader, still the minority over on the House of Representatives side, talking today about this decision by Senator Jeffords. He says it sends a loud and clear message that while Republicans talk bipartisanship, they fail to do things in a bipartisan way. Representative Gephardt saying that they even be punish their members who want to act out in a bipartisan way.

So some strongly worded statements coming from that side on Capitol Hill. We do expect to hear, though, from Republicans, from Republican majority leader, currently the majority leader, Trent Lott, momentarily. We expect that he'll probably have a bit of a different take on Senator Jeffords' decision, Daryn.

KAGAN: Kate Snow on Capitol Hill. Kate, thank you. We are getting word that Senator Lott is running a bit late. He's in caucus. As soon as he does begin his comments, you'll see those live here on CNN. Also at the top of next hour, we expect to hear from the man who will be the next majority leader as we expect of the U.S. Senate, Senator Tom Daschle -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Jeffords dropped his much- anticipated political bombshell from his home state of Vermont. And that is where we find CNN's senior political correspondent Candy Crowley. Hello, Candy. What's the latest from there?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Miles. Well, the latest from here is the why? We've known for about 24 hours, at least people around Jeffords had said, "Look, he's leaving the Republican Party. He's going to become an independent."

And the question is, why now? This is lifelong Republican. And the answer is very simple and pretty devastating. And that is Senator Jeffords looked down the road and realized that he did not agree with a whole lot that is in the Bush agenda.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS (R), VERMONT: Those who don't know me may have thought I took pleasure in resisting the president's budget or that I enjoyed the limelight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had serious, substantive reservations about that budget, as you all know and the decisions it set in place for the future. Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president on very fundamental issues, the issues of choice...

(AUDIO GAP)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Jeffords says he disagrees with the president on practically every major item of the White House agenda. For Jeffords, he was simply now outside his comfort zone while he managed to stay a Republican while disagreeing over the past in his lifetime, now he just felt that he could no longer support an agenda, the major fundamental of which he disagrees with, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Candy, I know you've been kind of busy there. But if you've had a chance to talk to voters, I'm curious, Vermont voters are known to be a kind of tolerant, moderate lot. But as you've kind of walked the shores there of Lake Champlain, are you detecting much anger at this decision? Anybody saying, "Hey, time for a recall."

CROWLEY: Look, it's hard for me to quantify in terms of how angry some of those in Vermont. Is there anger? Absolutely. I talked to one party operative earlier. And he said, "Look, when Jeffords came up to last election, which was just last fall, he could have had a very tough primary race because a lot of Republicans in the state were angry that he didn't vote for the impeachment of President Clinton.

"But a lot of this paved the way for him. And sure, he won by a substantial margin. But we felt we made it easier for him in the primaries. And we really look upon this as a betrayal." So, obviously, the Republicans do feel very upset about it.

Having said that, this is a state that has trended liberal, has trended Democratic, and is very Democratic at this point. And obviously, they're quite happy. And they love that sort of independence. That's an image that Vermont likes to promote. And this fits right in with it.

O'BRIEN: All right, Candy Crowley, thank you very much live from Burlington, Vermont. Daryn?

KAGAN: And with the new balance of power in the U.S. Senate, will George W. Bush have to change his governing style? That's a question we take to our senior White House correspondent John King standing by at the White House -- John, good morning.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Daryn. The White House saying the president might have to change his style. But they're insisting he will not change the substance.

And they are a bit taken aback here from what they heard from Senator Jeffords early this morning. Make no mistake about it. The entire senior staff, the president is traveling, those left behind closely watching the coverage of Senator Jeffords' announcement. They say that Senator Jeffords should not have been surprised by anything President Bush has done as president because he has been very loyal to the agenda he outlined during the campaign. So they're a bit taken aback by his criticism of the president's agenda, saying he should have known full well what this president would focus on as president.

They're also disrespectfully -- respectfully, excuse me -- disagreeing with his assessment that the president has not been bipartisan. They point to the vote on tax cuts yesterday in the Senate, 60 votes. They point to the president's approach on education and the faith- based initiatives, the patients' bill of rights, saying this president has tried to operate in bipartisan manner.

Now, looking ahead, they're about to open a channel of communication with Senator Tom Daschle, the soon-to-be majority leader of the Senate. And they understand here this is a very different political landscape. They insist, however, the president has experienced working with Democrats from his days as governor of Texas, and that he won't veer from agenda. They do know he will have a much tougher time, though, selling it now, Daryn.

KAGAN: John, that has to do with his relationship with Tom Daschle. What about the president's relationship with other moderate Republicans? Any lessons learned from how they treated Jim Jeffords?

KING: Well, certainly the White House is very sensitive to the criticism that they were somehow caught flat-footed here, that they snubbed Jeffords or that they weren't made aware quickly enough, they didn't react quickly enough to word that he might leave the Republican Party. In that regard, senior officials here somewhat critical of other Senate Republican leaders, saying that as soon as the problem was brought to their attention, as soon as they were told that it was, quote, "a serious problem," that, quote, "serious people got involved," meaning the vice president and the president trying to convince Senator Jeffords to stay.

They understand here now they are going to have to double-check with some other people, Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island one of them. Senator John McCain, whose statement Kate Snow read, a very tough statement. He was due for dinner here tonight at the White House. That dinner has been postponed by mutual agreement.

But certainly, the White House aware now that, A, it needs to touch base with moderates, and B, that it will be closely watched to see if what some perceive as mistakes in the handling of the Jeffords case will be repeated in the future.

KAGAN: John King at the White House. John, thank you.

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