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How Jeffords got away

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While the G.O.P. slept, Tom Daschle was quietly reeling in his prize. Inside his secret operation

The defection of Jim Jeffords may be remembered as one of the most successful covert operations in American political history, with Democratic leader Tom Daschle as the mastermind and Jeffords as the spy who came in from the cold. But when Jeffords helped blow his own cover, the scene was like something out of Ally McBeal. By last Tuesday morning, rumors had been swirling for days that the Vermont Senator was thinking about leaving the Republican Party. That morning Jeffords stood in a rest room off the Senate floor staring at his haggard face in the mirror. Republican Senator Pat Roberts sidled up to him at the next sink. "Jim, how you doing?" Roberts asked. Jeffords just shook his head.

"Well, I hope some of the stories I've been hearing are not accurate," said Roberts, trying to get Jeffords to open up.

"I've got to do what's in my heart and mind," Jeffords replied, and that's all he would say. He walked out. But Roberts knew what it meant. He found majority leader Trent Lott and warned him that "it's pretty doggone serious." Lott had been getting similar reports and sounded the alarm to the White House and the Senate's G.O.P. leadership. But he was too late. The defector had already slipped past the gate.

White House aides were dumbfounded. "The horizon was clear; there were no clouds," says one. "No one saw it, and then it poured." As Republicans from Bush to Dick Cheney to party hacks in Vermont tried everything they could think of to lure Jeffords back, Daschle and his top lieutenant, minority whip Harry Reid, sat in their offices hiding broad grins from the rest of the world. They knew something else that Lott was in the dark about. The Jeffords deal had been practically sealed a full week before. In fact, for almost a month, Daschle and Reid had conducted their secret negotiations under Lott's nose, with the Republican leader clueless that he was the victim of a silent, slow-motion fleecing.

The recruitment of Jim Jeffords had no code names, no dead drops, no encrypted communications, but it followed all the rules of a classic CIA operation. Democrats had targeted Jeffords as a possible party switcher practically from the day he came to Congress 26 years ago. Daschle, a former Air Force intelligence officer, knew that spymasters don't have a chance of bagging a high-value defector unless he is eager to defect. Even then, he has to be slowly and carefully cultivated. By last month, Jeffords seemed ready to come over. His disenchantment with the Republican Party had been building for months.

Moderates don't survive in the Republican Party without a thick skin. Over the years, the proud, laconic Jeffords had endured countless arm twistings, cold shoulders and petty slights for taking stands at odds with his party--against Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut and Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination, for the Clintons' health-care reform, minimum-wage hikes and more money for the National Endowment for the Arts. But by last year, the hostility had begun to wear him down. He was chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a post that could be powerful in promoting his passion for schools, but conservative G.O.P. upstarts on the panel, such as New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, were constantly maneuvering to undercut Jeffords' authority, doing things like convening private meetings of the committee's Republicans and not inviting him. Jeffords complained to Lott, but the majority leader didn't rein in the right-wingers.

When Bush was elected President, Jeffords hoped that this "new kind of Republican," as the Texan liked to call himself, was actually an old kind of Republican--a closet progressive in the mold of Nelson Rockefeller. Jeffords soon realized Bush was nothing of the kind, as the President catered to his Republican base by appointing such right-wingers as John Ashcroft as Attorney General and Gale Norton as Interior Secretary. By January, Jeffords was no longer ignoring the casual entreaties that came from the other side. At that point, Daschle, Reid and other Democrats made them half jokingly to keep things low key, even though they were hungry for a defector to break the fifty-fifty split in the Senate.

Jeffords began withdrawing from his Republican colleagues and finding Democratic friends more appealing. Some of the "Mod Squad"--moderate G.O.P. Senators Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chafee, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter--found Jeffords increasingly quiet at the private lunches they held each week. After Senator Hillary Clinton sat down from delivering an impassioned floor speech about education funding, Jeffords stopped at her desk. "I really agree with you," he said. "We've got to fight harder, so don't get discouraged." But Jeffords was becoming gloomy.

"The past couple of months just brought everything into focus," he told TIME. In April, his budget negotiations with Lott and the White House about boosting education money for disabled students ended in a bitter stalemate. The White House was furious with him. Jeffords wasn't satisfied with the Administration's proposals, and Bush aides felt that Jeffords backed away every time they were ready to nail down a compromise. Lott was irritated as well. He had fended off conservatives who wanted to steal Jeffords' chairmanship, and put him on the prestigious Finance Committee. Lott had even invited Jeffords into the Singing Senators vocal quartet. Yet all he seemed to get from Jeffords was obstinacy.

Ultimately, Republicans stripped other school funds from the budget. Jeffords knew more feuds were coming over the environment, Bush's pro-drilling energy policy, health care and conservative nominees to the Supreme Court. On a Friday afternoon after most Senators headed back to their home states, Jeffords slipped into Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Dodd's office and began venting. "This doesn't seem to be working," he confided. Education "is the biggest thing for me. But I'm not sure what to do from here."

Dodd smiled and said softly, "Look, Jim, there's room for you over here." "Hmm," Jeffords answered--first mulling the possibility, then catching himself. "Gee, I would never be a Democrat." Maybe an independent, he said, but not a Democrat. Dodd smiled and didn't push.

But the White House and Senate Republicans were pushing, in ways they would come to regret. Angry over Jeffords' opposition to Bush's $1.6 trillion tax-cut plan, Bush aides didn't invite him to a White House ceremony honoring a Vermont teacher, a minor slight of the kind Jeffords had grown used to over the years. Others were more serious. The Administration began hinting that a program aiding Vermont dairy farmers might be in jeopardy. Jeffords was getting the silent treatment in the Finance Committee, and Gregg announced that he would be "spearheading" the education bill for the G.O.P.

On the prowl for disgruntled Republicans, Reid thought Chafee was the ripest target. But after a chance encounter with Jeffords in April, Reid became convinced Jeffords would bolt. Daschle was skeptical but put Reid in charge of the recruitment. Reid and Jeffords had similar personalities--taciturn, press shy, not given to windy speeches in public or private. Reid knew Jeffords hated confrontation and horse trading, so he stuck to high principles in their conversations and never, ever asked him directly to defect. "The issues you stand for are the ones we believe in in the Democratic Party," Reid told him. "Jim, this is beyond you and me. This is for the country." But early on, sources say, Reid dangled the possibility that Jeffords could chair the Environment and Public Works Committee under Democratic rule. Jeffords has denied making such a deal.

Everyone leaks on Capitol Hill, but the two men somehow managed to keep their talks secret. Reid told only one top aide about them. Sometimes the two lawmakers ducked into a private office; at other times, figuring the best place to hide was in plain sight, they talked on the Senate floor with colleagues milling about and reporters watching from the press gallery above. On Tuesday morning, May 15, Daschle, Reid and Jeffords slipped away to Jeffords' Capitol hideaway near the Senate press gallery to negotiate the offer. "Here's what we can do for you if you decide to put us in the majority," Daschle said. The Vermonter was ready to jump but had to discuss the decision with family and close friends. By Friday night, CNN was reporting rumors that Jeffords was mulling a switch. Daschle panicked; Bush would surely helicopter Jeffords to Camp David for a weekend charm blitz that could unravel the deal. But Jeffords' allies and Vermont G.O.P. officials assured the President's people that there was nothing to the report.

The G.O.P. was sorely misinformed. Last Monday night on the Senate floor, during a long debate about tax cuts, Jeffords told Olympia Snowe that he was seriously considering switching. Snowe placed a frantic call to White House chief of staff Andrew Card, but Card had already gone home. Snowe left a message saying the matter was "sensitive and urgent." She tried Card again in the morning, but his aides said he wouldn't be available until noon. Interrupt him now, Snowe demanded, "even if he's in with the President." Card phoned back minutes later, and the White House finally knew.

The cement was hardening by the time Cheney huddled with Jeffords around midday on Tuesday in the Vice President's ceremonial office off the Senate floor. The meeting did not go well. Sources say Jeffords told Cheney the Democrats had offered him a chairmanship. The Vice President walked Jeffords through the ramifications of a defection but had no answers for his complaints. "You better talk to him," Cheney told Bush.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jeffords walked into the Oval Office. Bush summoned all his charm. "I'd like you to stay in our party," he pleaded. Has the White House done anything to push you out? No, Jeffords replied politely, but the party is ignoring the moderates. On important issues like education and the environment, conservatives are running the show, Jeffords warned, and if Bush didn't move to the center, he would be a one-term President. "I hear you, I hear you," Bush answered. Jeffords promised to ponder, but Bush suspected the decision had been made. "I don't think I was very persuasive," the President told Lott afterward.

On Wednesday morning, half a dozen G.O.P. colleagues sat Jeffords down in a room off the Senate floor for a last stab at changing his mind. "Jim, do you really believe you can further your dreams and aspirations by doing this?" Senator Chuck Hagel asked plaintively. "We can fix this. Give us a chance." Jeffords agreed only to meet later that day. When they reconvened at 4:15, the Senators had a sweet offer for him. The White House promised more money for education, Lott would give him a seat at the Senate leadership table as the moderates' representative, and Jeffords could chair the Health and Education Committee for as long as he wanted. For the rest of the 90-min. session, the arguments got personal. Hundreds of G.O.P. staff members would be fired if the Democrats took control. Senators who had worked long and hard to become committee chairmen would have the prize yanked away. Senator Charles Grassley, who had chaired the Finance Committee for just four months, was in tears.

Jeffords was moved. "That's the worst emotional experience I've been through," he told TIME. "These are all wonderful friends of mine. They were frustrated, as I had been over the years, but they nevertheless wanted to stay with the party." Wait a few days, the Senators begged, and make this decision after a good night's rest.

But Jeffords had committed to holding a press conference the next day in Vermont. On the flight home that evening, he decided once and for all to become an independent and vote with the Democrats, giving them control of the Senate. "I became a Republican not because I was born into the party but because of the kind of fundamental principles Republicans stood for--moderation, tolerance, fiscal responsibility," he told the press in Montpelier the next day. "Our party was the party of Lincoln," but conservatives now dominate it, so "it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."

As Jeffords made his announcement, Air Force One was streaking west to Cleveland, where Bush was scheduled to promote his faith-based-charities initiative. Stewards passed out earphones so that the Congressmen and Senators on board could hear a CNN audio feed of Jeffords' press conference. Aides say Bush didn't bother to listen to the broadcast. That may not have been wise. Look what happened the last time he ignored Jeffords.


Cover Date: June 4, 2001


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