Senator has long charted course

Independent streak has kept colleagues guessing intentions

`Quintessential Vermonter'

May 24, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With a fiercely independent streak reflecting his home state of Vermont, an unassuming Jimmy Stewart demeanor and a tendency to side with the opposition party on major national issues, James M. Jeffords has often been the subject of "will he or won't he?" speculation.

He kept his colleagues guessing about his intentions during the Clinton impeachment saga, finally becoming one of only five Republican senators to vote to acquit the president. And six years earlier, he sent dizzyingly mixed signals about his support for a key Clinton economic stimulus plan, eventually joining the GOP in opposing it.

This week, the unpredictable Vermont native, who has spent 35 years as a Republican officeholder, is causing his colleagues to hold their breath once again, waiting for today's announcement at which he is expected to shift the balance of power in the evenly divided Senate by leaving the GOP and, most likely, becoming an independent allied with the Democrats.

"Jim is the quintessential Vermonter," says the state's governor, Howard Dean, a Democrat and Jeffords confidant. "I think this is almost entirely a matter of conscience. I think the Republican Party is getting farther and farther out of step with New England Republicans -- and this is the atomic bomb at the end."

Ever since he entered politics as a state senator in 1966, Jeffords, 67, whose father was the chief justice of the state's Supreme Court, has charted his own course - and not just politically.

A self-effacing man who chops wood at his rural home in the Green Mountains, has a black belt in tae kwon do and wouldn't think of buying anything but an inexpensive, off-the-rack suit, Jeffords lived in a camper during his early days in Washington.

Today, after 27 years on Capitol Hill and now chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he rarely takes part in lawmakers' Sunday morning ritual - TV talk shows.

Although he is said to be uncomfortable in the limelight and President Bush-like in his lack of eloquence, he has performed at Opryland U.S.A., among other places, as part of the Singing Senators, a quartet that includes Majority Leader Trent Lott, Sen. Larry E. Craig and senator-turned-Attorney General John Ashcroft - Jeffords' closest association with the conservatives who dominate his party.

Although friends say Jeffords has been urged to switch parties in the past - especially after high-profile breaks with the GOP, such as his vote against confirming Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his support for the Clinton health care reform plan - they say he has never before come close to making the move and becoming the first Republican senator in 49 years to leave the party.

"To walk away from the party of his ancestors, this is not something he wanted," says Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political science professor. "I think he's been wrestling with it for a while."

Many have suggested that the last straw was Bush's refusal to provide the level of funding Jeffords sought for special education, one of his top concerns, as well as heavy-handed tactics from the White House in response to his unwillingness to support Bush's original $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut.

"Jim Jeffords cannot be bullied, bribed or flattered into doing anything he doesn't want to do," says Nelson.

Dean says that Jeffords embodies the Vermont character: "The saying goes, `If you tell a Vermonter to do something, it will never happen. If you ask him to do it, he'll always do it.'"

Because of Jeffords' "aw, shucks" manner, the governor says, his will and determination are often underestimated.

After earning degrees at Yale University and Harvard Law School with service in the Navy sandwiched in between, Jeffords became a state senator and then Vermont attorney general before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974.

In 1981, he established his maverick credentials by breaking from the Republican pack and becoming the only GOP House member to vote against President Ronald Reagan's tax cuts.

The vote soured his relations with the GOP House leadership and in 1988, he happily won a Senate seat where his independence was better tolerated - at least until this year's 50-50 split of Democrats and Republicans.

During his years in the Senate - where education and specifically, special education, have been his passions - he has voted more often with Democrats than any other Republican senator. He has voted for family and medical leave, abortion rights, gun control and the "motor voter" bill, which is designed to make voter registration easier. He has favored raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform and increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

He was the only Republican to sign onto Clinton's ill-fated health care plan and condemned Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America" as speaking for the "religious right" only, and not America.

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