Jeffords' change of party likely

GOP senator is said to be leaning toward independent status

`Offers made by everybody'

Long-felt discomfort with conservative colleagues boils over

May 24, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Republican lawmakers worked frantically yesterday to try to talk Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont out of his decision to leave the Republican Party and became an independent, a move that would give Democrats control of the Senate.

Jeffords' Republican colleagues did persuade him to postpone until today an announcement that had been scheduled for yesterday. But as the three-term senator and 25-year veteran of Congress headed home last night to address his constituents in Burlington this morning, fellow Republicans were holding out little hope.

"Offers are being made by everybody," said Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, one of Jeffords' moderate Republican allies. "But I sense he's reached a decision that he just hasn't announced yet."

The unusual mid-session party switch, prompted by Jeffords' frustration with his party's conservative leadership in Congress and in the White House, would bring a quick end to the first Republican control of both Congress and the presidency since the 1950s.

Even if Jeffords declares himself an independent, as expected, rather than a Democrat, Senate officials say control of the now evenly divided 50-50 Senate would immediately shift to the Democrats, who would have 50 members, to 49 for the Republicans.

The consequences of the power shift would extend beyond the Senate, the Congress and the White House. At stake is the president's ability to shape policy on issues important to Americans: education, energy, the environment, health care and Social Security.

Democrats, who would control committee chairmanships and the majority leader's post, would have far more power to change or obstruct Bush's legislative proposals.

Bush's drive to restrain federal spending - already a difficult challenge - would be jeopardized. Many of his conservative choices for federal judgeships and other posts could be in danger. And prospects are more likely that Bush would have to veto measures than if Congress remained in Republican control.

"From the point of view of Democrats, it puts us in a much more pro-active, instead of reactive, position," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat. "I feel like for too many years I've been spending 80 percent of my time stopping the worst. Now, maybe I'll have a chance to spend time doing the better."

Jeffords' switch served to highlight the extraordinary power that a single senator can wield in a Senate that is divided evenly, 50-50, along party lines.

"This isn't about a single Senate seat," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat. "It's about controlling the legislative agenda. And it's about the federal judiciary. This is an enormous shift of influence in the federal government."

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle would immediately assume the title of majority leader, whose most crucial power is control of the Senate agenda. He would determine what legislation is considered and when.

As the new committee chairmen, Democrats would gain the power to draft legislation and conduct hearings. Among the more striking power shifts would occur on the Senate Banking Committee, which Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, would take over from Phil Gramm, a conservative Texas Republican.

Maryland's other Democratic senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, would also gain significant new power: She would become chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that allocates spending for veterans affairs, housing, urban development and independent agencies, including NASA.

Jeffords himself has been promised the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee and would retain that post for the rest of his Senate term, which ends in 2006. He would also remain on the Finance Committee.

The White House held out the prospect that Jeffords would decide in the end against bolting.

"The president, the vice president, the White House - we all hope that Senator Jeffords remains a Republican," Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said yesterday. "It's based on their desire, our desire, to make sure the Senate remains in Republican hands so our agenda can continue to move through."

But the White House is clearly on the defensive over whether it botched its dealings with Jeffords and drove him to a painful decision that might have been avoided. Karen Hughes, a senior Bush adviser, put out the word in a conference call to Republican aides on Capitol Hill that they should avoid pointing fingers of blame.

The White House and Jeffords' Republican colleagues tried desperately to find some way to persuade him to remain in the fold.

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