GOP loses Senate edge

Jeffords quitting party

Democrats to gain control

Vt. senator to turn independent after tax-cut package vote

`Conscience and principles'

Moderate displeased with Bush policies, especially on schools

May 25, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BURLINGTON, Vt. - James M. Jeffords, a soft-spoken senator from independent-minded Vermont, declared yesterday that he was defecting from the Republican Party, a move that will hand control of the Senate to the Democrats and place a huge obstacle in front of President Bush as he seeks to enact his agenda.

"To best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent," Jeffords said at a news conference here amid cries of joy from supporters. A last-ditch Republican effort failed to persuade him to remain in the fold.

Jeffords, a 67-year-old lifelong Republican, said his decision was "difficult on a personal level, but even more difficult because of the larger impact on the Senate, and also the nation."

One of a few New England moderates who often broke from the Republican leadership on social and environmental issues in recent years, Jeffords said the conservative Bush White House left him feeling more alienated than ever and less confident his views could get a fair hearing in the party.

Bush, during a trip to Cleveland, expressed disappointment over the decision.

"I respect Senator Jeffords, but, respectfully, I couldn't disagree more," Bush said. "I was elected to get things done on behalf of the American people and to work with both Republicans and Democrats. And we're doing just that."

Jeffords said he assured Bush that he would delay his switch until after Congress passes the president's tax-cut package, likely by the end of the week. But once that occurs, Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, will replace Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi as majority leader, and Democrats will take over the chairmanships of all committees.

The Senate would then be made up of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent.

As chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Jeffords said, he was especially frustrated that he could not find accord with Bush and party leaders on education spending, an issue of great importance to him.

"I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president on very fundamental issues," he added. "Issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues large and small."

The senator stressed that his decision was guided largely by the feeling of disconnect between himself and the president's positions, and he said neither Bush nor his staff had done anything to personally offend him.

Jeffords denied reports that the White House's failure to invite him to a presidential ceremony honoring the National Teacher of the Year, who was from Vermont, had played a role in his decision.

"That had nothing to do with it," he said.

The move is a bruising and surprising setback to Bush, who spoke often, and proudly, of his ability to charm and to work productively with lawmakers from both parties and to build bipartisan coalitions around his ideas. Though the 50-50 split in the Senate has meant for months that any senator's departure would upset the delicate balance, Jeffords' decision still produced a stunning shift in Washington's balance of power.

With the Democrats now poised to take over the Senate and to control the schedule and method by which legislation is considered, Bush could be forced to moderate some of his views to gain support.

Until this week, when swirling rumors of a Jeffords defection shook the capital, the White House projected an aura of confidence as the president's plans for across-the-board tax cuts and education reform were on the verge of winning approval in Congress.

Bush said he believed that he could continue to reach across party lines in the Senate to win backing for his agenda. But Democrats can now control the legislative process in the Senate, and Republicans can no longer count on winning party-line votes with a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Daschle called yesterday for "principled compromise" between the parties, though he also said the Democrats would try to force Bush to bend on parts of his agenda they dislike. "We can't dictate to them, nor can they dictate to us," Daschle said.

Daschle called Bush yesterday after the president returned to Washington, and the White House said they had a cordial phone conversation.

Though insisting Republicans are still "unified and committed" to pushing Bush's agenda, Lott said his party would hand over control to the Democrats once tax-cut legislation is approved and sent to Bush for his signature, or June 5, whichever is later.

As for Jeffords' departure, Lott said: "Part of this is just a difference of opinion. I understand that, and I wish him well."

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