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Jeffords' move may realign Senate

Reports say the moderate Republican senator from Vermont could join the Democratic Party or become an independent today.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, a moderate Republican who often bucks his party leaders, will announce today whether he is switching parties, a move that could hand control of the Senate to the Democrats and dramatically weaken President Bush's ability to push his programs through Congress.

Reports by the Washington Post, Knight Ridder Newspapers, the Associated Press and New York Times indicated Jeffords would leave the Republican Party. Some of the reports said he would become an independent and vote with Democrats. The reports, however, also cautioned that Jeffords could change his mind.

Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, Jeffords spoke enigmatically: "I can't wait to get home to see my wife and son and daughter-in-law who haven't heard it yet." He did not elaborate.

White House aides, citing the sensitivity of the issue, declined to comment.

With the Senate split 50-50 between the two parties, leaders on both sides aggressively wooed Jeffords on Tuesday. He met Bush privately in the Oval Office for 25 minutes, huddled with Vice President Dick Cheney at the Capitol, and also met with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Lott said Jeffords had not told of him of any intention to defect. But, he added, "He's being wooed; I'm sure that's true on all sides." He said he had talked to Jeffords several times Tuesday.

The AP and Washington Post reported that Democrats had indicated they would allow Jeffords to claim the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for the remainder of his six-year term if he abandoned the GOP.

Jeffords, 67, who has served in Congress since 1975 and the Senate since 1989, "has usually voted more often with Democrats than any other Republican senator," according to the Almanac of American Politics.

If Jeffords does switch parties, it would force a political realignment across Washington. Democrats would regain control of the Senate after being in the minority since 1995. Bush, who entered the presidency as the first Republican to govern with a GOP majority since Dwight Eisenhower, would suffer a tremendous reversal.

Republicans have held on to majority status in the evenly split Senate because Cheney can cast tiebreaking votes. That slender majority allows Republicans to control the process, although Democrats have great influence under a power-sharing agreement reached this year.

A Jeffords defection likely would spark an immediate effort by Republicans to attract conservative Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia to their ranks. Miller, a former governor, has repeatedly voted with Republicans and was the first Democrat to back Bush's proposed $1.6-trillion tax cut.

Weeks ago, Miller teased the Republican Party by saying he did not plan to leave the Democratic Party "at this time." Miller, however, soon reaffirmed his intent to stay a Democrat.

Other question marks hanging over the 50-50 Senate include the frail health of 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and the mushrooming legal scandal over campaign contributions to Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.

Ed Gillespie, a Republican consultant who advised Bush's campaign, said Jeffords' departure would be a blow to Bush.

"Obviously, you don't want to lose control of the Senate," Gillespie said. "I'm sure the president doesn't want him to go, but if that's what he's going to do, that's what he's going to do."

But Gillespie noted that potential party switchers often get cold feet.

"More often than not, when they get to the point when they have to chose, they decide not to. It's not easy to change parties. No. 1, you have to move away from your political base. No. 2, your new party mates aren't always that thrilled. No. 3, it's difficult when you run for office," he said.

If Jeffords switches, "it would mean everything for the Democrats," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. "If it's only Jeffords switching, then the Democrats have outright control of the Senate. That gives them a whole lot of clout. It creates an environment for a lot more compromise than there has been thus far.

"Once they become the majority, all committee chairmanships go to the Democrats. That's a major gain for the Democrats.

"They can decide which legislation is going to be heard, when it's going to be heard. Suddenly, the Democrats can bottle up all sorts of things."

Jeffords displayed his independence earlier this year when he bucked Bush's drive for a $1.6-trillion tax cut and insisted on a smaller tax cut so more money would be spent on special education programs. Jeffords' stand helped cement a bipartisan coalition of Senate moderates who forced Bush's budget outline to bend on those points.

After Jeffords twisted Bush's arm on education, the White House declined to invite Jeffords to a presidential ceremony honoring a Vermont teacher as U.S. teacher of the year. That angered the Vermont senator, according to published reports.

It's unclear what effect a Jeffords' switch might have on the $1.35-trillion tax cut now being shaped in Congress. On Tuesday he regularly voted with Republicans and the moderates to protect a compromise tax cut against Democratic amendments.

But Jeffords also has worked closely with Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, on education legislation.

Vermont has a reputation as a liberal state. Its other senator is a Democrat, Patrick Leahy, and its only congressman is Rep. Bernard Sanders, an independent who describes himself as a "Democratic socialist."

The son of a Vermont chief justice, Jeffords went to Yale University, served in the Navy and graduated from Harvard Law School. He was elected state senator in 1966 at age 32, then state attorney general in 1968 and 1970. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1974 and to the U.S. Senate in 1988.

- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was used throughout this report.

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