Senate control in balance as GOP moderate considers leaving GOP
WASHINGTON (AP) – Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont stepped to the brink of a historic party switch Wednesday, triggering an intense effort by Republicans to keep him in the GOP fold and preserve their ability to advance President Bush’s legislative agenda.
Jeffords informed associates and aides during the day he would become an independent, according to officials familiar with the conversations, and the veteran moderate lawmaker flew to Vermont Wednesday evening for a planned morning announcement about his political future.
Before leaving, he met twice in the Capitol with Republican lawmakers who beseeched him not to move ahead and make the change that would break the 50-50 tie in the Senate and end their majority.
”It’s very possible he’ll look at this for a few days,” said one senator in attendance, Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana.
Senate Republicans said Jeffords had been offered a seat at their leadership table, more money for favored education programs and a waiver of term limits to let him remain chairman of the Education Committee beyond the end of next year as enticements to remain a Republican.
On the other hand, Senate aides also said Jeffords had approved staff meetings with Democrats to discuss preparations for taking over the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the post Democrats were offering if he would bolt the GOP.
A switch would elevate Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota to the powerful post of majority leader, with control over the flow of legislation and nominations – Supreme Court appointments among them – to the Senate floor.
An unprecedented power sharing agreement in effect since the 50-50 Senate was sworn in last winter would automatically dissolve, and Democrats would displace Republicans as committee chairmen.
”This isn’t about a single Senate seat. It’s about controlling the legislative agenda …and it’s about the federal judiciary,” said Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J. ”This is an enormous shift of influence in the federal government.”
Party switches are rare in Senate history, and a change that terminates one party’s majority is unprecedented.
”I like being chairman,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who presides over the Commerce Committee. He also said Jeffords’ decision should serve as a warning to establishment Republicans: ”If you’re going to threaten retaliation, revenge and punishment to people because they don’t vote exactly how you want them to, you’re going to pay a price.”
Already there were signs of tension in the GOP ranks. Party sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said top White House adviser Karen Hughes conducted a conference call with congressional GOP aides, telling them the White House wouldn’t be pointing fingers of blame, and she hoped they wouldn’t either.
Jeffords’ relations with the White House have been strained for weeks, the fallout of a clash over budget priorities. He supported reductions in Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax cut in favor of increasing federal support for education. A victory for Jeffords’ hopes on the Senate floor was negated in a House-Senate compromise, though, and none of the additional money was preserved.
Jeffords also let it be known he was unhappy not to be invited a few days later to a teacher of the year ceremony at the White House. The recipient was from Vermont, and he is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Jeffords is a durable figure in Vermont politics. He has held public office since 1967, except for a two-year hiatus. He won his Senate seat in 1988, replacing fellow Republican moderate Bob Stafford. He was pushed hard to win a second term six years later, but breezed to re-election last year.
A lifelong Republican, he has held fast to his New England moderate roots over the years while his party has drifted rightward. He was the only Republican in the Senate to support former President Clinton’s health care plan in 1994, and he defied his leaders when he voted to acquit Clinton on both articles of impeachment in 1999.
A supporter of abortion rights, he also votes for environmental legislation that many Republicans oppose, and is a longtime supporter of expanded federal aid to education.
In a private meeting with Bush in the Oval Office on Tuesday, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting, the senator said he no longer felt comfortable being a Republican.
Stunned Republicans contacted Jeffords’ contributors and backers in hopes they could prevent his defection. They also reached out to Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, hoping he might abandon his party and offset Jeffords’ anticipated move. Miller slammed the door shut with a statement that said, ”I will not switch to the Republican party and have no need to proclaim myself an independent.”
Jeffords met privately during the day with a small group of moderate and mainstream Republicans with less ideological voting records than some in the party.
”One concern expressed was that moderates aren’t getting enough attention,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. He said the group talked of creating a moderates’ position in the leadership, and mentioned Jeffords as a candidate.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said afterward, ”There may be a sliver of hope” to change Jeffords’ mind.
Democrats awaited a public announcement. They said privately they had told Jeffords he could become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and keep the post for the duration of his term, which ends in 2006. He also would retain his seat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, these officials added.
Under Republican rules, Jeffords’ tenure as education committee chairman is subject to term limits and will end at the end of next year, although Lott and other party leaders could decide to make an exception as part of the effort to keep Jeffords in their party.
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