Jeffords Could Hand Senate Power Back to the Democrats

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, May 23, 2001 (ENS) - Sometime tomorrow, the political landscape in Washington, DC is likely to change dramatically. Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, is expected to announce that he has abandoned the Republican Party - giving the Democrats control of the Senate and throwing a major roadblock up in front of the Bush administration agenda.

Jeffords

Senator Jim Jeffords could singlehandedly hand control of the Senate to the Democrats tomorrow. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Jeffords said today that he has made his decision, but wants to go back home to Vermont to make the announcement.

"I want to go home to my people," Jeffords told reporters. "I wanted to be with my Vermonters when I made the decision."

Despite 11th hour lobbying by the White House and Congressional Republicans, including meetings yesterday between Jeffords, President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney, Jeffords appears ready to switch allegiances. He is expected to announce tomorrow that he will register as an Independent.

Jeffords' decision would have major repercussions for the balance of power in Congress, and could help stall controversial Bush administration initiatives and judicial appointments.

If Jeffords becomes an Independent, the Senate will consist of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one Independent. That gives control of the Senate to the Democrats, along with the chairs of all Senate committees and subcommittees.

The Democrats have not controlled the Senate since 1994.

clean air

Senator Jeffords at a press conference with U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Clear the Air, the National Campaign Against Dirty Power, releasing a new study on air pollution emitted by the nation's 594 dirtiest power plants. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The majority party in the Senate controls which legislation is reviewed by the full Senate and when, as well as the schedule for review of nominees to the federal bench. Committee chairs can at times opt not to even bring legislation up for a vote.

Jeffords' defection would make the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, into the Senate majority leader. Current majority leader Trent Lott of Missouri would be demoted to Senate minority leader.

Sources tell ENS that Jeffords could become the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a post currently held by Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire. Although Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has seniority on the committee, he would reportedly step aside in favor of Jeffords, while retaining his position as majority whip.

Jeffords has long been considered a moderate, voting with the Democrats on many traditionally Democratic issues, including the environment. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) gave Jeffords, a 12 year veteran of the Senate, an 81 percent pro-environment rating overall for the 106th Congress, and an 89 percent rating for the 105th Congress.

He has voted against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pet project of the Bush administration, and against the massive tax cut which the Senate passed today. Jeffords did not support Republican efforts to ease environmental restrictions on hardrock mining and grazing, and opposed continued subsidies for logging on public lands.

smith

Senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, currently chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
If Jeffords heads the Environment and Public Works Committee, he will control the flow of most major environmental legislation. He will take over for a Republican, Senator Smith, who voted pro-environment only 13 percent of the time during 1997 and 1998, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

Running as a Republican, Jeffords won re-election in Vermont easily last fall, despite the increasingly liberal, Democratic makeup of his home state. The Senator's Vermont office said today that Jeffords is likely to retain the support of most voters, even if he switches political allegiances.

In recent weeks, Jeffords has been in frequent conflict with President Bush, voting against the White House position on several budget issues, particularly education funding, one of Jeffords primary platforms. His decision to switch parties could reflect Jeffords' increasing disillusionment with the Republican platform.

Jeffords' defection will strike a blow at the very heart of that platform, making it far more difficult for Bush to push through pro-business legislation and select conservative judges.

Lott

Current Senate majority leader Trent Lott could lose much of his power tomorrow. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"The President clearly hopes that Senator Jeffords will remain a Republican," said White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer today. "Senator Jeffords has always been an independent thinker. The Senator has his own ideas about what he wants to do, what he intends to do, and in all cases President Bush and the White House will be very respectful of him." Fleischer noted that the 50-50 split in the Senate has prompted some unique compromises, including shared jurisdiction over Senate committees.

"It's a uniquely close Senate. And given its close makeup, the President has been tremendously successful in getting things done in the Senate," said Fleischer. "The President is going to continue to work very respectfully and productively with members of Congress from both parties."

daschle

Senator Tom Daschle could become the new Senate majority leader (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Still, a Senate that includes an Independent Jeffords will look very different to the White House, and to the American people.

Tom Daschle, who voted pro-environment more than half the time in the last two Congresses, would replace Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who voted against LCV's selected environmental issues 100 percent of the time over the past four years, as the primary power in the Senate.

Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts would replace Jeffords as chair of the Education Committee if Jeffords moved to the Environment Committee. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont would take over as chair of the Judicial committee, replacing conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Joseph Biden of Delaware would replace Jessie Helms of North Carolina as leader of the Foreign Relations committee, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia would replace Ted Stevens of Alaska as chair of the Appropriations Committee.

electric car

Senator Jeffords takes the wheel of Vermont Technical College's electric vehicle, which was entered in the Tour de Sol competition (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Most importantly, Vice President Cheney would no longer carry the tie breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate.

White House Republicans are reportedly courting a number of conservative Democrats in hopes that they would change allegiance to the Republican Party, giving Republicans full control of the Senate. Senator Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, has already been approached by Senate Republicans, but sources say he has opted to remain with the Democrats, who will wield considerably more power if Jeffords switches sides.

"While I am certain that in the future I will often vote with President Bush and the Republicans on many issues, I will not switch to the Republican Party and have no need to proclaim myself an independent," Miller said in a statement released today. "But a word of warning to my fellow Democrats at this time: What is sorely needed around here is much more getting along and much less getting even. The poisonous partisanship that has pervaded this place on both sides of the aisle must end."

The Democrats could potentially gain other seats, though none is as immediately likely as Jeffords. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1964, is now 98 years old and expected to retire before completing his current term.

chafee

Liberal Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has also been wooed by the Democrats. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The move by Jeffords tomorrow could herald a defection by other moderate Republicans in Congress.

Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a Republican who is even more liberal than Jeffords, was asked today if he would consider switching to the Democratic Party. While reiterating his loyalty to the Republicans, he noted that he "can't say absolutely on anything" - even his future with the Republican Party.