Jeffords Declares Independence, Stymies Bush Agenda

By Cat Lazaroff

BURLINGTON, Vermont, May 24, 2001 (ENS) - As expected, Senator Jim Jeffords announced this morning he is leaving the Republican party and will align himself with the Senate's Democratic caucus. The move, which Jeffords delayed to permit smooth Senate passage of the massive Bush tax cut, swings power over Senate committees and the schedule of Senate legislation to the Democratic Party.

"Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party," Jeffords said during a press conference in Burlington this morning. "I understand that many people are more conservative than me and they form the Republican Party … it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."

Jeffords

Senator Jim Jeffords switched political parties today, handing power to the Democrats (Photo courtesy Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee)
Jeffords said he foresaw "more and more instances where I will disagree with the President," on important issues including the environment.

"In order to best represent my state of Vermont and my own beliefs… I will leave the Republican Party and become an Independent," Jeffords said, prompting his supportive Vermont audience to chant, "Thank you, Jim!"

Jeffords, who has chaired the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee since 1997, would have been forced to relinquish control of the committee next year due to Republican rules mandating term limits for committee heads. The Democrats do not set term limits on committee chairs.

Jeffords noted that the decision to change party affiliations was very difficult for him, as he understood how deeply his move would affect the balance of power in the Senate. With Jeffords' defection, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota becomes the new Senate majority leader.

All Senate committee chairs will now be Democrats as well. As one incentive for Jeffords move to side with the Democratic Caucus, Jeffords was offered the chair of the powerful Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"Senator Jim Jeffords is a champion for the environment, regardless of what party label he wears," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope in a statement today. "For years, he has fought ardently for clean air and water, battling against polluters, standing up to defend America's beautiful landscapes, and staring down those who put profits ahead of our families' health. The Sierra Club has long admired Senator Jeffords' courage and leadership on environmental issues."

Jeffords

Jeffords, left, enjoys a hike in Vermont (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"With Senator Jeffords heading the Senate's environment committee, the safeguards protecting America's air, water and lands will be in good hands," added Pope. "Senator Tom Daschle becoming Majority Leader in the Senate will be a positive step for the environment, both because of Senator Daschle's dedication to clean air and water, and because [former majority leader] Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, has ignored environmental protection as a priority. With an Administration hostile to the environment, Senator Daschle's leadership will be crucial to blocking attacks to our clean air, clean water, and public lands."

Senator Jeffords was one of two Republican cosponsors of the Arctic Refuge Wilderness Act to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, a pet proposal of the Bush administration. That bill has been languishing in the Environment and Public Works Committee since February.

Jeffords has supported funding for renewable energy programs, despite the Bush energy policy's emphasis on developing new domestic oil and natural gas resources.

In March, Senator Jeffords, along with Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, introduced the "Clean Power Act," which would slash power plant emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide by 2007.

National Wildlife Federation president Mark Van Putten said, "If the shift blunts some of the Bush Administration's ill advised environmental initiatives, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, it will be reason for celebration."

"This move may force the White House and Congress to work together toward bipartisan, common sense solutions that serve people, wildlife and wild places alike," said Van Putten. "In that way, Senator Jeffords may have just given America a gift of conservation progress instead of partisan paralysis."

Jeffords set up the Senate Smart Growth Task Force, which includes 24 Senators committed to curbing suburban sprawl. He has also been a leader on efforts to eliminate the so called global gag rule, which bans U.S. funding for organizations in other countries that use their own money to offer or discuss abortion.

Jim Scarantino, executive director of REP America, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for environmental protection, said that Senator Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party is a "terrible loss for the GOP."

"We have lost one of our party's great conservation champions," Scarantino said. "Time and time again, Jim Jeffords has stood firm for protecting public health, quality of life and our natural heritage. He never forgot that we are the party of Theodore Roosevelt."

Jeffords was honored last year with REP America's biennial John Chafee Memorial Environmental Legislator of the Year Award.

Though he disagreed with President Bush on the magnitude and scope of the $1.3 trillion tax cut proposed by the White House, and fought unsuccessfully for more education credits to be included in the bill, Jeffords promised the president he would not switch parties until the tax bill passed.

On Wednesday, the tax cut legislation passed by a strong bipartisan majority, with 62 Senators supporting the bill.

"This is a real good day's work," said Senator Lott. "We have a tax surplus in America, and this will allow some of that surplus to stay with the people who earned it."

But the tax bill is likely to be the last Bush agenda item to pass so quickly. With the Democrats now controlling the Senate, it will be easier for liberal Senators to promote their own agenda, and far more difficult for Bush's conservative proposals to push through.