Jeffords defects, Democrats control Senate

by Alice Gomstyn | 5/25/01 5:00am

In an announcement that made many a Democrat crow and many a Republican cringe, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords announced his decision to defect from the GOP, citing irreconcilable differences between his own ideology and that of the current Republican party.

"In order 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 press conference held in Burlington, Vt. yesterday morning.

Jeffords also said that despite his newly independent status, he plans to ally himself with Senate Democrats organizationally, meaning that he will help to elect a Democratic leadership to the Senate.

Vermont residents responded to Jeffords' announcement with mixed reactions. Both supporters and protesters surrounded the hotel where he gave yesterday's press conference. One protestor dressed as Benedict Arnold -- a historical allusion made in reference to what critics might call Jeffords' traitorous status.

Republican Party leaders in Vermont drafted a letter to the senator stating, "You have betrayed countless Vermonters who have supported you for more than 30 years," according to the Associated Press.

Jeffords' decision sparked both anger and disappointment from the White House and Congressional Republicans. The importance of state politics notwithstanding, Jeffords' decision will have a more turbulent effect on the status of the Republican Party in the Senate, and potentially within the entire federal government itself.

Jeffords' departure from the GOP effectively ends the recent four-month period of unified Republican government, ushered in with the election of President George W. Bush. Although the Senate was split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans during this period, Vice President Dick Cheney's position as President of the Senate meant that in the event of a Senate deadlock, it was a Republican's -- Cheney's -- vote that broke the tie.

With the bare Republican majority in the Senate now lost, leadership within the chamber will be reshuffled, likely resulting in the addition of Democrats to various Senate committees and chairmanships as well as in the elevation of current minority leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, to the position of majority leader.

Meanwhile, President Bush -- who had some difficulty gaining congressional support for legislation even during the period of unified government -- will now have to contend with a Democratically-controlled chamber, which will likely be even less friendly to Bush-backed proposals than to its Republican predecessor.

Still, the administration expressed a determined -- if somewhat weary -- sense of optimism at a White House press conference yesterday.

"We're disappointed, but the president was elected to get results. He's going to continue to work with Republicans and Democrats as he has been doing to get results for the American people," a White House spokesman said.

Jeffords' historic tendency to cross party lines makes his defection less surprising to those following his career. A member of the House of Representatives since 1975 and a Senator since 1988, Jeffords is known for "setting out on his own," according to Assistant Government Professor Spiliotes.

In 1994, for instance, Jeffords was the only Senate Republican to support former President Bill Clinton's health care legislation. He also supported Clinton's veto of GOP-backed legislation to ban late-term abortions. Jeffords' cross-party politics may reflect the ideology shared by a majority of Vermont citizens, Spiliotes said.

"It's not a conservative state," he explained.

Most recently, Jeffords evoked the ire of the White House by refusing to support Bush's $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut. (The Senate passed a smaller tax cut plan earlier this week.)

Jeffords was later denied an invitation to a White House ceremony honoring the National Teacher of the Year, in which the honoree was a high school educator from Vermont. Some speculate that this was a retaliatory step on behalf of the Bush administration.

It is a move that the administration may now regret.

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