Vt. Senator may defect from GOP

by Alice Gomstyn | 5/23/01 5:00am

The first era of unified Republican government in nearly half a century may soon be coming to an end. Rumors circulating inside the beltway predict that Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords plans to leave the Republican party, offsetting the current partisan balance in the evenly divided Senate.

Jeffords told The Associated Press that he would be making an announcement today, but declined to comment on the possible volatility of his party affiliation.

Jeffords' departure from the GOP would lead to the end of the recent four month period of a unified Republican government, ushered in with the election of George W. Bush. Although the Senate is currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, Vice President Dick Cheney's position as President of the Senate means that in the event of a Senate deadlock, it is a Republican's -- Cheney's -- vote that breaks the tie.

Prior to this year, the last unified government -- a term applied when a single party dominates both the executive and legislative branches -- under Republican control occurred in 1953, during President Dwight D. Eisehower's first term in office.

If Jeffords does leave the GOP, it is unclear whether the Vermont Senator will go on to join the Democratic party or declare himself independent. Either way, Democrats stand to gain a Senate majority, with a minimum of 50 Democratic Senators in contrast to a new Republican total of 49.

According to Government Professor Constantine Spiliotes, the shift in party domination is important in respect to hegemony within the Senate. The Republican's loss of control of the chamber would lead to a new vote on party leadership, theoretically allowing current Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, to take on the role of majority leader.

The demise of the 50-50 partisan split, however, may have a smaller effect on legislation than some might think, Spiliotes said.

"A number of bills may be passed no matter what [Jeffords] does. Having one person switch parties doesn't necessarily take away a coalition," Spiliotes said, citing bills -- such as those involving education and tax cuts -- in which members of Congress crossed party lines in order to vote for or against the legislation.

Jeffords' own historic tendency to cross party lines makes his potential 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 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 nature of the ideology shared by a majority of Vermont's citizens, according to Spiliotes.

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

Most recently, Jeffords evoked the ire of the White House by fighting for more education spending and refusing to support Bush's $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut. 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 the administration may now regret. Both Bush and Cheney reportedly met with Jeffords yesterday and apparently worked tirelessly to convince the senator to retain his current party affiliation.

According to ABC News, Jeffords offered little comment on the meeting except to say that, "meetings with the President always go well."