- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

For the first time in his long political lifetime, he had the chance to become known across the country, to affect the history of the United States, and to become the only American to choose his own technique to empower himself. He could achieve all that only by one mans decision, his own. Nothing else could give him the power and renown the decision would, no debate could stop him no election, no court. His eyes went wet sometimes at the sorrow his decision would cause some of his closest friends. Then he did it. Calmly he took the one step no other American had taken before. With a never-before-used legality, and the enchanted glee of the members of the opposite party, he double-crossed voters for both major parties who see the Constitution as a great national asset, not a perpetually loaded trap.
Six senators had changed parties since the 50s. but Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont will be the only one whose name will be remembered not for switching but for picking the right moment when the Senate was divided 50-50 between Democrats and the Republican Party. The Republicans had elected him to state office and both houses of Congress in all his 33 years of office. Mr. Jeffords vote will become the Senate tie-breaker, not the vice presidents as the Constitution decrees.
Mr. Jeffords said he would be an independent but would be part of the Democratic caucus. That means on important matters and bills he would vote with the Democrats and that the leadership of the Senate already has switched to them automatically. With it goes the chairmanships of all committees and the huge power of what bills to take up and when. Sen. Jeffords suggested to the Democrats and then gracefully accepted the chairmanship of the environmental campaign. Otherwise, his existing chairmanship would have expired and he would be left with none. The gift may have been have been his reward for his switching, or merely belated senatorial recognition of his sheer talent.
I do not belong to either party and vote Democratic more often than Republican, taking local and national elections together. Nationally, I see little difference between the two parties on issues particularly important to me. Among them: putting international trade before human rights and the American danger in arming dictatorships.
On others issues, I share Mr. Jeffords revulsion at the administrations inability to find room in heart or budget for education of backward children and a tax bill so generous to people and companies that dont need them that money for security will suffer.
But there are two reasons for my distaste make that disgust for permitting the Senate to create a new one-person legislative bloc that could break a tie when it suited one partys interest to do so.
First, the Constitution gives the tie-breaking right only to the vice president, which deliberately increases the power of the presidency. If a sneaky way is desired for one party to diminish the presidency after the public chooses a closely divided Congress, heres a big hand for Mr. Jeffords. If not, let him and the Democrats win a constitutional amendment, just try.
Second, he has not explained, except for the eager to believe, questions that otherwise will haunt him. He won his race for the Senate again in the election of 2000, way ahead in votes and election-campaign money. But if he had planned to quit the Republicans, why did he not tell Vermonters what kind of senatorial representation the state would be getting split between one Democrat and one Republican as it was before the Jeffords defection, or realistically totally Democratic?
Why did it take four months after inauguration to convince Mr. Jeffords that he should to quit the Republicans he had been criticizing? Was he just figuring out what personal and political advantage he might get from waiting? Was he truly getting angrier with the president about White House policy toward the world and about a certain sniffiness toward the senator for maverick tendencies?
Why, after the election and when he knew himself so hostile to the administration that he wanted out of his party, didnt he call a new election and run as a real independent, instead of one who would just sup at the Democratic political trough?
Whether his motives were pure or not, his leap from Republican to an unofficial "independent" now endowed with the Democrats majority-rights and occupying a Democratic-majority chairmanship is off-color wine. He has himself to blame if a lot of Americans sniff at the glass but refuse to drink..

A.M. Rosenthal, former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist


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