After spending more than a quarter century in the U.S. Congress as a Republican first as a 14-year member of the House and then as a three-time elected senator Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont yesterday committed one of the most shamefully self-serving acts in U.S. political history. Renouncing his membership in the party for which he had served as chairman of the Senate committee dealing with health, education, labor and pension issues since 1997, Mr. Jeffords ever so conveniently announced that henceforth he would be an independent senator who would be caucusing with the Democratic Party.
Mr. Jeffords decision effectively flipped control of the previously evenly divided Senate from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. It was the first time in American history that the party controlling the Senate changed other than through an election. For all practical purposes, Mr. Jeffords perpetrated a political coup, from which he will personally and politically profit. As an inducement for him to bolt the Republican Party, Democrats have reportedly offered him the chairmanship of the powerful, pork-heavy Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Mr. Jeffords thanked Republican Sen. Trent Lott, the majority leader who repeatedly intervened to protect the liberal Mr. Jeffords interests in the conservative party caucus, by effectively demoting him to minority leader.
Some have seen in this act of betrayal a grisly opportunism. The 98-year-old South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond has been fighting to keep up on a daily basis, and may not last another year and a half. By jumping now, Mr. Jeffords gets a committee chairmanship as reward from his Democratic friends. Were he to stay put and the Republicans lost the Senate, Mr. Jeffords would merely be just another ranking committee member.
This makes more sense than the hollow reasons offered by the Vermont senator in his brief speech yesterday. He acknowledged that he “ran for re-election as a Republican just this past fall,” when he “had no thoughts whatsoever then about changing parties.” Obviously, Mr. Jeffords who first pursued his partys nomination to the U.S. House in the midst of the Watergate scandal that engulfed the Nixon presidency and later was twice re-elected with Ronald Reagan at the top of the ticket expressed no reservations about sharing his partys ticket with presidential candidate George W. Bush six months ago. Yesterday, however, Mr. Jeffords lashed out at Mr. Bush.
Feebly asserting that during the last eight years he had “freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the partys agenda,” Mr. Jeffords unpersuasively declared, “The election of President Bush changed that dramatically.” In fact, as the evolution in the Senate of tax-relief and education-reform legislation clearly demonstrated since January, Mr. Jeffords exercised far greater influence on the partys agenda than he had ever before, greater than many thought he should have.
Mr. Jeffords alluded to several other “very fundamental issues,” including abortion (Mr. Bush made clear his pro-life position during the campaign), the direction of the judiciary (Mr. Bush clearly stated that his favorite Supreme Court justices were two of the courts most conservative members), missile defense (Mr. Jeffords was one of 97 senators in 1999 to vote to deploy a national missile defense system “as soon as technologically possible”), fiscal policy (Precisely what did Mr. Jeffords not understand about Mr. Bushs tax and spending policies during last years campaign?) and the environment (Mr. Jeffords, upset over Mr. Bushs rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, was one of 95 senators in July 1997 who unanimously adopted a resolution instructing President Clinton to negotiate a treaty that limited greenhouse gas emissions from developing nations, which, as it turned out, were later exempted from the Kyoto Protocol).
Indisputably, Mr. Jeffords was the most liberal senator in the Republican Partys “Big Tent.” Yet, it was a position he occupied throughout most of his political career. In fact, long ago he probably would have felt more comfortable in the Democratic Party or as an independent. That he decided to exercise his option at the very moment he was able to extort the greatest amount of political booty from the Democrats says much more about Mr. Jeffords than it says about the president. It was not an act of honor. It was an act of political perfidy.