- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont announced yesterday he is quitting the Republican Party over differences with President Bush, single-handedly giving control of the Senate to Democrats and highlighting tensions within the GOP.
"It is only natural to expect that people like myself, who have been honored with positions of leadership, will largely support the presidents agenda," Mr. Jeffords said at a news conference in Burlington. "Yet, more and more, I find I cannot."
Mr. Jeffords decision to become an independent who will vote with the Democrats on organizational matters — which takes effect when the president receives the tax-cut bill from Congress or June 5, whichever is later — ended days of intense, last-ditch efforts by Republican leaders to keep him in the fold.
The move also set in motion a rare midterm power change in the Senate, where Democrats staged a show of transition even before the details are worked out.
"The historic 50-50 Senate now becomes history itself," Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said after dramatically descending the Senates east steps for the benefit of cameras with only his assistant leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. "The American people will benefit."
Mr. Reid praised Mr. Jeffords "great courage."
Democrats immediately began laying out plans to pass HMO legislation with generous rights to sue, to increase the minimum wage by $1.50 per hour and to add a new prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
Mr. Bush, speaking in Cleveland, said he "couldnt disagree more" with Mr. Jeffords complaint that the Republican Party had become too conservative.
"Our agenda for reforming Americas public schools and providing tax relief for every taxpayer represents the hopes and dreams of Main Street America," Mr. Bush said.
Senate Republicans, having lost their 55-45 advantage of two years ago, met behind closed doors and aired the gripes of some of the partys more liberal members who said the GOP should move to the center. But conservatives held their ground.
"We may adjust the majority view to try to accommodate them, but they cannot nor will they dominate it," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican. "I think we call it a democracy."
There were no direct challenges to the leadership of Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. Assistant Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma did not completely rule out a bid for the top spot, but said he did not think he would challenge Mr. Lott.
Mr. Lott told The Washington Times after the meeting that he will not change his leadership style or his politics.
"I was conservative when I got here, and Im going to be when I leave, whenever that is," Mr. Lott said. "I dont think there should be a change. I think weve got a great leadership team."
The defection by Mr. Jeffords dissolves the Senates historic power-sharing agreement, turning over the chairmanships of committees to the ranking Democrats when his switch becomes official. But Republican and Democratic leaders must begin negotiating on a wide range of details, such as staff size and committee ratios.
Several Republicans indicated they might filibuster the reorganization resolution, which would requires 60 votes to move forward, if they are not satisfied with the agreement. Republicans are also interested in getting assurances in writing from the Democrats that Mr. Bushs judicial nominees are treated fairly and speedily.
The exact date of the transfer of power was in question yesterday. Democrats said they would take over as soon as the $1.35 trillion tax-cut bill approved Wednesday is sent to the White House, which could be as early as Saturday.
But Republicans said Democrats could not take power until Mr. Jeffords formally becomes an independent, which he stated in a letter would be June 5 or when the president gets the tax-cut bill, whichever date is later.
Mr. Jeffords, who turned down a Republican leadership position this week, said he was motivated by an independent streak and looming policy disputes with the administration.
"In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the partys agenda," Mr. Jeffords said. "The election of President Bush changed that dramatically."
"Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where Ill disagree with the president on very fundamental issues — the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small," he said.
He opposed the size of Mr. Bushs tax cuts, holding out for $180 billion in special-education funding that would have become mandatory spending. The White House responded by threatening to eliminate dairy price supports in the Northeast, a program important to Vermont farmers.
The Burlington Free Press sponsored a poll on its Internet site yesterday showing in midday that 49.9 percent of respondents wanted Mr. Jeffords to remain a Republican. Twenty-six percent said he should become a Democrat; only 23 percent wanted him to become an independent.
Publicly, Senate Republicans expressed little resentment over Mr. Jeffords, many still calling him a friend. But privately, some questioned his move as mercenary and short-sighted.
"This is not about education, this is not about principle," said a senior Senate Republican aide. "This is an ice-cold political decision made to extort concessions from the Democrats before the potential death of Strom Thurmond."
Mr. Thurmond, 98, South Carolina Republican, has been in poor health; his loss would likely result in the states Democratic governor appointing a Democrat to replace him.
At the Republicans meeting yesterday, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine told her colleagues they should learn from Mr. Jeffords decision and the failed re-election bids last year of conservative Sens. John Ashcroft of Missouri and Spencer Abraham of Michigan. She urged the party leaders to make more concessions to liberals in the GOP and include them more in strategy sessions.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said it was time for the party to "grow up" and not punish senators, like himself, who often vote with Democrats.
Mr. Lott said he would continue to listen to Republican members of the Senates Centrist Coalition, but said the party leadership will still be guided by some conservative principles.
"Im in this business because I believe in some priniciples and a philosophy," Mr. Lott said. "I do believe that the Washington government is too big, I do believe in tax relief, I do believe in strong national defense. I think that a lot of decisions should be left to the states, and I dont think filing lawsuits is the answer to the needs of America. And Im not going to change from that."
In the House, Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay said Mr. Jeffords defection "does not change the voting coalitions necessary to get bills passed in the Senate."
"House Republicans are a unified team who have proven we can get things done," Mr. DeLay said. "The one certain change in Washington will be the added pressure on Senator Daschle. Blocking legislation is one thing, running the Senate efficiently is quite another."


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