- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001

The nagging questions about what really caused Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords to bolt his party and defect to the Democrats may never be completely answered. His story is filled with contradictions.

He was a liberal in a conservative party. He always seemed to be fighting the GOP´s agenda. But the day before he announced his decision in Vermont, he joined with his 49 other Republican colleagues and voted for the Senate version of President Bush´s tax-cut plan. Indeed, before the final vote, he voted to kill numerous Democratic amendments that would have dramatically weakened the bill.

The son of a former Vermont chief justice with deep New England family roots, Mr. Jeffords is a little-known senator with a stubborn streak of independence an outsider in the Senate´s clubby atmosphere.

He fled the GOP because he felt the party had become too conservative for his more liberal tastes on social-welfare spending. He supported Bill Clinton´s failed health-care plan. And he voted against both articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton.

Yet Mr. Jeffords was not above cutting deals for his vote. He asked that an extra $180 billion be put in the budget to educate disabled children. The White House refused, and they compromised on a lower figure. But Mr. Jeffords backed out at the last moment, and ended up voting with the Democrats to reduce the president´s $1.6 trillion tax cut to $1.2 trillion. (The cut was raised to $1.35 trillion in conference.)

The White House felt it had been double-crossed, and decided that he was "a lost cause." There was talk of punishing him by calling for cuts in the dairy program, and he was not invited to a White House ceremony honoring the teacher of the year, who happened to be from Vermont.

In hindsight, it might have been better to have paid Mr. Jeffords´ price to keep him in the party. Compared with Mr. Bush´s proposed Social Security privatization reform and the tax cut, which will save trillions, what´s $18 billion a year over 10 years? Ronald Reagan picked up a lot of wavering votes with budget buy-offs to get his larger programs through Congress.

Lyndon Johnson would have stroked and petted someone like Mr. Jeffords if he knew he would need his vote down the road especially if his party´s Senate majority hung in the balance, as it did in this case. But Mr. Jeffords did not get the royal treatment from Mr. Bush and Republicans leaders until a day before the story broke. By then it was too late.

It was a mistake of incalculable proportions. The Republicans ruled precariously. Their 50-plus-one majority depended on Vice President Dick Cheney´s tie-breaking vote. Mr. Jeffords´ decision to join the Democratic caucus as an independent gave the Democrats 51 votes. The extra vote enables them to control the Senate. They will also be able to block Mr. Bush´s agenda and many of his judicial nominations.

Sen. Tom Daschle, one of the most deeply partisan Democratic leaders in years, will become majority leader. Liberal Democrats will occupy other major centers of power. Patrick Leahy, who is fighting Ted Olson´s nomination for solicitor general, becomes chairman of the judiciary committee. Ted Kennedy takes over health, education and labor, where he can push for huge increases in social-welfare spending. Liberals will run the armed services committee and the appropriations committee.

"Bush´s judicial nominees will get much closer scrutiny, and the process will certainly be lengthened. And it´s very likely that some nominees won´t get out of committee," said Frank Donatelli, who was President Reagan´s White House political director. There could also be a fall showdown on spending bills.

"The reality is that the tax-cut bill passed on Wednesday may be the last piece of conservative legislation to pass Congress until after the 2000 midterm elections," said Marshall Wittmann, political analyst at the Hudson Institute.

But the Democrats´ return to power does not necessarily mean they will be able to roll Mr. Bush and the Republicans on every vote.

The Senate and its committees will still be closely divided. One or two Democrats or Republicans will be able to tip a vote either way, giving the White House a lot of maneuvering room to hunt for votes. Mr. Cheney will still be able to break tie votes.

Mr. Daschle will still have to contend with the dozen of so conservative-to-centrist New Democrats led by Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who helped Mr. Bush broker the deal on his budget and tax-cut plans. Mr. Breaux remains a key ally.

Mr. Bush can use his veto to keep Democratic legislation from becoming law. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Mr. Daschle to come up with the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto in such a narrowly divided Senate.

The House, where Republicans remain united, will be another firewall to keep the Democrats from running roughshod over the administration.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bush is going to have to develop an entirely new strategy to deal with Mr. Daschle and his fellow liberal firebrands, who will be running the Senate. Mr. Daschle is known for his ruthless, win-at-any-cost brand of politics, and it is going to take all of the president´s political skills at building cross-party alliances to beat him in the legislative battles to come.


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