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2001-05-23

Sen. James M. Jeffords May Leave Republican Party, Effectively Transferring Control of the Senate to the Democrats

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Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) warned President Bush yesterday that he is close to leaving the Republican Party.Senior White House aides and congressional sources in both parties said they expected that Jeffords would do so and put control of the Senate in Democratic hands. [includes rush transcript]

Jeffords is a liberal Republican who is often at odds with his party and who angered the White House by breaking with the president on his tax-cut plan. He met privately with Vice President Cheney and later with Bush at the White Houseyesterday. Jeffords said afterward that he plans to make an announcement today.

A switch by Jeffords would have a profound impact on the balance of power in Washington, giving the Senate a Democratic majority and posing new problems for Bush’s legislative agenda. It would put the chamber under immediate control of the Democrats for the first time since 1994 and give them control over committee chairmanships.

Guest:

  • Chris Graff, head of the Associated Press bureau in Vermont.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Vermont Republican Senator James Jeffords warned President Bush yesterday he’s close to leaving the Republican Party. Senior White House aides and congressional sources in both parties said they expect Jeffords will do so and put control of the Senate in Democratic hands.

Jeffords is a liberal Republican who’s often at odds with his party, who angered the White House by breaking with the President on his tax-cut plan. He met privately with Vice President Cheney and later with Bush at the White House yesterday. Jeffords said afterward he plans to make his announcement today.

A switch by Jeffords will have a profound impact on the balance of power in Washington, giving the Senate a fifty-one to forty-nine Democratic majority and posing new problems for Bush’s legislative agenda. It would put the chamber under immediate control of the Democrats for the first time since 1994 and give them all the committee chairmanships.

We’re joined on the phone right now by Chris Graff in Vermont. He’s head of Associated Press bureau there.

Can you tell us how this happened, Chris Graff?

CHRIS GRAFF: Well, Amy, it’s been a long time coming. Some have said that it is something that just happened, but it really isn’t. Jim Jeffords has been frustrated for all of the five months that President Bush has been president, as he has found out that George W. Bush is more conservative than Senator Jeffords had expected and especially on some of the key issues that Senator Jeffords cares about: the environment, special education.

The big break came over the President’s tax-cut bill. That is, as you know, the showcase of the Bush administration, and Jim Jeffords cast the decisive vote against the tax-cut plan. So pretty much then the die was cast that there was going to be friction between Senator Jeffords, a veteran Republican, and the White House. And then, in the last couple of days, it just became apparent that Senator Jeffords thinks that the Senate would do better on the issues he cares about if the Democrats were in control.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the retribution he faced for the tax plan?

CHRIS GRAFF: Well, that’s, I think, what happened after the tax-cut vote was that Jeffords said he didn’t think there would be any retribution, because the Senate is 50/50, and the Republicans and the White House need him everyday in a Senate so evenly divided. But then it became clear that from leaks from the White House, that the President was going to seek revenge. First, there were little things like Senator Jeffords is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Education. The National Teacher of the Year was from Vermont. At a White House ceremony honoring her, Senator Jeffords wasn’t invited. Then came greater leaks that perhaps the White House would take out its retribution by deep-sixing a bill that is extremely important to Vermont and Vermont dairy farmers. It’s called the Northeast Dairy Compact. And so, it was then, I think, that Jeffords raised this possibility that he would be fighting back by considering switching his allegiance. I think at that point it might have been a negotiating ploy, but then in the last couple of days it became a serious reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Chris Graff, head of the Associated Press Bureau in Vermont.

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