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Wednesday May 23 9:16 PM ET Vt. Senator Jeffords To Leave GOP

Vt. Senator Jeffords To Leave GOP

By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont stepped to the brink of a historic party switch Wednesday, triggering an intense effort by Republicans to keep him in the GOP fold and preserve their ability to advance President Bush (news - web sites)'s legislative agenda.

Jeffords informed associates and aides during the day he would become an independent, according to officials familiar with the conversations, and the veteran moderate lawmaker flew to Vermont Wednesday evening for a morning announcement about his political plans.

Before leaving, he met twice in the Capitol with Republican lawmakers who beseeched him not to go through with a planned a switch that would break the 50-50 tie in the Senate, leave Democrats in control and greatly complicate Bush's efforts to enact legislation and place conservative judges on the federal bench.

``I'd be surprised if he made an announcement tomorrow he was leaving the party,'' said Sen. Chuck Hagel (news - bio - voting record) of Nebraska, who participated in the sessions.

But another, Sen. Pete Domenici (news - bio - voting record) of New Mexico, said, ``We all felt the day was well spent,'' then added, ``I think these conversations were a little late in coming.''

On Tuesday, Jeffords told Bush in an Oval Office meeting he was no longer comfortable in a party that has become steadily more conservative in recent years, according to officials familiar with the conversation.

In the hours since, Senate Republicans said Jeffords had been offered a seat at their leadership table, more money for favored education programs and a waiver of term limits to let him remain chairman of the Education Committee beyond the end of next year if he would remain a Republican.

At the same time, Senate aides also said Jeffords had approved staff meetings with Democrats to discuss preparations for taking over the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the post Democrats were offering if he would bolt the GOP.

A switch would elevate Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota to the powerful post of majority leader, with control over the flow of legislation and nominations - Supreme Court appointments among them - to the Senate floor.

An unprecedented power sharing agreement in effect since the 50-50 Senate was sworn in last winter would automatically dissolve, and Democrats would displace Republicans as committee chairmen.

``This isn't about a single Senate seat. It's about controlling the legislative agenda ...and it's about the federal judiciary,'' said Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J. ``This is an enormous shift of influence in the federal government.''

Party switches are rare in Senate history, and a change that terminates one party's majority is unprecedented.

``I like being chairman,'' said Sen. John McCain (news - bio - voting record), R-Ariz., who presides over the Commerce Committee. He also said Jeffords' decision should serve as a warning to establishment Republicans: ``If you're going to threaten retaliation, revenge and punishment to people because they don't vote exactly how you want them to, you're going to pay a price.''

Already there were signs of tension in the GOP ranks. Party sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said top White House adviser Karen Hughes conducted a conference call with congressional GOP aides, telling them the White House wouldn't be pointing fingers of blame, and she hoped they wouldn't either.

Jeffords' relations with the White House have been strained for weeks, the fallout of a clash over budget priorities. He supported reductions in Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut in favor of increasing federal support for education. A victory for Jeffords' hopes on the Senate floor was negated in a House-Senate compromise, though, and none of the additional money was preserved.

Jeffords also let it be known he was unhappy not to be invited a few days later to a teacher of the year ceremony at the White House. The recipient was from Vermont, and he is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Jeffords is a durable figure in Vermont politics. He has held public office since 1967, except for a two-year hiatus. He won his Senate seat in 1988, replacing fellow Republican moderate Bob Stafford. He was pushed hard to win a second term six years later, but breezed to re-election last year.

A lifelong Republican, he has held fast to his New England moderate roots over the years while his party has drifted rightward. He was the only Republican in the Senate to support former President Clinton (news - web sites)'s health care plan in 1994, and he defied his leaders when he voted to acquit Clinton on both articles of impeachment in 1999.

A supporter of abortion rights, he also votes for environmental legislation that many Republicans oppose, and is a longtime supporter of expanded federal aid to education.

Stunned Republicans contacted Jeffords' contributors and backers in hopes they could prevent his defection. They also reached out to Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (news - bio - voting record) of Georgia, hoping he might abandon his party and offset Jeffords' anticipated move. Miller slammed the door shut with a statement that said, ``I will not switch to the Republican party and have no need to proclaim myself an independent.''

One participant in private meetings with Jeffords described them as draining as the Vermont lawmaker sat with longtime colleagues and friends whose chairmanships would end abruptly if he left the party.

Political issues were discussed as well.

``One concern expressed was that moderates aren't getting enough attention,'' said Sen. Arlen Specter (news - bio - voting record), R-Pa. He said the group talked of creating a moderates' position in the leadership, and mentioned Jeffords as a candidate.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (news - bio - voting record), R-Maine, said afterward, ``There may be a sliver of hope'' to change Jeffords' mind.

Democrats awaited a public announcement. They said privately they had told Jeffords he could become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and keep the post for the duration of his term, which ends in 2006. He also would retain his seat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, these officials added.

Earlier Stories
Jeffords Ready To Leave GOP (May 23)
Jeffords Ready To Leave GOP Party (May 23)

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