Fight Looms for Jeffords’ Seat

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(Host) When Senator Jim Jeffords announced yesterday that he would not seek a fourth term, it was not the first time he transformed the political landscape. His decision to become an independent four years ago still reverberates in the Senate.

VPR’s Chad Pergram has more from Capitol Hill.

(Pergram) There was a time when Jim Jeffords made up one-fourth of the “Singing Senators.” It was a quartet of then Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, former Missouri senator and Attorney General, John Ashcroft and Idaho senator, Larry Craig. It all started when they sang “Happy Birthday” to a fellow senator on a whim. Their musical careers blossomed as they crooned gospel and folk songs at republican functions. And even cut a CD.

The harmony was short-lived when Jeffords abandoned his fellow republicans. Jeffords’ decision temporarily cost fellow troubadour, Trent Lott his post as majority leader and sanctioned the GOP to minority status in the senate.

(Moscardelli) “This was a bona fide political earthquake.”

(Pergram) University of Massachusetts political scientist, Vin Moscardelli, said Republicans viewed Jeffords as a pariah.

(Moscardelli) “There were a number of republicans, and I think Trent Lott would be one of those, who really took this personally, and who made no bones about their personal dislike for Jim Jeffords.”

(Pergram) Those wounds are still evident. Reporters tried to button-hole Lott on his reaction on Jeffords’ decision to step down. But Lott wouldn’t bite.

(Lott) “You know it’s a really nice day. A little warm, though. Good seeing you all.”

(Pergram) And with that Lott shot through a Capital doorway and into the sweltering sunshine on the hottest day in Washington this year.

Former South Dakota Democratic Senator, Tom Daschle was the beneficiary of Jeffords’ decision, which propelled him to Senate Majority Leader.

(Daschle) “I think there’s still residual disappointment or anger at Jim’s courageous decision. They went from being in the majority to the minority. And that’s very difficult to accept, and to forgive, I suppose. But none-the-less I’m very pleased that so many of them have. You’ll still find those who can’t forgive or forget.”

Independent Vermont Congressman, Bernie Sanders, says many senate Republicans quit talking to Jeffords – a rare event in the usually collegial senate.

(Sanders) “The Republican Party here in Washington, moved very, very far to the right. And I think Senator Jeffords woke up one day and said: ‘You know what? This is no longer the party I grew up in, the party I believe in.’ And then he had to make an enormously difficult decision. It’s hard to appreciate just how painful and difficult that decision was for a guy who was born and raised and spent his entire life in the Republican Party. That was not an easy decision.”

(Pergram) Now it’s Sanders who may have a tough decision to make.

(Sanders) “Everybody in Vermont knows that I’ve been very clear about my intentions – about what I would be doing if senator Jeffords chose not to seek re-election.”

(Pergram) Democratic Massachusetts Congressman, John Olver, hopes Sanders runs.

(Olver) “Bernie is probably a little bit more liberal than Jim Jeffords. And I wish him well if he runs for the senate. I don’t know of anyone that I’d rather have in the senate than Bernie.”

(Pergram) But political expert, Vin Moscardelli notes that Jeffords was once a moderate Republican. So he wonders whether Vermont voters would prefer someone who voted like Jeffords – Sometime supporting the Democrats, sometimes the Republicans.

(Moscardelli) “If a moderate Democrat were to replace him possibly, then it’s possible that that person would be actually less reliable for the Democrats as a vote that they could count on, then Jeffords himself, even though Jeffords technically isn’t a Democrat although he does caucus with them.”

(Pergram) Moscardelli says in some ways Vermont is like two states. And it’s unclear which part of the state’s political culture will produce Vermont’s next senator.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Chad Pergram on Capitol Hill.

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