The Jeffords Effect – Senator Reflects on the Past Year

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(Host) This week marks the anniversary of Senator James Jeffords stunning decision to leave the Republican party to become an Independent. Jeffords’ action threw control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats – a situation that’s had a big impact on the way that key issues have been debated in Congress.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel examines how Jeffords’ decision has personally affected the Senator and how it has touched the entire country in the first part of our series, “The Jeffords Effect.”

(Kinzel) Last May 24 was one of those days that many Vermonters will remember for a long time. More than a dozen TV satellite trucks were jammed into the parking lot of the Radisson Hotel in Burlington, and the main conference room was packed with local and national media. Outside the conference room, hundreds of Vermonters waited to hear Senator Jeffords on speakers that had been set up for this occasion.

Everyone felt that a historic moment was at hand but few people could have envisioned the impact that the decision would have on this country’s political system. The country took a different path the day that Vermont senator James Jeffords delivered the speech of his life:

(Jeffords’ on 5/24/01) “I have changed my party label but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career. I hope that the people of Vermont will understand it. I hope in time that my colleagues will, as will I am confident that it is the right decision.”

(Kinzel) Before Jeffords’ announcement, Republicans controlled the political agenda in Washington. They had captured the White House in the November election, they had majority in the House and Vice President Dick Cheney, as the presiding officer of the Senate, broke a 50-50 tie in that chamber. But by walking across the aisle in the Senate, Jeffords put the Democrats in charge and established a counter force to the Republican agenda.

It was a decision that would affect how Congress considered issues relating to the environment, education, the judiciary, terrorism and agriculture. A year after his decision, Jeffords says he has no regrets about what he did:

(Jeffords) “And that meant that one individual could just walk across the aisle and change the whole structure and the whole power of the government. Never happened before and probably will never happen again. And when I realized that I began to think, ‘If I don’t do it, all those things you worry about – choice for women and education and everything – you’re going to be responsible for it because if you had just walked across that aisle you could have shifted all that.”

(Kinzel) When Jeffords met with then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to discuss the possibility that Jeffords would become an Independent, Jeffords says he made only two requests. Jeffords wanted his staff to be taken care of and Jeffords wanted assurances that Daschle would support legislation protecting Vermont’s dairy farmers.

Although the Northeast Dairy Compact was not renewed, Congress did include a special dairy provision in the new farm bill that establishes a floor price for farmers whenever federal milk prices drop below the cost of production.

Jeffords says that provision would never have been part of the farm bill without his agreement with Daschle:

(Jeffords) “He lived up to it and it was a hard, hard fight. If Tom Daschle hadn’t kept reminding them that, ‘Look guys, you wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t Jeffords, you wouldn’t have control, you wouldn’t be chairman, so we’d better take care of Vermont’s dairy cows.'”

(Kinzel) Just before Jeffords left the Republican Party he met with President Bush. Jeffords urged Bush to take more moderate positions on many key issues like education and the environment. A year later, Jeffords says the President still hasn’t gotten that message:

(Jeffords) “There is no indication that he has. Certainly it got their attention, there’s no question about that. But I don’t see yet any real understanding of what needs to be done.”

(Kinzel) When the Democrats took control of the Senate, Jeffords became chairman of the Environment Committee. In that capacity, Jeffords has promoted alternative energy projects and he’s blocked efforts by the Bush administration to drill for oil in the Arctic Wilderness of Alaska:

(Jeffords) “Most all of them, all big oil men. If you look at the cabinet and the people in the past and the Bushes themselves, they’re all oil men and oil’s the answer. Let’s dig more holes and keep the oil chugging along and we’ll all be better off. And that’s just not the way we have to look at it.”

(Kinzel) Jeffords decision has also had a huge impact on judicial issues in Congress because Senator Patrick Leahy replaced Utah Senator Orin Hatch as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Over the last twelve months, Leahy has been fighting with the White House over several of the president’s nominees for the federal bench and he’s closely scrutinized anti-terrorism legislation in the wake of September 11.

Jeffords’ decision also meant that Delaware Senator Joe Biden would became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, replacing North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. While Jeffords generally supports President Bush’s international policies since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the senator questions the way the president is allowing a war mentality to influence most of his foreign policy:

(Jeffords) “I get a little scared over the war. We’re at war! We’re at war! We’re at war! But we as a nation really aren’t at war. But war brings the people together. We’re at war, we ought to win, but it can really foul up people’s logic and ration the utilization of resources and I worry about that.”

(Kinzel) Jeffords feels so strongly about the need for the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate after the November election that he’s doing something that he’s never done before – actively campaigning for a number of incumbent Democratic senators:

(Jeffords) “But I’m not going to campaign against any incumbent Republicans and just try and build up the knowledge in the country as what how serious it would be if we turned around.”

(Kinzel) While a number of Vermont Republican officials are still very angry at Jeffords for his decision to leave the Party, Jeffords says he’s pleased that polls indicate that a strong majority of Vermonters support his decision.

A year ago, Liz Jeffords, Senator Jeffords’ wife and close political confidante, opposed her husband’s decision to leave the Republican Party. But a year later, Liz Jeffords says the decision was good for the country and for her husband:

(Liz Jeffords) “He was right. He knew what he had to do. I didn’t, no one else did and he knew that it just was not right and for him no matter what anybody said, he was going to do what he thought was right…. He’s a different person. He’s relaxed, he’s back to the old Jim, he’s just an entirely different person. He’s back to his old ways – just fun things.”

(Kinzel) Senator Jeffords has published one book detailing his decision to leave the Republican Party, another book that will examine his political philosophy will be released in the fall.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

(Host) Tomorrow in our series on “The Jeffords Effect,” we’ll look at changes on the dairy farm, in transportation, and the environment. And we’ll talk to Vermonters about their thoughts a year later.

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