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Senator Jeffords Expected to Announce Thursday He Will Leave Republican Party

Aired May 23, 2001 - 12:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now for the latest on Republican Senator Jeffords. The senator from Vermont is, it turns out, voting for President Bush's tax cut. Tomorrow, he's expected to deal a major blow to his party. Senator Jeffords is expected to announce now on Thursday, instead of today, that he is leaving the Republican Party. Even if he becomes an independent, the move will have a monumental impact on the balance of power in the evenly divided Senate.

We have two correspondents following the story for us. Kate Snow has been on Capitol Hill all morning, and Major Garrett is at the White House.

Kate, we'll go ahead and start with you.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, the news is changing a little bit here. Senator Jeffords, as you said, is now planning on making his announcement tomorrow. He has decided to go home for the big announce. He said, just a short time ago, "I want to go home to my people." He will return to Vermont, and he will make the announcement at some time tomorrow, though it's unclear exactly what time of day.

You see pictures there, from just about a half hour ago, when Senator Jeffords was on the floor of the Senate. It was just after he left the floor that he made this announcement to reporters. Senator Patrick Leahy, a short time after that, a fellow Vermonter, of course told CNN, "If I were going to make a significant change, I'd go to Vermont too to announce it.

A senior Democratic aide tells us, though, that they do not believe that there is any change in Senator's Jefford's position or his decision. They believe that he still will decide to leave the Republican Party and go independent. As an independent, he would vote along with Democrats. He would allow the Democrats to regain control of the Senate and to take the leadership positions on key committees there. This senior Democratic aide says that he doesn't think that that decision is going to change.

Democrats, certainly, are embracing this news, earlier this morning, the House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt saying that this is proof that there is "no room for moderate Republicans in today's inside-the-beltway Republican Party." Representative Bernie Sanders, who is an independent, who often votes with Democrats, also responded this morning, saying he has known Senator Jeffords for some 30 years.


REP. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: ... for Senator Jeffords or anyone, when you're in a party for 30 years, and you grow up in the party, and you always function politically, it's a very, difficult political decision. But I think the senator has looked out at the political landscape, perhaps has seen the country go much further to the right than he is comfortable with, and is prepared to stand up for Vermont and America to do the right thing.


SNOW: Now, also Republicans are looking at this, trying to put a positive spin on it. Certainly, they see it as a bit perplexing. House Republicans are a little bit concerned, but saying that they still control the House, and so they still can make positive news out of this.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert acknowledged the news this morning, speaking about the Senator's potential change said, "We have always had concerns. It's the narrowest of margins over there," referring to the Senate. "It would be very unfortunate if that happened," referring to Senator Jeffords possibly leaving the Republican Party.

Senator Jeffords has always been known as a bit of a liberal Republican. Earlier this morning, he had said to us -- we thought he had said that he was going to vote against the president's tax cut plan. We're now told by aides to Senator Jeffords that he misspoke; what he meant to say was that he would support the president on the tax cut.

And that's going to be a key question here, too Leon and Daryn, whether he decides to suspend his changeover until after the tax cut. Many here on Capitol Hill are thinking that he will say that he's switching from being a Republican to being an independent effective after the tax cut is complete.

Back to you.

KAGAN: Kate, we should be able to see that very soon. Isn't that vote supposed to take place within the hour?

SNOW: That's right. After a couple of days of delays -- they were expecting two days ago to vote in the Senate on this tax cut plan, this, of course, the scaled back version, a compromise that was reached between Senators Grassley and Baucus, on the Finance Committee. They do think they have quite a bit of support for the tax cut. I'm they think as many as 10 or 12 Democrats will still cross over and support this tax cut.

But they've been delayed for the last couple of days, Democrats stalling by offering amendment after amendment, many of them showing their displeasure at this tax cut.

KAGAN: Kate Snow, on Capitol Hill, thank you very much.

Nowhere are they watching Senator Jeffords moves more closely than at the White House.

With the latest from there, let's go to our Major Garrett -- Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, they are watching the situation very closely, and there's no sense here at the White House that this one-day delay in Senator Jeffords' announcement means anything other than that, simply a one-day delay. They do expect him to switch parties, go independent, vote with Democrats, and dramatically shift from this White House what they had before: control of their agenda, both in the Republican House and the Republican Senate.

What does that mean? Well, as far as tax and education bills that the president has pushed so far and so hard in the early part of his presidency, they will probably emerge, but there are other parts of the Bush agenda that will now encounter very different receptivity in the Senate.

Starting with judicial nominations. There was already a big disagreement between Senate Democrats and this White House about who to appoint to the federal judiciary. Those disagreements will only increase, and Democrats will now be in charge of scheduling those hearings, and determining who gets a hearing and who doesn't, who gets a vote and who doesn't, as far as the judicial nomination is concerned.

Also, on government spending -- this president has made abundantly clear he wants Washington to spend less. With Democrats in control of the Senate, that debate will be joined even more aggressively. Democrats have faulted this president for not spending enough on domestic priorities. That fight will be waged.

Lastly, on health care legislation -- with Democrats in control of the Senate floor, they can put legislation on the floor and force the White House to react to it, legislation dealing with HMO reform, prescription drugs for those who receive Medicare benefits -- those issues will come to the fore under a Democratic Senate, and the White House will have to adjust.

KAGAN: Major, other news from the White House today concerned significant phone call that President Bush has placed.

GARRETT: That's right. The first phone call to the Palestinian Authority chairman, Yasser Arafat, since the two spoke in February. The context of the call could not be more different. President Bush called Yasser Arafat to talk to him about the Mitchell report. There is some expectation in the White House that after that conversation, Mr. Arafat may reconsider and, in fact, say that he does nor than embrace the Mitchell report, that he, in fact, will do something, say something verbally, to indicate he supports what the Mitchell report emphatically calls for, which is an immediate cessation of all violence.

The Israeli government has already embraced the Mitchell report and said it will agree to a cease-fire. The administration is very hopeful that this phone call and the underlying Mitchell report will achieve what has yet to be achieved: a statement from the Palestinian Authority renouncing violence -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Major Garret at the White House, thank you -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: For more of the political impact of this party switch we've been talking about, let's turn now to Charles Cook of the "National Journal." He joins us from our Washington bureau.

Charlie, good to see you again.

I've got to say that I was all set with what I wanted to talk to you about until about 10 minutes ago. Let me ask you about this new word we're getting now about Senator Jeffords going back to Vermont to make whatever announcement he's going to make tomorrow, and not today. What do you read into that?

CHARLES COOK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't know there's a lot to be read out of it. To be honest, my expectation is that he'll switch from Republican to independent, not Republican to Democrat. The effect would be the same: Democrats would have 50 seats, and the Senate Republicans would have 49. But I think that just for local political consumption, it looks better to do that, and it gives him sort of a little bit more time to kind of organize thoughts, because, clearly, this has been on a very fast track -- 72 hours ago, 96 hours ago, I don't think he had any intention to do this.

HARRIS: The bottom line -- lay it out for our viewers this hour: What exactly happens in the Senate and in the Congress if he does switch to independent or Democrat, as expected?

COOK: In some ways, it doesn't change things. You could argue that we've gone from Trent Lott as the plurality leader to Tom Daschle as the plurality leader with nobody really in charge. The Senate is essentially still evenly split ideologically. On another level, when you've Democrats in control of scheduling what goes on on the Senate floor, you have Democrats chairing each of the committees -- and in some committees, like Agriculture or Appropriation, it doesn't make that much of a difference, but in some of the other ideological committees, it makes a huge, huge, huge difference. If I were Ted Olson, who's up for solicitor general, I would start returning phone calls to my clients, because the chances of him being solicitor general just went way, way down.

HARRIS: What about the Republican leadership right now. Do you see any recalibration right now going on their attack plans?

COOK: Somebody overplayed their hand, and to be honest, I think it looks like it was more the White House than the Republican leadership. But clearly, they were too heavy handed with Jeffords. From what I understand, Jeffords is just very, very angry with how he's been treated. In a 50-50 Senate situation, both sides have to treat their contrarians with kid gloves, because they, obviously, have a lot of power and could jump ship. Just as Democrats were treating Zell Miller very delicately, Republicans should have been treating Jim Jeffords. I think the leadership was, to a certain extent, but the White House heavier handed.

HARRIS: Do you think now that Republicans will be targeting Zell Miller or some other conservative Democrat to make the switch.

COOK: There's really no other Democrat other than Zell Miller to do it. I can't imagine -- John Breaux is not going to change, Fritz Hollings isn't going to change. There really isn't -- Herb Kohl is not going to change. I think Zell Miller is it, and I have no idea whether he would switch or not.

HARRIS: Is there any other faction here that takes a particular cue from this, be it the White House or the Republican or the Democratic leadership?

COOK: No, I don't think so. What this means, I think, is there's sort of a broader alignment, where you look at the Republican leadership in the House and Senate: You've got, in the Senate, a leader from Mississippi; the number two is from Oklahoma. You look at the House, and while the speaker's from Illinois, the number two and three are from Texas, the number four's from Oklahoma. The center of gravity for the Republican party has moved from Canton, Ohio, to Dallas, and it's made it somewhat uncomfortable for some of these Northeastern and West Coast moderate Republicans. But at the same time, Democrats are not doing well in the South at all. So it's a geographic alignment as well as ideological.

HARRIS: Let me ask you one final question, if I can, quickly. If the tax cut that President bush is right now trying to get pushed through Congress, if that does escape any harm from this particular move, is there any other pet project or pet issue that you see being damaged by this move?

COOK: I think probably the biggest damage will come on nominations. A lot of marginal, very conservative judges who might have eked it through before aren't going to make it now. I would say it's on judicial front more than on any substantive issue.

HARRIS: Charlie Cook, thanks much. We sure appreciate the insight.

COOK: Thank you, Leon.

HARRIS: It's been a fun day watching what happens. We'll see what happens tomorrow morning.

Take care.



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