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Senator Jeffords Addresses Press: Will Leave Republican Party, Become Independent

Aired May 24, 2001 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: A big morning in the world of politics. Let's show you the live picture right now, from Burlington, Vermont. This is where, at any minute, we expect Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, currently a Republican, to step up to the podium, and, we believe, announce that he is leaving the Republican Party -- after lifetime membership, a long time in the House, and 13 years in Senate -- and going to become an independent.

Of course, this will affect many more lives and political careers than just that of Mr. Jeffords. It will affect the U.S. Senate and how the White House has to handle its politics, Mr. Bush's agenda, and the House of Representatives as well.

We have with us, standing by in Burlington, our Candy Crowley.

Candy, do we expect this to be a brief announcement? Is Senator Jeffords known to speak for a long time, or just get right to the point?

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're told about 15 minutes. I'm sure he'll get right to the point and take a couple of questions.

Obviously, the question here now isn't so much what's he going to do. According to everyone around him, he will say he's leaving the Republican party becoming an independent. The question really is why, what chipped the balance for a man who ran in the year 2000 for his third Senate term, as a Republican. He was Republican under Ronald Reagan, he was a Republican during Newt Gingrich. What was it about the current dynamic on the Hill, or the current dynamic between the White House and the Hill, that prompted him to go ahead and switch parties, and did it have a local element? Many believe that it did because Vermont -- over the years, Jim Jeffords has been a lifelong Republican -- has changed beneath him: Liberal urbanites have moved in.

I don't know if you can hear the cheers through my mike.

KAGAN: Yes, we can.

CROWLEY: Outside, what's happening -- because I don't think we have a camera -- Jim Jeffords is coming through the hotel lobby, out of our sight, but there are a lot of people around him, waiting for him, and they're cheering him, waving big signs that say "Independence Day" and that kind of thing. So he's having a little difficulty moving through this crowd, but he's coming in through the door. They had really gathered out there, obviously, all supporters.

He's in the room now.

KAGAN: Senator James Jeffords of Vermont making his way to podium. A Republican, we expect him to announce he is leaving the party and becoming an independent.

Let's go ahead and listen in to Senator James Jeffords of Vermont.

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS (R), VERMONT: Well, the Vermont press bureau has really grown since I've been away.

Good morning, everyone.

Anyone that knows me knows I love Vermont. Vermont has always been known for its independence and social conscience. It was the first state to outlaw slavery in its constitution. It proudly elected Matthew Lyon to Congress, notwithstanding his flouting of the Sedition Act.

It sacrificed a higher share of its sons in the Civil War than perhaps any other state in the Union. And I recall Vermont senator Ralph Flanders' dramatic statement 50 years ago, helping to bring the close on the McCarthy hearings -- a sorry chapter in our history.

Today's chapter is of much smaller consequence. But I think it appropriate that I share my thoughts with my fellow Vermonters.

For the past several weeks, I have been struggling with a very difficult decision.

It's difficult on a personal level, but even more difficult because of the larger impact in the Senate and also the nation. I have been talking with my family and a few close advisers about whether or not I should remain a Republican.

I do not approach this question lightly. I have spent a lifetime in the Republican Party and served 12 years in what I believe is the longest continuous held Republican seat in history. I ran for re- election as a Republican just this past fall, and had no thoughts whatsoever, then, about changing parties.

The party I grew up in was the party of George Aiken, Ernest Gibson, Ralph Flanders, Winston Prouty, and Bob Stafford. These names may not mean much today outside Vermont, but each served Vermont as a Republican senator in the 20th century.

I became a Republican not because I was born into the party, but because of the kind of fundamental principles that these and many Republicans stood for: moderation; tolerance; fiscal responsibility. Their party -- our party -- was the party of Lincoln. To be sure, we had our differences in the Vermont Republican Party, but even our more conservative leaders were in many ways progressive.

Our former governor, Dean Davis, championed Act 250, which preserved our environmental heritage.

And Vermont's Calvin Coolidge, our nation's 30th president, could point with pride to his state's willingness to sacrifice in the service of others. Aiken and Gibson and Flanders and Prouty and Bob Stafford were all Republicans, but they were Vermonters first. They spoke their minds, often to the dismay of their party leaders, and did their best to guide the party in the direction of those fundamental principles they believed in.

For 26 years in Washington, first in the House of Representatives and now in the Senate, I have tried to do the same, but I can no longer do so as a Republican. Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party. I understand that many people are more conservative than I am and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them. Indeed, the party's electoral success has underscored the dilemma that I face within the party.

In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the party's agenda. The election of President Bush changed that dramatically.

We don't live in a parliamentary system, but it is only natural to expect that people like myself, who have been honored with positions of leadership, will largely support the president's agenda.

And yet, more and more, I find I cannot. Those who don't know me may have thought I took pleasure in resisting the president's budget or that I enjoyed the limelight. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had serious substantive reservations about that budget, as you all know, and the decisions it set in place for the future.

Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I'll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues -- the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small.

The largest for me is education. I come from the state of Justin Smith Morrill, a U.S. senator from Vermont who gave America its land grant college system. His Republican Party stood for opportunity for all, for opening the doors of public school education to every American child.

Now, for some success seems to be measured by the number of students moved out of the public schools.

In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an Independent.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFORDS: Sorry for that.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFORDS: Control of the Senate will be changed by my decision.

AUDIENCE: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFORDS: I'm sorry for that interruption, but I understand it.

I will make this change and will caucus with the Democrats for organizational purposes once the conference report on the tax bill is sent to the president. I gave my word to the president that I would not intercept or try to intervene in the signing of that bill.

My colleagues, many of them my friends for years, may find it difficult in their hearts to befriend me any longer. Many of my supporters will be disappointed, and some of my staffers will see their lives upended. I regret this very much.

Having made my decision, the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders now hangs heavy on my heart, but I was not elected to this office to be something that I am not. This comes as no surprise to Vermonters, because independence is the Vermont way.

My friends back home have supported and encouraged my independence. I appreciate the support they have shown when they have agreed with me, and their patience when they have not. I will ask the support and patience again, which I understand will be very difficult for a number of my close friends.

I have informed President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Senator Lott of my decision.

They are good people with whom I disagree. They have been fair and decent to me, and I have informed Senator Daschle also of my decision. Three of these four men disagree with my decision, but I hope each understood my reasons. And it's quite entirely possible that the fourth one, with my independence, may have second thoughts down the road. But anyway, that's the way it is.

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 well. I am confident that it is the right decision.

Yes?

QUESTION: Senator Jeffords, what do you say to those people who, only six months ago, voted for you as a Republican...

(APPLAUSE) QUESTION: ... so what do you say to them (OFF-MIKE)

JEFFORDS: Right. I understand, and I'm sorry that I had no expectation of it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you were his campaign chairman, obviously?

JEFFORDS: I was not the campaign chairman, but that's a small point. I believed at the time and had hoped at the time that those of us that are the moderates of the party, not just myself -- and I speak, I'm sure, for many moderates in the party who had high hopes when the president spoke of education and when he gave his dedication to education -- that we would be able to follow him, and I praise the president for his education package.

It will alert this nation, every student, every school, every state will know exactly how bad they are.

And that's the problem that I have with it. Because there are terrible problems out there that will have to be solved, and that is why in the budget process, I stood up and said, no, we can't give all this money back. We have too many high priorities -- education, number one.

We have got to provide the resources for the president's plan. If the resources are not there, it's going to be misery in the school systems. And I told this to the president personally. So it's no secret that I have these feelings.

But I could not, after that, see the direction of the budgetary process -- and you know I stood up against that, and we succeeded in getting some $300 billion extra to spend. But it's not being directed under the budget process to education.

QUESTION: Do you feel the president has not lived up to his campaign promises?

JEFFORDS: Well, I don't know -- I don't ever remember specifically a promise to fund. He gave us a promise to get us new direction in education. But new direction without funding is really no useful direction at all.

QUESTION: Senator, much has been made of the way the Bush White House and the Republican leadership in Congress have treated you. Has their treatment -- personal treatment of you had anything to do with your decision?

JEFFORDS: Oh, nothing whatsoever. It gets laughable at times, and you get upset with it -- like Vermont, the national school teacher, those kind of things. But that had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.

QUESTION: When did you make your decision?

JEFFORDS: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: When did you make your decision?

JEFFORDS: I made my decision yesterday on the way down, really. And I'll tell you why -- why did you wait that long? I promised my moderates. I met with the moderates yesterday, and it was the most emotional time that I have ever had in my life, with my closest friends urging me not to do what I was going to do because it affected their lives very substantially. I know, for instance, the chairman of the Finance Committee has dreamed all his life of being chairman. He's chairman a couple of weeks, and now he will be no longer the chairman.

JEFFORDS: All the way down the line, I could see the anguish and the disappointment as I talked. So I told them I would not make my final decision until I had time on the way to Vermont to decide, and I did leave it open. But I could not justify not going forward.

(UNKNOWN): Last question.

QUESTION: Senator, last week, the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party said he'd be terribly surprised if the idea of leaving the party had even crossed your mind. What have you done today to Republican leaders (OFF-MIKE)?

JEFFORDS: I've communicated with them, either I or my staff have. I've had conversations with them on the phone to make sure they understood what I was doing and why I was doing it.

STAFF: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

KAGAN: And there you have the announcement we have anticipated for a couple of days now: Senator James Jeffords of Vermont no longer a Republican, after lifetime membership in that party. He has announced he is now an independent. He was talking very much about how this was about Vermont and its independence. He said he did not consider this when he was running for reelection back in November and that he has been considering this for several weeks. He said he finds can he no longer support President Bush's a position on a number of issues, including education choice, the judiciary, energy, and the environment.

So the control of the Senate with the move of Senator Jeffords now shifts: It goes from a 50-50 split, in which Vice President Cheney had the deciding vote, to 50-49-1.

Let's bring in our Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst, who's been standing by, listening in with us, in Washington.

Bill, this is really going to change how things work in the Senate.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. All the committee chairs will change. Of course, the majority leader will change. It will no longer be Trent Lott. Mr. Jeffords said he will now caucus, for organizational purposes, with the Democrats, which means he's going to vote for Tom Daschle, the Democrat from South Dakota, to become majority leader, and of course, the majority party in the Senate is the party that controls the agenda and control the committee chairmanships.

They're going to try to change the balance, the number of votes that Democrats and Republicans have on each committee. As of right now, there are 50 Democrats and 49 Republicans in the Senate, with one independent, whom we heard from.

KAGAN: Let's go to Kate Snow, on Capitol Hill.

Kate, we heard. Probably the most emotional moment of Senator Jeffords announcement came when he talked about how this wasn't just affecting his life, but was affecting the lives of many other people, including some of his fellow moderate Republicans, people who are heading committees that as of today, or very soon, will no longer be doing that, because of the shift of power in the Senate.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, and it's not just that. Those moderate Republicans have been key players in negotiating with the White House and figuring out how to push the president's agenda forward.

I thought it was interesting that Senator Jeffords said that that meeting meant a lot to him yesterday. He had a meeting yesterday afternoon with moderate Republicans. He sat down with them. He said it was emotional. He said I could see the anguish on their faces; it really meant something to me.

And I also thought it was interesting that he said that he didn't make his decision until yesterday as he took the plane to Vermont. We've had been reporting that we thought his mind was fairly well made up, and he said that to one of our reporters, that he thought that his mind was pretty well made up, but it's interesting that the final decision really wasn't made until he got on that plane, had time to think about it and reflect, and flew home to Vermont.

KAGAN: Now to the White House and our Kelly Wallace.

Kelly, the senator was speaking a lot about President Bush, saying how when he was running for election, when he was elected, he was very hopeful of many of the platforms the president had, yet it sounds like that hope has faded, in the mind of this senator, at least.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, that's, certainly, one of the messages Senator Jeffords was putting forth in his news conference, saying that he was very hopeful that President Bush would listen to moderates like himself, but then the senator made it clear that he disagreed with President Bush when it came to his budget.

He also disagreed very much with the president and with Republicans in the Senate when it comes to funding for education, Senator Jeffords saying that he thought, looking ahead, he would be disagreeing with the president on a range of issues, when it comes to a woman's right to choose, when it comes to the federal judiciary, missile defense, so this senator make it clear he felt increasingly at odds with this White House, as well as with Republicans in the Senate, and that is why he made this decision. Again, one thing that we haven't heard, though, Daryn -- much has been made about whether the senator felt somewhat slighted by this administration. There was this event honoring a Vermont teacher who was named teacher of the year. The senator was not there; we know that the White House chief of staff Andy Card had called up reporters in Vermont, trying to put pressure on Jeffords, some believing that the White House was playing some hardball politics. The administration officials say that has not been the case. The senator indicated it's very much a philosophical decision that was clearly developing over the past several weeks -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Let's bring it full circle and go back up to Burlington, Vermont, where our Candy Crowley is standing by.

Candy, the senator started off talking a lot about Vermont and how there's this independent streak and how Vermonters just have a tradition of following their hearts, and that's what he believes he's doing now.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. He really does put himself in sync with his OWN constituents here. They've known all along that he was independent; you just have to look at his voting record for the last three terms that he's been in the Senate, and before that in the House. So he is putting himself in sync with Vermont, the state he comes, a state whose personality he shares.

I thought, interestingly, that in the end, yes, this is about policy, but this was also about a comfort zone. Jim Jeffords said, very clearly, Anyone who knows me and believes I enjoy disagreeing with the president from my own party over tax, or that I enjoy the limelight, knows that that's not true -- the people who know me know that's not true.

The leaders in the Republican Party increasingly were having difficulty dealing with him, and he with them. He was outside his comfort zone philosophically, he was outside his comfort zone in terms who was dealing with. He told a long list of things, looking down the pike: I see missile defense, I see education, I see spending priorities, and I see the abortion issue -- I see many things where I'm going to disagree with this, and his comfort zone is outside the party, to enable him to do that.

KAGAN: Energy and the environment are also on that list, as well.

Candy Crowley, thank you.

Thank you to all our correspondents, and Bill Schneider as well.

So there you have it: Once again, Senator James Jeffords leaving the Republican party, becoming an independent, the new balance of power in the U.S. Senate is 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KAGAN: Welcome back. We just heard live, here on CNN, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont announcing he is leaving the Republican Party becoming an independent. That affects the balance of power in the U.S. Senate: 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one independent. That also means that the current majority leader, Trent Lott, probably will no longer have that position, will have to pass it over, we expect, to Tom Daschle.

Let's bring in our Bill Schneider to look more at this.

Bill, that's not the only leadership position that's expected to change in the U.S. Senate.

SCHNEIDER: No, that's right. Every committee chair will change, because the Democrats will have more votes than Republicans. For instance, the Environment and Public Works Committee has been chaired by Robert Smith of New Hampshire, a conservative Republican; now the ranking Democrat is Harry Reid of Nevada, but he says he'll step aside and allow the new independent, James Jeffords, to chair that Environmental Committee.

The majority leader, as you've just mentioned is going to change from Trent Lott to Tom Daschle.

Another major committee, Foreign Relations -- Jesse Helms has been the chairman of that ever since the Republicans took over the Senate. Now it's going to pass to Joe Biden, a fairly liberal Democrat.

The Judiciary Committee -- crucial for all of George Bush's nominations to the courts -- has been the conservative Orrin Hatch; that's going to pass to Pat Leahy, Jeffords' co-senator from Vermont, a Democrat from Vermont. Quite a liberal Democrat, he will have a great deal of say over every court appointment, including the Supreme Court, that President Bush makes.

KAGAN: Bill, this news, of course, has had many opinions coming to us from across the country, not just from Vermont.

Let's bring in Miles, who's been monitoring all the e-mail that's been coming in to cnn.com.

Miles, what do you see?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Plenty of e-mail, for one thing, Daryn.

But first, let's go to these: a couple of questions that Bill Schneider can tackle for us.

Jeff Parker, in Dedham, Massachusetts asks, "When will those leadership changes take effect?"

And as long as we're talking about committee issues and staffing issues, Moki Robinson -- up early, in Hawaii: "How many staff individual layoffs are expected on the Republican side when the chairmanships change? Are the Democrats going to hire from their home state offices to help build the chairmanship staff positions?" Good question.

KAGAN: Someone looking for a job.

SCHNEIDER: Somebody's looking for a job there, I think.

O'BRIEN: I think so. That's why she's up early in Hawaii, I think.

SCHNEIDER: Jeffords says he's not going to change until after the tax bill is sent to the president, because he wants the president to have that achievement. That probably means nothing is likely to happen until at least next week. But then it should happen fairly quickly.

There is some talk -- it may be idle -- by some conservative Republicans, that they intend to filibuster those changes. I'm not sure that's likely to happen, because it would create gridlock, and a lot of people would blame them. It's likely, I think, to happen quickly.

Staff changes -- what it means is majority, now the Democrats, would have more staff members, the minority, fewer -- so if this person's looking for a job, if she's a Democrat, there might be some openings.

O'BRIEN: All right, thank you, Bill Schneider, as always, a font of information. We appreciate that.

And we hope those of you listening in Hawaii are getting your resumes together as we speak.

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