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White House, McCain Respond to Jeffords' Party Switch

Aired May 24, 2001 - 10:31   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Lifelong Republican James Jeffords has delivered the GOP the news it expected, but nonetheless dreaded. The senator from Vermont is become an independent, saying the Republican Party's conservative values swung too far to the right. Jeffords' defection will give Democrats control of the Senate, and will jeopardize many Bush agenda items, such as judicial nominations, health care issues and Mr. Bush's energy plan.

The president's reaction to all of this -- we expect to hear it fairly shortly; 11:10 A.M. Eastern time, he is due to speak in Cleveland. Air Force One is on the ground there. The president expected to disembark momentarily. We will, of course, be giving you that every step of the way.

But before we do that, let's turn it over to Kelly Wallace, who is back at the White House, with an inkling of what the president might be saying -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is right, Miles. Senior administration officials telling CNN that the president will, in fact, make mention of this when he delivers his remarks in Cleveland a short time from now. He will say that he respects the decision of Senator Jeffords, and that he is disappointed by it.

But then the president will sort of talk in a larger context, saying pretty much that he respectfully disagrees with the senator's assessment; the senator saying that this White House and Republicans in the Senate were not willing to work with moderates on issues such as education and tax cuts. Senior officials saying that the president did, in fact, build bipartisan supports when it comes to tax cuts and education.

And there you see the president coming off Air Force One, getting ready to head off to a church in Cleveland to deliver remarks when it comes to his faith-based initiative.

The White House, again, saying it respectfully disagrees with the assessment of Senator Jeffords, saying it is, again, disappointed, but that it will continue to work with the senator. Also, the next big question for this White House, Miles, is reaching out to the Senate Democrats -- the new Senate democratic leader, or soon to be new leader of the Senate, Senator Tom Daschle -- the White House trying to figure out exactly when and how to reach out to Senator Daschle, although administration officials definitely believing they have a little bit of time because, as we know, Senator Jeffords saying that his party switch will not take effect until the conference report, the House and Senate conference report on the president's biggest push, his tax cut proposal, makes its way to his desk and he can sign it into law.

So, again, White House saying it's disappointed, but the big message here, Miles, is that it respectfully disagrees with Senator Jeffords' assessment. And we'll hear Mr. Bush talk about that a short time from now -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Kelly, you mentioned that word "respectfully." The president rode into office saying he would sort of bring a kinder, gentler Washington to all of us -- a better, more bipartisan tone. This will certainly test that effort, won't it?

WALLACE: It certainly will; and that is why you want -- you will hear this -- White House senior advisers talking to reporters -- the president himself likely to be touting as much as possible the efforts on the part of the administration to develop bipartisan support. So you will see this administration very much touting the two bipartisan victories, big bipartisan victories, in the Congress yesterday: in the House on the president's education reform plan, and then in the Senate on that $1.35 trillion tax cut.

So the message will be that this White House has been reaching out, will continue to reach out to moderates. Of course, though, Jeffords is now gone from, at least, the Republican Party. So a big focus will be on other Republicans and on Democrats, and on Jeffords himself, clearly, to get the president's agenda passed -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN'S Kelly Wallace at the White House -- Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: This move by Senator Jeffords of Vermont is bringing a lot of discussion from within the Senate, including from John McCain, a senator we are used to hearing some very frank words.

With more on that, let's bring in our Kate Snow, standing by on Capitol Hill.

Kate, I had a chance to see the remarks from Senator McCain. He didn't exactly hold back, did he?

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, no; some frank words, indeed. And in fact, it's interesting; Senator Jeffords was always known as a renegade; well, Senator McCain is a bit of a renegade as well. You may remember that he's had a bit of a rocky relationship with this White House.

Senator McCain putting out a statement, now, talking about Senator Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party. He said he's long respected Jeffords' integrity and his conscientious service to his constituents and the nation. And though he may disagree over his positions on some policies, McCain said Jeffords held his positions honorably and bravely. But then he went on to talk about Republicans and how Republicans have treated Senator Jeffords. Let me read to you from this statement. He says, quote: "He was unfairly targeted for abuse, usually anonymously by short-sighted party operatives, from their comfortable perches in K Street offices, and by some Republican members of Congress and their staff. Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to respect honorable differences among us," says John McCain, "learn to disagree without resorting to personal threats and recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day.

"Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party," says John McCain, "and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."

Some strongly worded statements from Senator John McCain, the first of many statements we're likely to hear this morning. We understand that Republicans will be talking about a half an hour from now, about 20 minutes, actually, from now. And then after that we expect to hear from Democrats, and particularly from Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle -- soon to be the majority leader -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Kate Snow on Capitol Hill, thank you very much. We will be carrying those comments live as they happen.

For more now on the Vermont senator's move, let's go back to his home state.

Joining us live from Burlington is Tony Gierzynski, political professor at the University of Vermont.

Professor, good morning, thanks for joining us.


KAGAN: A big day in the history of Vermont; how is this playing back home?

GIERZYNSKI: Well, it depends on who you talk to, I guess. There are a small number of Republicans who are quite unhappy with this, obviously. But I suspect if we were to do a poll in the next few days that we'd find Senator Jeffords' approval ratings in the state really have gone up. It's the type of state that really likes independence and doesn't like people, necessarily, just following party loyalty.

KAGAN: We heard the Senator as he started his remarks, he talked a lot about being a Vermonter and following his heart and independence. What is it that us outsiders, us non-Vermonters need to understand about those of you living in and born in Vermont?

GIERZYNSKI: Well, I guess that, you know, being independent, doing what you believe is best is what people feel you should do, that party loyalty doesn't really play a very big role in this state. I think that's the key. That it's not a state that focuses on party. People don't really have strong attachments to the party or the loyalty to the party, and that people tend to vote along the lines of issues more than anything else.

KAGAN: This is going to have a ripple effect in many directions, of course, but it also seems like it's going to benefit the other Senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy.

GIERZYNSKI: Most definitely. He will be the chair of the Judiciary Committee, and if Senator Jeffords gets a committee chairmanship out of this, Vermont's going to be in great shape in terms of the Senate.

KAGAN: And looking ahead -- of course, Senator Jeffords was just reelected -- but looking ahead six years, is this something that could hurt the senator, or six years is a long time and people forget?

GIERZYNSKI: Well, I don't think it will hurt the senator in terms of anyone wanting any sort of vengeance of anything from this act. Where it would hurt him is if he does decide to run for reelection and run as an independent. He has a situation that would be a little different from Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders votes most of the time with the Democratic Party. The Democrats usually don't put anyone up to run against Bernie Sanders in this state.

But with Jeffords, I think it would be hard to keep a strong Democratic candidate and Republican candidate running for that Senate seat. You'd have a three-way race and anything could happen at that point.

KAGAN: Of course. And for those who don't follow the Vermont political scene as closely as you do, Bernie Sanders being an independent Congressman from Vermont. Didn't mean to the correct professor there, just helping out our viewers.

GIERZYNSKI: No problem.

KAGAN: Professor Tony Gierzynski, thanks for your input today; appreciate it.

GIERZYNSKI: Thank you very much.



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