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Effects of Jeffords' Decision Ripple Through Capitol Hill

Aired May 24, 2001 - 12:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is a decision that the president strongly disagrees with, and Democrats are quietly cheering: Senator Jim Jeffords announced today that he will leave the Republican Party. Once the president's tax cut bill has been signed, Jeffords will become an independent, handing Senate control to the Democrats. We are covering the story on a number of political fronts and awaiting reaction from Republicans and Democrats on the Hill.

We're going to start with Jeffords' home state of Vermont, and that's where we find the latest from our CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley.

Candy, hello.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning -- or good afternoon, now, in Vermont.

Jim Jeffords said he wanted to come home to be with his people and, indeed, there were many of them waiting for him in the lobby of the hotel where he made his announcement that, indeed, the rumors were true -- and that is that he will soon leave the Republican Party and become an independent.

And the rationale, as he laid out, is really quite simple.


SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS (R), VERMONT: 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.


CROWLEY: Specifically, Jeffords said that it's not just that he opposed the president's tax hike, at least in the number, the initial number that President Bush sent up; it is also he looked around the corner and saw a number of issues coming down where he would be forced to, again, go against the president of his own party.

He said, look, energy, education, missile defense, abortion, all of these I see where I will disagree with President Bush. He clearly is going to feel a lot more comfortable disagreeing as an independent who caucuses with the Democratic Party.

He was particularly hard on education, an issue that he has worked on as chairman of the Labor and Education Committee. He said, you know, Vermonters believe in public school, and now it seems that our success is judged by how many children we take out of the public schools. Certainly a reference to vouchers, something that President Bush has supported, but is not likely to get.

So, any number of things combined. But it all boils down to something very simple, and that is that Jim Jeffords did not agree with the agenda of President George Bush, and he's leaving the party over it.

Back to you all.

KAGAN: And in that, Candy, he explained why he was leaving, but he didn't exactly explain why he's going where he's going. Why not just go all the way and join the Democratic Party, since that's who he will be supporting on a number of issues?

CROWLEY: Well, you know, that's an interesting question. Certainly Vermont -- you know, it has a ring to it. Vermonters love that whole idea of being, you know, an independent state, and it fits in with that.

And I'm sure that he probably felt a little more comfortable with this. You understand that this is lifelong Republican; and to become an independent seems not quite so traitorous, not quite so bad as becoming a Democrat.

And, you know, he noted, also, in his speech -- he said, look, I've talked to Senator Lott and I've talked to George Bush and I've talked to Tom Daschle, and they all know what I'm going to do. And he noted that Tom Daschle may no be as happy as he is today down the road when Jeffords joins Republicans and votes for them.

I really think that this was a matter of where he felt more comfortable, and also a matter of the leap doesn't seem quite as big, at least to him. Going from Republican to Democrat is sort of -- taking that middle step and becoming an independent.

KAGAN: It's one thing to give up calling yourself a Republican, another to call yourself a Democrat, which would be very difficult for a lifelong Republican.

Candy Crowley in Burlington, thank you -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, let's take you, now, to Capitol Hill, where Jeffords' decision has the strongest impact, of course.

We turn it now to CNN congressional correspondent Kate Snow for that aspect of the story.

Hello, Kate.


The second-guessing has begun, so has the soul-searching here on Capitol Hill -- trying to figure out what the lay of the land will be in the future in the Senate. Republicans have been holed up now for more than two hours in a meeting with all of the Republicans senators. There's no staff in that meeting, just the senators themselves talking about how the party can work to include their moderates and how they can work with the logistics now -- what they're going to do about this party switch-over.

They have a lot to work out. Of course, the Republicans will be handing over committee chairmanships to their democratic counterparts on each committee. They will keep their staffs; it's just that the staffs will go from being majority staffs to being minority staffs.

All of this because one man switched parties earlier today. Republicans grumbling privately that they think, perhaps, it could have been avoided. And publicly, Senator John McCain releasing a statement -- pretty strong words from Senator John McCain criticizing his fellow Republicans on Senator Jeffords. He says: "For his votes of conscience, he was unfairly targeted for abuse, usually anonymously, by short-sighted party operatives from their comfortable perches in K Street, and by some Republican members of Congress and their staff."

And then he later goes on to say: "Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."

Strong words from Senator John McCain.

Democratic John Breaux spoke with me a short time ago. He is a centrist, but a centrist Democrat. And he said, from his point of view, the party needs to be careful to make sure they take care of those center people. He also talked about what this means to Democrats; he talked about it being a good day for Democrats, but cautioned that they don't have complete control. They may control the Senate now, but still have to work with the White House and with Republicans.


SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: I think that the Senate is still going to be, obviously, very close. I think the idea is to try and find ways to get results in a bipartisan fashion. It's very difficult -- you just have one party get things done only one way. I think we're going to have a lot of compromises; I think Tom Daschle realizes that. And I think it will be something that will work very well.


SNOW: And we expect to hear from Republican Majority Leader -- currently the majority leader -- Trent Lott at about 1:15 Eastern time. That's about an hour -- a little over an hour from now. Also, the Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a Republican, speaking a little bit earlier, saying that in his party, in the Republican conference, we listen to everyone, deflecting some of the criticism there and saying, look, it's going to be very straightforward now. We will have to work with the Senate; the Senate will be controlled by Democrats, but it's no big deal to the Republicans in the House. They say they will still be able to advance their agenda in the House of Representatives.

Back to you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Kate, before you get away, is there any talk on Capitol Hill that this might breed additional defections on either side of the aisle?

SNOW: Well, that's certainly -- the rumor mill is generating a lot of that. And the focus to this point has been on a democratic senator who you probably know well, from Georgia: Senator Zell Miller. He has been courted by Republicans, but he emphatically says that he's sticking with the Democratic Party. He put out a statement to that effect yesterday.

But certainly the rumor mill is still churning, and there will be talk about whether there are other moderates in either party who might be attracted. Senator Breaux, another key centrist; he's a Democrat. There are about 12 of them who, yesterday, voted for the tax cut. So will they become targets? That's going to be the talk of Capitol Hill -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Kate Snow watching over Capitol Hill for us as we continue this story. Stay with us for more from her and our team there -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, on to the White House. President Bush is not there today; he is in Cleveland, but he used a speaking engagement as an opportunity to express his disappointment, you might say, with Mr. Jeffords' decision.

For more on that, let's go to John King at the White House -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Daryn. The president voicing his disappointment, as are senior White House officials back here in Washington. They say they were taken aback somewhat. Senator Jeffords making the case, in his view, that President Bush is far more conservative than then-candidate Bush was during the presidential campaign.

At the White House they disagree with that; and on the road in Cleveland, Ohio, the president making clear today that, while he's disappointed in Senator Jeffords' decision, that he believes his agenda is the right agenda for the country.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A distinguished United States senator chose to leave the Republican Party and become an independent. I respect Senator Jeffords, but I respectfully -- but respectfully, I couldn't disagree more.


KING: Now, Mr. Bush making the case, in those comments, that he has operated in a bipartisan manner on the issue of tax cuts, on the issue of education, on his faith-based initiatives -- the reason he is out in Cleveland today.

But here at the White House, even as they look back and voice their disappointment with Senator Jeffords, most of the attention now dedicated on looking forward. How will they deal, now, in the coming weeks, with the Senate under democratic control? White House officials believe it will be tougher to get the president's judicial nominees through the Senate and they'll have to reach new compromises with Democrats on issues like health care, the minimum wage another big disagreement between the White House and the Democrats. This, a president who knows full well his first-year legislative agenda now imperiled -- in quite jeopardy in a very different legislative environment -- Daryn.

KAGAN: John, what about the topic that President Bush went to Cleveland to talk about today -- his faith-based initiatives? How does that stand in making its way through the government?

KING: Well, that is an issue quite controversial because of the church-state issues, but not so much a partisan issue at all. In the Senate, for example, the two leaders on that issue, Rick Santorum, a very conservative senator from the state of Pennsylvania, and Joe Lieberman, a centrist Democrat, the vice presidential nominee for the Democrats last year, from the state of Connecticut.

So Mr. Bush making the case today that the faith-based initiative is proof of areas in which he's working in a bipartisan manner. And right at the top of that event, perhaps mindful of all the attention focused on him now -- is he truly being bipartisan -- the president also introduced Democrat Tony Hall, a Congressman from southern Ohio, who also is working with the White House on the faith-based initiatives.

KAGAN: John King at the White House; John, thank you.



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