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Capitol Hill Reacts to Jeffords Leaving GOP

Aired May 24, 2001 - 11:16   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.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, today it is a tale of two capitals, one that is reeling -- one that is cartwheeling. Let's go now to Kate Snow at her post on Capitol Hill, who has the latter side with her -- hello, Kate.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Miles. That's right, I'm joined by Senator John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana, who has been sort of integral in some of the debate on Capitol Hill, been working very closely with the White House.

Let me start, you're a Democrat. It's a good day to be a Democrat.

SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: Yes, it is.

SNOW: Tell me what has the reaction been within the Democratic Party?

BREAUX: I think regular pleasure, the sense that Jim Jeffords is someone who has worked with us on many issues in the past as a moderate Republican. I think he's going to feel more comfortable within the Democratic Caucus. I think he'll be able to play a leadership role on issues that he cares about, like health care and education. I think he felt he wasn't able to do that within the Republican Party. So he should feel much more confident.

SNOW: We've got some strong statements already, one of which from Senator John McCain, about the Republican Party and how they handled Senator Jeffords. Do you think that they mishandled the situation?

BREAUX: I think that you cannot threaten people in order to get them to vote one way or the other. I think that's a serious mistake. I think you have to be able to allow for different opinions within each party. And I think I'm a moderate conservative Democrat within the Democratic Party. But I don't feel threatened. I don't feel like I'm out of place. And I have very warm relationship with Tom Daschle and all of our colleagues and feel like there's a home there.

SNOW: The White House is invited you over on numerous occasions. Should they have done with same with Jim Jeffords?

BREAUX: I don't know what, really. I think Jim Jeffords is not so much changing because he feels like he was snubbed as much as he feels he's more comfortable on the Democratic side. It's an issue thing. It's a principle thing I think with Jim.

SNOW: What happens to you now? The Democrats regain the majority. But you have often sided with the White House on things like the tax cut. What happens to your role?

BREAUX: I think that the Senate is still going to be obviously very close. I think the idea is to try to find ways to get results in a bipartisan fashion. It's very difficult when you just have one party get things done only one way.

I think we are 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: Does the agenda change right away now?

BREAUX: I don't think it really changes that quickly. I mean, it's going to be an opportunity for things like patients' bill of rights, like Medicare reform I think, to come to the floor of the Senate, perhaps faster than it would have. But I think that Senator Daschle will take this very cautiously. And I think that's the right approach.

SNOW: You are about to go on a recess for Memorial Day. I expect that all the changes will start to come into play after you get back?

BREAUX: After we get back, I think. I don't think anything is going to happen until after the recess. I think Tom Daschle is going to take things slowly. I think he's going to try and have a very smooth transition.

This is not a time to gloat or try and kick people in or kick people out. It's trying to make government work. And I think Tom is committed to that.

SNOW: Thank you so much, Senator John Breaux...

BREAUX: Thank you.

SNOW: ... from Louisiana, a Democrat joining me on the fly, about to head over to a meeting with his fellow Democrats and Republicans. Also, a meeting now, we expect to hear from Republicans Majority Leader Trent Lott after that meeting breaks up. Back to you in Atlanta.

O'BRIEN: All right, CNN's Kate Snow on Capitol Hill with Senator John Breaux. Daryn?

KAGAN: And let's get more now on Senator Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party. Let's bring back our senior political analyst Bill Schneider once again in Washington -- Bill, hello again.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Hello, again.

KAGAN: while Senator Jeffords' move is a break for the Democrats, it certainly is not a free pass. It's not like they've been given a blank slate to do whatever they want in Washington, they still face incredible challenges.

SCHNEIDER: They still have just 50 votes in the Senate with 49 Republicans and one independent. So, still incredibly closely balanced.

But what they do have is more control over the agenda because they have the committee chairmanships. They have the majority leader of the Senate. And those are the positions from which you can control procedures, rules, timing, and what is going to happen with the president's nomination. So they have power, but they don't have any more votes.

KAGAN: And what kind of issues do you expect the Democrats to take advantage of that?

SCHNEIDER: Oh, there are lots of issues where they are going to try to force the president to be bipartisan in fact as well as in word, issues like the president's energy plan where they are unhappy with the lower emphasis on environmental protection. Missile defense, a lot of Democrats don't care for that. They like to gear him more towards a prescription drug plan that the Democrats favor rather than one that the White House favors.

HMO reform, the judges that the president nominates. And everyone of those, the president is going to have be really bipartisan.

So far, bipartisanship has been more of a gesture. The way the White House has approached it is to pick off a few conservative Democrats like Zell Miller and a couple of others to vote with the Republicans. Can't do that anymore. Now he is going to have to deal with -- oh, my God -- liberal Democrats, because they're in control.

KAGAN: Bill, if nothing else, today's news is a reminder that the Senate and other governmental bodies are not static beings. They change and they evolve as they go, sometimes at moments when we don't expect it like today, besides elections. But it's a reminder that even this split right now 50-49-one is not forever...

SCHNEIDER: No...

KAGAN: ... Look ahead to other changes that the Senate could be facing.

SCHNEIDER: Well, look, you know have election next year. Both parties are desperately grappling to try to become the real majority party. Neither party really has the majority right now, but the Democrats can claim more seats than the Republicans.

The 2002 is going to be a crucial election. There are a lot of important seats up. The Republicans are struggling to regain their majority now. You have Strom Thurmond, another single individual who is 98 years old. And no one knows how long he is going to be able to continue to serve in the Senate. Last year, we had a couple of crucial deaths that made a difference. Paul Coverdell in Georgia was replaced by Zell Miller, a Democrat. Mel Carnahan, the candidate in Missouri, died. And his wife on a big sympathy vote beat John Ashcroft and took that seat for the Democrats.

So, you know, somebody once said, "History is the product of profits, random events, and madmen." We are seeing that now.

KAGAN: Probably not necessarily in that order either.

SCHNEIDER: Right.

KAGAN: What about the voters out there who aren't maybe as fascinated with the political process and how it works, but they just want to see something get done. Are things more likely to get done this way or less likely to get done with the split of Congress?

SCHNEIDER: Well, divided government does often make things harder. We are going to have divided government now. The Republicans do not control everything. It wasn't so easy even with the 50/50 split because 50 votes does not control the United States Senate, even 51 with Dick Cheney. You need more support than that in order to be able to shutdown debate, override a presidential veto. So control of the United States Senate has always been a euphemism.

The president is just going to have make more of a gesture to compromise, more to reach out to Democrats. It's going to be a little bit tougher. There's no question about it. But it's now -- now bipartisanship is no longer a gesture. It's a requirement.

KAGAN: Bill Schneider in Washington. Bill, thank you. Your insights have been fascinating all morning long. Thank you so much.

SCHNEIDER: My pleasure.

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