Sen. Jeffords splits with GOP

By Zeb Eckert
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
May 24, 2001

In a move sure to ignite a political firestorm, Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords left the Republican Party Thursday, handing Senate control to Democrats and ousting the current majority leader.

Jeffords’ decision to become an independent comes on the heels of his turbulent relationship with the GOP, one he called “a struggle” as of late. He said his dissatisfaction with several of President George W. Bush’s policies — namely his proposals on taxes, the environment, missile defense and education — led to his decision.

“Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party,” Jeffords said in a press conference in Burlington, Vt. “Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president on very fundamental issues.”

Jeffords indicated Tuesday he would leave the party, but did not say whether he would become an independent or Democrat. Thursday, he said he would vote with Democrats on procedural matters and switch to independent status as soon as Congress finishes up its tax cut debate.

“I have informed President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Senator Lott of my decision,” he said. “They are good people with whom I disagree.”

Jeffords said he would support Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for Senate majority leader but would not always vote in his favor.

The president said during a trip to Cleveland Thursday he “couldn’t disagree more” with the decision.

“I was elected to get things done on behalf of the American people, and to work with both Republicans and Democrats, and we’re doing just that,” Bush said.

In Washington, students said Jeffords decision would change the political tone of the nation’s capital.

“It means that he’s (President Bush) going to have to concentrate much more on collaborative efforts,” Zack Beyer, a junior at George Washington University, said. “It’s going to be difficult to push a conservative agenda. It will cause more compromise on both sides.”

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said backlash in the party against Jeffords was overstated.

“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 offices, and by some Republican members of Congress and their staff,” McCain said in a written statement. “Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up.”

A few blocks from the White House, recent college graduate Kami Fitzpatrick said Jeffords decision puts Congress “back in check.”

“It’s more of a balance,” she said. “Having (the government) all in one party sometimes can be really conservative or really liberal. This will be better for the country.”

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