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Jeffords Expected to Announce Decision to Leave Republican Party Today

Aired May 24, 2001 - 07:01   ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: Despite a 24-hour delay, sources say his decision stands. Senator Jim Jeffords is expected to announce that he is leaving the GOP this morning marking a mega-change in the political landscape.

Our extensive coverage includes Candy Crowley on the senator's home turf, Kate Snow on Capitol Hill and Kelly Wallace at the White House.

And we begin with Candy in Burlington, Vermont --Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: In Burlington, Vermont, where Jim Jeffords arrived last night, explaining to reporters in Washington as he left that he wanted to be home with his people when he makes this announcement.

All of those around Jim Jeffords on the record, off the record, on background say that he will indeed announce today at around 9:30 Eastern time that he is leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. There will be an "I" by his name instead of an "R," but that little change of letter will, of course, rock Washington and give Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 1994.

That, of course, is seen by Democrats as a chance to put their agenda in the forefront and also to have a platform from which to speak. Prior to Jeffords' defection, all of the houses of Congress, both the House and the Senate as well as the White House, were controlled by Republicans.

Now, as for Vermont itself, Jeffords really, by making this move, is putting himself more in line with his constituents. Although he is a lifelong Republican, Republicans in the Northeast have become somewhat of an endangered species. Vermont, like many states up here, has indeed turned to a more liberal stance. Many urbanites have moved into Vermont. And thus it has become more liberal politically. So making this move, while Jim Jeffords has rocked Washington, he has put himself more in line with the voters here in Vermont -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, Candy, thanks - Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, let's go to Capitol Hill in the nation's capital -- Kate Snow standing by there.

So, Kate, it sounds like this is a done deal.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well that's what it sounds like here on Capitol Hill as well, Carol. And I can tell you that Democrats are trying to contain their excitement over this while Republicans are hoping that maybe this was all just a bad dream.

In fact, Republicans, as late as yesterday afternoon here on the Hill, when Senator Jeffords was still here in town, were trying to convince him otherwise, trying to change his mind. A group of moderate Republicans sat down with him yesterday afternoon. They had what was described as an emotional meeting. They offered to him a leadership position, a place for him to sit at the table, if you will, in the Republican leadership.

He is said to have been receptive to that. He said he would think about it. But when asked by CNN whether it would change his mind he said -- quote -- "I don't think so."

Senator Jim Jeffords is at the center of a lot of attention, something that's a little unusual for him. He is someone who doesn't like to be in the center of a spotlight.


(voice-over): This is how a lot of people in Washington got to know Jim Jeffords, as tenor for the singing senators, a moderate voice keeping harmony with some of his most conservative Republican colleagues. He's not known as a show-off or a stand-out. Back home in Vermont, they call him "Jeezum Jim".

REP. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Jim is a very decent guy. He's a quiet guy. He's not a media guy. He likes -- he lives in the country. He likes being in the country.

SNOW: Jeffords' family is old Vermont, lived there for more than 200 years. He's always been seen as an independent thinker, but not the kind of guy who would shake up Washington. A columnist for his hometown newspaper in Rutland put it this way: If you had to name people who had a chance to change the course of history, Senator James Jeffords probably wouldn't be on the list.

Jeffords is a Vermont Republican, the kind of politician that defies a label.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: I think most people in Vermont wouldn't call him a Republican or a Democrat or an independent, odds are they would call him a Vermonter.

SNOW: On social issues, he often looks more like a Democrat than a Republican. He supported gun control, abortion rights, and banning discrimination against gays and lesbians. He was one of five Republicans who broke ranks during impeachment, voting twice to acquit President Clinton. But he also backs conservative positions, voting against raising the minimum wage, promising to go slow on regulating managed care. Veterans of Vermont politics say this can't be an easy time for him. SAM HEMINGWAY, "BURLINGTON FREE PRESS": This is not something he's doing lightly. He's not a show boater, he's not a grand stander, and the fact that he would take this step in spite of the fact that he has voted outside the mainstream or the right of the party and voted often with Democrats, still, he's been a Republican.

SNOW: And just a few days ago, his singing partner Trent Lott was predicting he'd stay that way.

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS) MAJORITY LEADER: After all, I mean, what would we do in the future about the singing senators? We need Jim to be part of that harmony.


SNOW: In private, aides will tell you that Jim Jeffords always sang a little off key when he was singing with his fellow Republicans. And maybe he wasn't quite in tune with them politically, either -- back to you.

LIN: Well, Kate, the Republicans may not be singing but they're certainly doing the math. Have they managed to convince a Democrat from Georgia to switch parties?

SNOW: A lot of attention also on Zell Miller -- he is, of course, a Democrat, and there's been a lot of pressure on him to switch to the Republican Party. He emphatically put out a statement yesterday to sort of deny some of the rumors that he was being courted.

Here's what he said: "While I am certain that in the future I will often vote with President Bush and with the Republicans on many issues, I will not switch to the Republican Party and have no need to proclaim myself an independent." "But a word of warning to my fellow Democrats," he went on at this time, "what is sorely needed around here is much more getting along and much less getting even. The poisonous partisanship that has pervaded this place on both sides of the aisle must end" -- Senator Zell Miller taking advantage of the moment to make a statement and make a little bit of a political statement as well -- Carol, back to you.

LIN: Heard loud and clear.

Thank you very much, Kate Snow on Capitol Hill.

So what does this mean for President Bush's agenda? Let's go to the White House -- CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, the White House certainly knows the impact will be enormous. And that is why one senior adviser here described the mood around here yesterday as like that of a funeral.

If the Democrats take control, they would control the committees. They would also control what legislation comes to the floor and when. The biggest impact likely to be felt on Mr. Bush's judicial nominations. Mr. Bush would not likely be able to get a true conservative to the federal bench. Other issues to be affected: health care, including the administration's push for its own version of a patients bill of rights and prescription drug coverage for seniors, and, of course, the president's energy plan. Most believe that Mr. Bush can pretty much forget getting any drilling on federal land, in particular, in Alaska.

Now, this was supposed to be a much different kind of week, with the White House administration officials hoping to celebrate two bipartisan victories in the Congress: passage yesterday in the House of pretty much the president's education reform plan -- passage, also yesterday, in the Senate a bipartisan majority voting for a $1.35 trillion tax cut plan, but the news about Senator Jeffords overshadowing those developments.

Another big question, though, facing this White House is: Did it possibly contribute to Senator Jeffords potential decision to leave the Republican Party? Yesterday, the president's senior adviser, Karen Hughes, telephoned House and Senate leadership, press secretaries, basically with this message saying we won't blame you if you don't blame us -- now some Republican sources telling CNN that Senator Jeffords felt increasingly isolated by the Bush administration after he chose not to vote and support the president's $1.6 trillion tax cut plan.

In fact, the Senator was not invited here to the White House when a Vermont teacher was named teacher of the year -- also, the president's chief of staff, Andrew Card, telephoning the Associated Press months ago trying to put pressure on Senator Jeffords when it comes to the budget. But administration officials are saying there were no hardball tactics here. They say that on Tuesday, when the president met with Senator Jeffords, he asked the senator if the White House offended him in any way and the senator said, no, the White House did not.

Still, though, Carol, many observers believe the White House could have possibly dropped the ball here with a 50-50 Senate. The White House needing to placate and take care of every member of its own party as well as the Democrats -- Carol.

LIN: Yes, a lot of soul-searching in Washington today. Thank you very much, Kelly.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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