Vermont's Jeffords: Senate GOP Centrists Could Play Key Role

INTERVIEW

WITH Vermonters, the message is still, "It's the economy, stupid." That's what James Jeffords, the state's centrist Republican senator, found back home among his predominantly Democratic and progressive constituents during a congressional break last week.

"The economy is on most everyone's mind," says Mr. Jeffords, who is just completing his first term in the United States Senate, after seven terms in the House of Representatives.

But just as urgent are people's apprehensions about the performance to date of their new president. "That's probably No. 1," he says, "[determining] whether the country is in for a bad time over the next four years."

Jeffords is one of a small group, or "gang," of moderate Senate Republicans - others include Sens. William Cohen of Maine, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Dave Durenburger of Minnesota, and John Chaffee of Rhode Island - whose support will be sought by the Clinton White House to pass key legislation. They are as determined as the president, for example, to see some form of campaign reform enacted this year. "We've got to do something to restore the public's confidence in the Congress," Jeffords says.

The Vermont senator is a strong backer of health-care reform, too. His "medicore" proposal would establish a national system of health-care funding, probably through a payroll tax. That money would then be distributed to the states, which would have to conform to a "core" of publicly funded medical services set by a presidential commission.

"Clinton's people are coming very close to our view," he says.

But this Republican's willingness to collaborate with the new Democratic administration stops short of the Clinton tax-hike and spending-cut economic package that cleared the House recently and is heading toward a showdown in the Senate. The Vermonter says he'll have to wait and see what his chamber does with the package, but adds there will have to be "substantial adjustment."

Clinton had to bludgeon [the House] into voting with him," Jeffords says, but bludgeoning is "counterproductive" in the Senate.

Business people in his state, he says, are "willing to take a hit on taxes, but they want to see something done on the spending side in return."

And the specific issue of an energy tax, always sensitive in heating-conscious Vermont? "Well," the senator said, "I haven't had anybody urging me to vote for it."

Is the gridlock in Congress as bad as critics ranging from Ross Perot to Bill Clinton make it out to be? "It's there," Jeffords says, "but it's more philosophical than political, and it's not solved merely by the Democrats being in charge." The number of Democrats that are balking at the president's economic proposals drives home this point, he adds.

As a Republican who has often been out of step with his right-leaning party in recent years, Jeffords has a keen appreciation of the balance between pragmatism and principle in politics. He views Clinton as having lost the political rudder afforded by a clear set of principles. He says he's one Republican who would like to lend a hand in such areas as health care and deficit control. "I'm hopefully going to try to help him any way I can to adhere to some principles," asserts the senator.

Jeffords tends to be forgiving about the Lani Guinier episode. "You can't expect the president to read the writings of each of his nominees - that's the staff's job."

The senator's attitude might not be shared by his more predatory GOP colleagues in Congress. He volunteers that some of the "real right-wingers" in his party are "ecstatic" about Clinton's stumbles. But a majority of his fellow Republicans, he says, "recognize that the country could be in really sad shape if we don't help him get control of things."

"The gang of five certainly feels that way," he adds.

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