What Jeffords got, a year after switch

Vermont senator has little clout to show for his role in tipping Senate to Democrats.

Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords has lost that deer-in-the-headlights look that he wore like a uniform during his last days as a Republican. He looks relaxed. And he's more famous than he ever imagined possible.

"I had no idea what the response would be, not just here [in Washington], but worldwide," he says.

A year ago today, Senator Jeffords announced that he would be leaving the Republican Party – and handing control of the Senate back to Democrats. Presents started arriving from as far away as Australia. He got a standing ovation when he walked into a meeting of environmentalists in Florence, Italy, the next day.

But don't ask what happened to the big issues he cited as reasons for his historic defection.

The $1.3 trillion tax cut that he said would starve all other social priorities? It still passed, with 12 Democrats voting in favor.

Full federal funding for special education? The new masters of the Senate don't look any more able to find an added $180 billion in the budget over the next 10 years than the GOP was.

For all the hoopla and celebrity surrounding Jeffords' defection, he's a man who no longer has other senators worried about what concessions they may need to make to him. He chairs a committee, but has no big wins in his name. And with the White House and GOP leaders in the House and Senate against you, no big wins look likely in the future.

In his defense, Jeffords notes that his refusal (while still a Republican) to vote the original $1.6 trillion Bush tax cut forced the Senate to cut it to $1.3 trillion. That's $30 billion a year available for social programs, he says.

And he doesn't blame Democrats that special education isn't yet one of them. "At least for Democrats it's still a goal. The first thing Republicans want to do is to cut back on education," he says.

What Democrats are offering is esteem, a quality in short supply when he was on the GOP side of the aisle. This week, Daschle's office organized daily public events for Jeffords to celebrate his "commitment" on issues like Social Security, energy, and the environment. Jeffords returns the favor by campaigning for Democrats facing tight races in the fall.

Last weekend, he stumped in St. Louis for embattled Sen. Jean Carnahan.

Back in Vermont, he is as popular as ever, where he picks up about 2 of every 3 voters. "But so is President Bush," says Skip Vallee, the state's Republican National Committeeman.

Many Republicans still blame Jeffords, now Independent, for snatching away the only chance they've had to control the Congress with a Republican in the White House in anyone's lifetime.

Some in the GOP grumble that he did it for the gavel. Jeffords was running up against term limits for committee chairs. And as the senator dubbed "Bill Clinton's favorite politician" by wags in his own party, he was not sure to be offered another.

Senate Democrats have no term limits on committee chairs. Nor did they mind coming up with a chairmanship on the Environment and Public Works committee, good for as long as Democrats controlled the Senate.

There had been party switchers before – 17 in the US Senate since 1893 – but none at the price of control of the chamber. Sen. Wayne Morse (I) of Oregon nearly delivered the Senate to Democrats in 1953, but he delayed his party switch until after the 1954 elections, which produced the same outcome at the ballot box.

ASK Jeffords today why he left, and he gives pretty much the same answer he did on May 24, 2001, the day he made the history books: "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."

Last spring's budget and tax battles had been bruising. For Jeffords, who was bucking the president's tax cut, it meant putting up with summons to the woodshed, muttering, and gnashing of teeth. He didn't like it.

In his 2001 book, "My Declaration of Independence," he describes being called to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's hideaway on the third floor of the Capitol during the budget debate. He knew the room well. For the past five years, the (now defunct) Singing Senators – Jeffords, Mr. Lott, Larry Craig of Idaho, and John Ashcroft of Missouri – had practiced barbershop quartets in that room every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

But music was not on anyone's mind that night. The budget debate was on, and Jeffords was refusing to back the president's signature $1.6 trillion tax cut. And his vote looked decisive.

"We went back and forth, seeming at times to talk past one another," Jeffords writes. White House aides "spoke darkly of the future if I opposed the President."

Six months later, when Senate Democrats also failed to secure funding for special education, he told colleagues that he was "the most depressed" he had been since leaving the GOP.

In his last talk with Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle before the switch, Jeffords says that he asked for promises on two things: his staff and cows. He wanted the staff to find jobs in the new Senate, and New England dairy producers to retain the price supports that Republicans were threatening to dismantle.

A year later, the staff have jobs and Daschle persuaded Democrats to back a new system of price supports for dairy farmers.

But the biggest consequence of Jeffords' switch could be on an item he rarely mentioned: the shape of the federal judiciary. "Many around the White House thought they had a mandate to change the federal courts, even though they lost the popular vote. Now, that's impossible," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who took over chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee after the Jeffords switch. Mr. Leahy has used that power to slow or block most White House judicial nominees.

Once-fellow GOP moderates have found some light in Jeffords' defection: They say GOP leaders treat them with more respect. "They're acutely aware that we need to be brought into the process, and it is happening," says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, a leading moderate and longtime Jeffords friend. "They're not just coming to us with a fait accompli and saying 'We need to have your vote.' "

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