Jeffords Bolted GOP One Year Ago, Led to Dem Takeover

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Friday marks the first anniversary of the political earthquake that eventually shook loose Republican control of the U.S. Senate.

The May 24, 2001 announcement by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords, that he was bolting the Republican Party to become an Independent, shifted control of the Senate to the Democrats and ended the GOP's brief monopoly on Congressional and White House power.

Prior to Jeffords' defection, the Senate was evenly split, 50-50, among Republicans and Democrats but the GOP retained control because Vice President Dick Cheney, in his role as president of the Senate, could serve as the tiebreaker. Jeffords' decision gave Democrats a 50-49 edge.

In a speech at the National Press Club Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) recalled a telephone conversation he had with Jeffords following the announcement.

"I congratulated him on his speech," Daschle said. "He replied, 'I hope now we can make a difference.'"

At a ceremony honoring him, Jeffords was straightforward about his motivation for the decision.

"I knew that the unique circumstances of our time would allow one person to walk across the aisle and dramatically change the power structure of the government," he acknowledged. "I knew it was my responsibility to do what I truly believed would be in the best interest of our country."

Republicans call Jeffords "liberal," one of the only labels they will use to identify him in public other than "the senator from Vermont." He served as a state senator and attorney general in Vermont, as a Republican, before being elected to Congress in 1974.

Jeffords has voted against federally mandated background checks for private gun sales and in favor of restrictions on movie violence, considered traditionally conservative positions. But he has also voted to include homosexuality as a protected "minority" class under civil rights laws and against a ban on partial-birth abortions, positions much farther to the political left.

Conservatives agree that Jeffords' defection from the party - over disputes about education, taxes, the environment, and moral issues - has definitely made a difference, but not for the better. It has given Democrats power, they claim, to create a "roadblock of obstructionism and partisanship."

Senate Republicans staged a "search" Wednesday, with the aid of three tracking dogs, for more than 70 "lost" bills that have passed the House but have not been considered by the Senate.

"As we have said many times, we have a serious problem with legislation being lost when it moved through the House and to the Senate," Trent Lott (D-Miss.), Senate Minority Leader, said with a smirk. "So, we thought the best thing to do would be to bring in the bloodhounds and see if they can track it down."

Republican Senators Larry Craig (Idaho), Bill Frist (Tenn.), and Rick Santorum (Penn.) entered a press conference following the bloodhounds and calling out, "Find the judge!" and "Find the budget!" The press conference was organized in response to a number of Democrat-sponsored events scheduled throughout the week in Jeffords' honor.

Lott blames Democrats for delaying bills on issues ranging from welfare reform to terrorism insurance, and from retirement security to defense spending.

Republicans are also upset because Democrats are blocking all of President Bush's conservative judicial nominees and because the Senate has not passed a budget resolution, a first for the body in 25 years.

But Democrats claim Jeffords' move has benefited the country.

"Democrats have prevented further damage to America's long term fiscal strength by rejecting Republican proposals for hundreds of billions of dollars in new tax cuts," which Daschle called an "outrageous misuse of taxpayers' dollars."

Jeffords says he's been asked many times, especially following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, if he still believes he made the right decision.

"My answer is, absolutely," he said at a Feb. 1 public appearance. "I have never felt more confident or secure about any decision in my life."

While Daschle says Jeffords' jump freed the Senate to pass "long-stalled measures that make a difference in people's lives," Lott says the shift in power has denied Americans the government they elected.

"We're having a very hard time moving the people's business through the Senate," Lott
said "It's very hard to get anything done."

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