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An Inside Look at a Party Switch That Changed History

Politics: Sen. Jim Jeffords' departure from the GOP had roots in a March conversation with a Democrat, and in the administration's cavalier treatment of him.


He was the sole member of the House to vote against the Reagan tax cut in 1981; he was pro-choice; he favored public funding for the arts; he was the only Republican senator to co-sponsor President Clinton's 1994 health care reform plan; he opposed Clinton's impeachment and voted against the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

But Jeffords was unpredictable. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats could count on him as a sure vote. In 1994, for example, he opposed the GOP position 68% of the time, but in 1999 he favored it 67% of the time.

Through all the disagreements, though, he remained a Republican, held in large part by a strong kinship with a solid bloc of GOP moderates and a long family tradition of Republicanism. Jeffords could trace his Republican lineage back to the origins of the party; Jeffords' Senate seat had been held by Republicans since 1857.

Broad-Based Support

In Vermont he remained extremely popular. But he drew much of his support from Democrats and independents, and he was increasingly concerned that the Republican Party in the state was moving to the right.

He spoke out in favor of the state's pioneering and disputed law granting gay and lesbian couples the rights and benefits of marriage. In retrospect it was telling that he urged state Rep. Marion Milne, a Republican, to run as an independent when she lost the GOP primary last year over her support of the civil unions bill.

Jeffords, 67, easily won reelection last November and optimistically predicted moderates would play a pivotal role in the 50-50 Senate. He said he looked forward to working together with Bush, heartened by Bush's campaign promise to be a unifier, not a divider.

But in Bush's first week in office, the president halted spending for international family planning, prompting a surprised Jeffords to tell an aide, "If that's what he is going to do, then we are in trouble."

A month after Jeffords' April 4 vote in favor of the Harkin amendment, the House and Senate conference committee completed its work on the budget. Gone was the extra $300 billion for education that Jeffords had fought for.

"He was incredulous they had done that," Russ said. "He was very, very angry. When he came in and saw those budget numbers, I think he realized how much they were pushing him."

On May 10, Jeffords voted against the budget. "I cannot hide my disappointment that the Congress once again will not fulfill its pledge to fully fund special education," he said.

At the same time, articles were appearing in national newspapers and magazines, quoting White House and Republican officials as saying that Jeffords would pay for bucking the president on the tax cut vote.

On Road to Change

On the morning of May 15, Jeffords met in his private Capitol office with Daschle and Reid. The serious negotiations about switching had begun.

A week later, the decision was all but made. Jeffords met with the president and the vice president on May 22, but the most critical meeting that day was with Jeffords' son, Leonard, who opposed the switch but agreed to back his father.

Jeffords worked into the night on his statement, and met twice the next day with his moderate Republican colleagues in what he terms the most emotional meetings of his life. He flew to Vermont that night.

On May 24, at 9:30 a.m., he walked into a crowded press conference. "In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles that I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent," he said.

On Tuesday, June 5, the switch became official.

The next day the Democrats took control of the Senate, and at 12:10 p.m. Jeffords entered the Senate chamber to cast his first vote as an independent. A minute later he sat at his desk, which had been moved from the Republican side of the chamber to the Democratic side.

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