An Inside Look at a Party Switch That Changed History
Sens. Jim Jeffords and Chris Dodd sat in armchairs in Dodd’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building.
The Vermont Republican and the Connecticut Democrat, their ties loosened, drank sodas and talked that last Friday in March about money for special education.
Jeffords’ frustrations spilled out. He complained that even though he was chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he was battling both the White House and his own party over providing education aid to children with disabilities.
In a time of huge surpluses and so many unmet needs, he asked, why was everyone in the GOP deaf to those needs and so eager to give tax breaks to the wealthy?
Dodd told him there always was room for him in the Democratic Party.
A long silence followed. Finally Jeffords spoke. “You know, I could never be a Democrat, but I could be an independent.”
Timing a Question
Almost two months would pass before Jeffords made the jump. When he did, he would turn control of the Senate from one party to another for the first time in history outside an election and hand President Bush the biggest setback of his presidency.
Those close to Jeffords differ on when the senator decided to shed his Republican label.
His closest aide, Susan Boardman Russ, says she believes it was May 15, when he met secretly in his Capitol hideaway office with Senate Democratic leaders Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Harry Reid of Nevada.
His wife, Liz, says it was a week later, when Jeffords discussed the issue with his conservative son.
Jeffords himself says it was the next day, as he flew back to Vermont after an emotional meeting with his moderate GOP colleagues.
All agree there were several key moments in the path to independence, none more important than April 4, five days after Jeffords’ comments to Dodd.
For more than a week, Jeffords had been in intense negotiations with Republican leaders and the White House over the president’s tax cut and the budget outline that would make it possible. In a 50-50 Senate, Jeffords’ support was crucial for passing the centerpiece of Bush’s agenda.
On April 2 he met with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Majority Leader Trent Lott, and then late in the day with Vice President Dick Cheney. Jeffords was pushing for $180 billion over the next decade for special education for the disabled, a program he had championed since entering Congress in 1975.
The next morning, Domenici made Jeffords a new offer, one that looked good to the Vermont senator. By the afternoon, the offer was rescinded; Domenici said he could not sell it to conservatives.
The sticking point was whether the special education money would simply be a goal in the budget outline or would come with a written commitment making the spending mandatory.
“To me, for the president’s education program to be successful, substantial resources are going to be needed for the state and local governments to make it work, or it could be a disaster,” Jeffords said.
When the negotiations broke down on April 3, Jeffords made it clear he intended to attend a news conference the next day to endorse a compromise plan by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). The GOP leaders asked for more talks on April 4, when everyone was fresh.
The call did not come, though. Jeffords and his staff waited as the morning went by without a meeting. By the afternoon on April 4, they went to Domenici’s hideaway office in the Capitol, but no representatives were there from the White House. Domenici left to get them; when they returned shortly, nothing new was offered.
Jeffords, Russ and Mark Powden, who was Jeffords’ staff director of the education committee, asked the White House representatives to leave. Jeffords was then joined by Ken Connolly, his legislative director, and Erik Smulson, his communications director.
“This is ridiculous,” Russ said. “You don’t do this to a United States senator.”
Jeffords, angry and now believing that the White House had never planned to give the commitment on education he wanted, left Domenici’s office and hurried to the press gallery where the Breaux news conference was in progress.
His arrival signaled the beginning of the end of Bush’s original tax cut plan, as well as Jeffords’ long association with the Republican Party. He would soon cast his vote that day in favor of an amendment by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to reduce Bush’s tax cut by $450 billion and divide the money between education and debt reduction.
The story of how Jeffords left the Republican Party started decades ago. “It’s been mounting over 20 years,” Jeffords said.
Since his first election to Congress in 1974, Jeffords often found himself at odds with his party.
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.
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.