The Jeffords Switch


Taking advantage of the last few days of Republican control of both houses of Congress, President George W. Bush passed a reduced version of his tax cut proposal last week. That victory may be the President's final easy win. Republican control of Washington's political agenda ended with Senator James Jeffords' stunning decision to leave the GOP (Republican party) and vote with the Senate Democrats as an Independent.

The Senate had been in Republican control by the narrowest of margins. With a 50-50 split between the two parties, it was Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking vote as ex-offico member of the body that gave the GOP a one edge vote. Jeffords' switch gave Democrats 51 to 49 control, and with that, the power to reorganize the Senate's structure and set its legislative agenda.

For the past two weeks now, Washington has been consumed with the political debate over responsibility for the Jeffords' switch and speculations as to its impact on politics and prospects for the Bush Administration.

Predictably, analysis offered by Republicans and Democratic partisans varied. Republican leaders characterized Jeffords defection as petty and motivated by personal ambition, suggesting the Senator was, in effect, bribed by promises of a leadership role in the Democratic-led Senate.


The more ideologically conservative and intolerant forms of Republicanism represented by those two movements have, in turn, caused that party to increasingly lose support in the northeast.


For his part, Jeffords expressed his growing disenchantment with the intolerant rightward thrust of the GOP. Perhaps the final blow came after Jeffords voted in favor of reducing the size of Bush's tax cut (from a proposed $1.6 trillion to 1.35 trillion). The White House, in apparent retaliation, proposed suspending funding for one of Jeffords favorite education programs and a farming program needed by dairy farmers from his state.

Though disappointed by their colleague's decision, two moderate Republican Senators offered supportive assessments. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine told the White House "something now needs to be changed. There needs to be more attentiveness, more inclusion and more tolerance." And Senator John McCain, the Republican maverick who ran for President in 2000 observed that the Jeffords' situation "serves as a warning to establishment Republicans. If you're going to threaten retaliation, revenge and punishment to people because they don't vote exactly how you want them to, you're going to pay a price."

Back home in Vermont, Jeffords showed no less of support. Since his first electoral victory in the 1970s, the popular and independent Senator has won the backing of well over two-thirds of the voters. Recent polls show him with still two-thirds favorable support in Vermont, a state whose only other statewide elected offices are all held by Democrats or Independents.

This points to an underlying factor accounting for the Jeffords' switch--a cultural and regional battle within the Republican party. 40 years ago, the 10 states that comprise New England and the Middle Atlantic Northeast, were two-thirds Republican. Today they are only one-third Republican--and many of those remaining Republicans are among the most liberal members of their party.

Since the 1960s, the Republican party has moved progressively to the right. In the 1970s and 1980s, partly as a reaction to the civil rights movement and the birth of the Christian right, as a political force, the center of gravity for the Republican party moved from the northeast and Midwest to the West and then to the deep South. The more ideologically conservative and intolerant forms of Republicanism represented by those two movements have, in turn, caused that party to increasingly lose support in the northeast.

What happens next? This question must be looked at on three levels.

The White House must now learn to live with a divided government. In a real sense, it was already divided. Bush barely eked out a victory in 2000 and the Senate and the House of Representatives are nearly evenly divided. But despite running as a centrist, Bush has taken pride in being referred to as "more conservative than Reagan." And the Republican congressional leadership has attempted to run over opposition without bending to compromise. Some analysts point out parallels with former President Clinton's first two years in office. He, too, ran as a centrist but governed his first two years from the left. Only after losing control of Congress in 1994, was Clinton forced to move to the center and take control by absorbing much of his opposition's agenda. Those analysts sat that for Bush to be successful in the remainder of his term he too will have to move to the center and work with his opponents or his efforts will now be blocked in the Senate.

The President has passed his tax cut, but now he must pass his budget. In this fight, Democrats will most certainly press for their priorities. The President will also have a tougher time in securing approval for his nominees for judgeships and administration posts. Some of his more controversial pet projects will also face difficulties as they will now be closely scrutinized by an opposition-led Senate.

In the new Senate, all 20 committee chairmanships will change from Republican to Democratic leadership.

Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts will take over the Health, Education and Labor Committee. He will oppose Bush's proposal to provide federally funded vouchers allowing parents to by-pass public schools if they so wish. Kennedy will also push for liberal proposals to increase the United States' minimum wage and to support the rights of patients to sue so-called Health Management Organizations (HMOs) for medical malpractice.

Senator Patrick Leahy will be in charge of the Judiciary Committee and will closely scrutinize all of the President's proposed judicial nominees.

Senator Carl Levin, now Chair of the Armed Services Committee, will most likely oppose the Administration's controversial "missile defense shield" proposal.

With Senator Joseph Biden at Foreign Affairs, the Administration's notion of scraping arms treaties with Russia will be challenged and the Middle East will fare only slightly better, with ultra-conservative Jesse Helms now reduced in rank.

As Democrats take charge of the Energy and Environment committees, the President's controversial proposal to increase oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) will also be challenged.

And finally with Senator Robert Byrd back in control of the Appropriations Committee after a six-year hiatus, Democrats will have great say in the budget approval process.

Just as Republicans were foolish to count Clinton out after their tidal wave of a victory in 1994, Democrats will have to be wary not to push to hard at this point. President Bush can be an able politician, who, if he appears to moderate his stance on some issues, can still win enough support in a closely divided Senate. By way of a warning to his own party, moderate Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia cautioned his party that "What is needed now is more getting along and less getting even." Democrats, of course, will have to remember that as Jeffords' switch brought them to power, losing one of their own could turn the tables back again.

If Democrats are cautious in the exercise of their new power, they can find themselves well positioned for the 2002 congressional elections. With 34 Senate seats being contested next year, the advantage is now with the Democrats. While most of those seats are safe, at least 12 are competitive (five Democrats and seven Republicans). Being in charge means that Democrats will have an easier time raising money. They will find it easier to recruit qualified candidates to run against Republicans. Furthermore, already experiencing a degree of demoralization, some now former Republican committee chairs are rumored to be considering retirement, which may provide new opportunities for Democrats to increase their margin in the Senate.

The situation beers close watching. But, in a word, as a result of the Jeffords' switch, Washington became a more interesting town.


James Zogby is President of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C.

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