Switch Hit

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

DECEMBER 31, 2001

Switch Hit

Seven months after Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican
Party and altered the balance of power in Washington, he remains
something of an icon. Consider the recent book-signing Jeffords
held at a Borders in downtown Washington to celebrate the
publication of his triumphant My Declaration of Independence. One
after another, Jeffords's beaming fans called him a hero and an
inspiration, and asked to snap his picture. A starry-eyed blonde
showed up with ten copies of his book. After signing the whole
stack, Jeffords kissed her hand. "I'll remember that!" she
exclaimed, wandering off with a giddy smile.The national media has been equally charmed. In just a week of
December television appearances, Vermont's junior senator was
celebrated by Mike Wallace, Katie Couric, and Larry King. "I salute
you," King told Jeffords. Couric, echoing a familiar refrain,
described Jeffords as "a man at peace" with his decision. On "60
Minutes," Jeffords declared, "I've never felt better about
myself."

You might think Jeffords hasn't a care in the world. Not only is he
a media star, but his new Democratic allies supposedly value him in
a way the Republicans never did. Didn't the number-two Democrat in
the Senate, Harry Reid, give up a precious committee chairmanship
to Jeffords back in the spring? Doesn't Tom Daschle, who became
Senate majority leader thanks to Jeffords's switch, routinely joke
in public that he's just come back from "mowing Jim Jeffords's
lawn"? One almost imagines the squinty-eyed Vermonter reclining on
a chaise somewhere, as powerful Democrats pop grapes into his mouth
and fan him with palm fronds.

The reality is rather different. For all the public appreciation,
Jeffords is no more influential now than he was as a Republican--in
fact, he may be less so. He has already witnessed the primary cause
for which he left the GOP go down in defeat. And a second pet issue
is also in serious peril. Gone is the power he once had to extort
concessions from Republican leaders fearful of losing his vote;
those leaders now despise and shun him. Worse, his Democratic
friends may be starting to take him for granted. Indeed, in a recent
meeting of House and Senate Democrats, he pronounced himself "the
most depressed I have felt" since switching parties.

The single issue most responsible for Jim Jeffords's defection from
the GOP was special education--specifically his belief that
Republicans weren't spending enough on it. Jeffords has a deep
personal investment in the issue: He was one of the principal
authors of Congress's 1975 law setting special- education policy
for the country. In April, Jeffords briefly managed to help whittle
down President Bush's tax cut and add $200 billion in special-ed
funding. But when he learned that the final Bush budget plan offered
no new education spending at all, Jeffords says, he knew he had to
bid the GOP farewell.

But if Jeffords had hoped that aligning himself with the Democrats
would achieve his goal, he was mistaken. Special-ed funding came up
again during the long negotiations this fall over Congress's
sweeping new education bill. After months of haggling, by
mid-December House and Senate leaders and the White House had
finally reached agreement on nearly every intricate detail of the
bill. The only issue left to resolve was special education.
Jeffords, with the support of a few liberal Democrats, insisted on
the $200 billion he'd failed to get in the Bush budget. But House
Republicans--who were both opposed on the merits and eager to
punish Jeffords--wouldn't compromise. Jeffords implored his
Democratic colleagues to fight, even if it meant stalling the entire
bill indefinitely. He even dropped what some took to be
not-too-subtle hints, reminding people that he had left the GOP
over this very issue. (And for an afternoon, a few senators
actually wondered if he could possibly do the unthinkable--switch
back.) But in the end, it was no use. The lead Democratic
negotiators, Representative George Miller and Senator Ted Kennedy,
with Daschle's support, refused to make a Tora Bora-style stand
with Jeffords. Fearing it would be political suicide to derail the
bill, the Dems instead promised to revisit funding for special ed
next year.

Jeffords's only recourse was to cast a protest vote against the
conference report, and to vent his frustration in a New York Times
op-ed last week: "I am outraged," he wrote, "that a majority of my
colleagues on the conference committee"-- a number that included
several Democrats--"voted not to include this [special-education]
amendment." But some Democrats have told Jeffords that he has only
himself to blame. Despite his disgust with the Bush tax cut, he did
vote for it, after all--and intentionally delayed his defection
until after it was signed into law. "There's a reason there's no
money for [special education], " says one Democrat close to the
education talks. "It was the tax bill."

Meanwhile, Jeffords is also encountering trouble on his second-most
prized issue: the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. The compact,
which pays tens of millions in subsidies to Vermont farmers,
expired on September 30, and its fate is uncertain. When Jeffords
was still a Republican, he managed to keep the compact alive, in
part by claiming it was essential to his reelection--and thus to
maintaining the GOP Senate majority. Back then, says conservative
activist Grover Norquist, "a whole bunch of Republicans were
willing to hold their noses and give Jeffords the stupid subsidy."
No longer. Now Senate Republicans like Trent Lott, who lost his
majority leader post when Jeffords switched, have sworn to block
any effort by Daschle to reward the traitor. Indeed, one lobbyist
recalls seeing Lott at a Washington dinner this summer and asking
about the dairy compact. "His eyes were on fire," the lobbyist
recounts. "He grabbed me by the arm and said, `I will never, ever
let Jim Jeffords forget what he did to me.'"

Jeffords's problem is that Democratic leaders don't feel nearly as
much passion on his behalf. On his own, Daschle might give Jeffords
his compact, but Midwestern senators who think it provides New
England farmers an unfair advantage are pressuring him not to.
Daschle may also be nervous about how the compact plays in his home
state of South Dakota. "Tom Daschle always says that he represents
South Dakota first and is the Democratic leader second," says
Norquist, an avowed compact foe. How, Norquist asks, would it look
to South Dakota's farmers if Daschle acted against his state's
interests in order to reward "some bozo from Vermont"?

That's not to say Democrats haven't tried at all. When Republicans
tried to limit farm spending earlier this year, Reid told them that
Democrats would scale back their funding demands in exchange for a
six-month extension of the compact. Republicans refused. Now
Daschle is trying to finesse the issue with a compromise plan that
would give $2 billion in subsidies to dairy farmers throughout the
country--thereby buying off senators from all regions--over the
next three years. One Senate agriculture aide describes that plan,
for which Daschle personally twisted arms on the Senate floor last
week, as "a little payback" for Jeffords. But it's just a temporary
fix--and if that's all he gets, Jeffords says, he'll be
disappointed. Again.

Jeffords insists he has at least achieved one political goal:
empowering Republican moderates. "I put the moderates back in
business, and that alone has made a huge difference," he told Roll
Call this month. But where's the evidence for that? Yes, Lott
created a leadership slot for moderate Senator Arlen Specter after
Jeffords's defection, but the Senate Republican agenda shows no
signs of enlightenment. And GOP leaders in the House--who are on the
verge of promoting Tom DeLay to Majority Leader--haven't even made
a pretense of listening to their moderates. If anything,
hard-liners in both parties wield even more control following
Jeffords's switch, since Daschle's Democrats can now wage a fiercer
fight against Bush's domestic agenda.

To be sure, Jeffords still knows how to hold out for a good deal now
and again. When Senate Democrats were writing their economic
stimulus bill this fall, Jeffords--the swing vote needed to pass it
out of the Senate Finance Committee--demanded that some $4 billion
be shifted from health care to dubious "agricultural stimulus"
programs in exchange for his vote. But that's probably less than he
would have gotten had he stayed in the GOP. After all, threatening
to switch parties is a powerful negotiating tool--but it vanishes as
soon as you actually switch. In fact, the more Jeffords loses, the
more he falls back on rhetoric about how he "had to be true to what
I thought was right, and leave the consequences to sort themselves
out." Unfortunately for him, those consequences haven't quite
turned out the way he hoped.

share this article on facebook or twitter

print this article

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top

SHARE HIGHLIGHT

0 CHARACTERS SELECTED

TWEET THIS

POST TO TUMBLR

SHARE ON FACEBOOK