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James Jeffords Leaving the Republican Party

May 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

SEN. JIM JEFFORDS, Vermont: For the past several weeks, I have been struggling with a very difficult decision. It is difficult on a personal level, but even more difficult because of the larger impact in the Senate and also the nation.

I have been talking with my family and a few close advisers about whether or not I should remain a Republican. I do not approach this question lightly. I have spent a lifetime in the Republican Party and served 12 years in what I believe is the longest continuous held Republican seat in history. I ran for reelection as a Republican just this past fall, and had no thoughts whatsoever, then, about changing parties.

The party I grew up in was the party of George Aiken, Ernest Gibson, Ralph Flanders, Winston Prouty, and Bob Stafford. These names may not mean much today outside Vermont, but each served Vermont as a Republican Senator in the 20th century.

I became a Republican not because I was born into the party, but because of the kind of fundamental principles that these and many Republicans stood for: Moderation, tolerance, fiscal responsibility. Their party, our party, was the party of Lincoln.

To be sure, we had our differences in the Vermont Republican Party, but even our more conservative leaders were in many ways progressive. Our former Governor, Dean Davis, championed Act 250, which preserved our environmental heritage. And Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge, our nation’s 30th President, could point with pride to his state’s willingness to sacrifice in the service of others.

Aiken and Gibson and Flanders and Prouty and Bob Stafford were all Republicans, but they were Vermonters first. They spoke their minds, often to the dismay of their party leaders, and did their best to guide the party in the direction of those fundamental principles they believed in.

For 26 years in Washington, first in the House of Representatives and now in the Senate, I have tried to do the same, but I can no longer do so as a Republican. Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party. I understand that many people are more conservative than I am, and they form the Republican Party.

Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them. Indeed, the party’s electoral success has underscored the dilemma that I face within the party. In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the party’s agenda. The election of President Bush changed that dramatically.

We don’t live in a parliamentary system, but it is only natural to expect that people like myself, who have been honored with positions of leadership, will largely support the President’s agenda — and yet, more and more, I find I cannot. Those who don’t know me may have thought I took pleasure in resisting the President’s budget or that I enjoyed the limelight. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had serious, substantive reservations about that budget, as you all know, and the decisions it set in place for the future.

Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I’ll disagree with the President on very fundamental issues: The issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small.

The largest for me is education. I come from the state of Justin Smith Morrill, a U.S. Senator from Vermont who gave America its land grant college system. His Republican Party stood for opportunity for all, for opening the doors of public school education to every American child. Now, for some, success seems to be measured by the number of students moved out of the public schools.

In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent. Control of the Senate… (Cheers and applause) … sorry for that. (Cheers and applause) Control of the Senate will be changed by my decision.

CROWD: ( Chanting ) Thank you, Jeff! Thank you, Jeff! Thank you, Jeff.

SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: I’m sorry for that interruption, but I understand it. I will make this change and will caucus with the Democrats for organizational purposes once the conference report on the tax bill is sent to the President.

I gave my word to the President that I would not intercept or try to intervene in the signing of that bill. My colleagues, many of them my friends for years, may find it difficult in their hearts to befriend me any longer. Many of my supporters will be disappointed, and some of my staffers will see their lives upended. I regret this very much. Having made my decision, the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders now hangs heavy on my heart, but I was not elected to this office to be something that I am not.

This comes as no surprise to Vermonters, because independence is the Vermont way. My friends back home… (Applause) …My friends back home have supported and encouraged my independence. I appreciate the support they have shown when they have agreed with me, and their patience when they have not.

I will ask the support and patience again, which I understand will be very difficult for a number of my close friends. I have informed President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Senator Lott of my decision. They are good people with whom I disagree. They have been fair and decent to me, and I have informed Senator Daschle also of my decision.

Three of these four men disagree with my decision, but I hope… (Laughter) …But I hope each understood my reasons. And it’s quite entirely possible that the fourth one, with my independence, may have second thoughts down the road. But anyway, that’s the way it is.

I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed, my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career.

I hope that the people of Vermont will understand it. I hope in time that my colleagues will as well. I am confident that it is the right decision.