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Senators React to the Sen. Jeffords’ Announcement

May 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Joining us from Capitol Hill are Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, vice chairman of the Republican Conference, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; and Democrats Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority whip, and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the chairman of the Democratic Policy committee. Welcome to you all.

Senator Hutchison, is Jim Jeffords right, or is there still a place for progressives like him in the Republican Party in the Senate?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: There absolutely is a place for progressives, for moderates, we need to welcome everyone to the Republican Party who says they want to be Republican. We need to listen to their views as we do to all the spectrum of views that we have in our caucus and then we need to move forward respecting everyone’s differences, but knowing that we have more that unites us than that divides us.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Specter, do you think the Republican leadership helped bring this on itself, your party did?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: No, I do not think so. I believe that Senator Jeffords had great concerns about-education, he was concerned about a number of substantive matters, and one thing built on another. I believe that Senator Jeffords received a great deal of attention from Senator Lott. Senator Lott has specified that for the record.

I don’t think the Republican leadership was at fault. I do think that the general tenor of the Republican caucus could be more receptive to moderate ideas and one of the proposals which was considered yesterday was to have a Republican on the — a moderate Republican in leadership and I among others talked to Senator Jeffords about that as a position for him and even after Senator Jeffords made his decision this morning, Senator Lott said that he still wanted to do that — and to try to structure a way so that moderates’ views would get greater resonance within the caucus. I think had that been done sometime ago as a generalized matter on the system, I think it might have made a difference and I think that we had a conference today that lasted almost two hours, soul-searching ways to correct the kind of concerns that the Senator Jeffords expressed.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hutchison, do you agree some changes have to be made?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I do, I think we can learn from this. There is no question that is a setback for us, I think we need to take this and learn from it and make our party stronger and our caucus stronger.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hutchison, Senator Jeffords said that actually he said having a Republican in the White House made it more difficult for moderates because dissent wasn’t welcomed. Instead, there was really pressure on moderates to just go along with the president’s program. Is he right about that?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Well, I think that obviously when we have a president of our party in the White House, we’re going to work with the president and I think the president and the people that he has working with members of the Senate wants to — want to reach out. They are reaching out to Democrats, they are reaching out to moderates, conservatives, they are trying to listen. Vice President Cheney comes to the Hill at least once a week and sometimes more and we meet with him. He is very open and accessible. So I think we all have to come together and we need to talk to the president and I think he will listen.

MARGARET WARNER: Were you surprised to hear Andy Card tell Jim that the White House didn’t have a clue that was coming?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I think people were surprised. All of us are unhappy at one point or another in the legislative process — that is the nature of legislation. But even his closest friend said they did not see this coming quite this way. They did know that he was concerned about some of the issues, differences, but many of us are on different issues; and we didn’t see that it was this serious.

MARGARET WARNER: One final question to the two of you before we go on to the Democrats as well, Senator Specter, Senator McCain said today he had a critique that went beyond moderates versus conservatives and had to do with the tolerance that he felt was lacking in the party. And he said he thought this would have a positive impact or should on how our party responds to members who depart or dissent from party orthodoxy. And he said tolerance and dissent is the hallmark of a mature party. It’s well past time for the Republican Party to grow up. Does he have a point?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think Senator McCain does have a point. It was tougher with only 50 Republicans because when there were 55 Republicans, some of us could dissent without causing the issue to be lost. I think that’s what Senator Jeffords may have had in mind when he talked about making it tougher with a Republican president.

There is one other issue, which I would like to broach. That is a concern that I have. We are really starting to feel the impact, and I have a concern about the propriety of the Senator casting a vote on organization at variance with his party. We are all elected with very substantial support from the party and from party members. And I take second place to no one on independence and matters of conscious when it comes to votes, which we cast.

But organizationally, I think that is really — think that is a party matter and really the right of the party. And one of the things that I have been talking to my colleagues about and up till now party switches haven’t had such a drastic result where control of the Senate is changed. That is seismic, it is really cataclysmic and it has been fair game now to have the benefit.

We’ll hear from Senator Reid who is reportedly having dealt with Senator Jeffords with the chairmanship for a major committee and up till now that has been fair game. And I think the situation for Senator Jeffords may lead us to reevaluate some of the basic points about shifting party and shift in party control and perhaps making a shift for some special benefit.

MARGARET WARNER Let me bring in the Democrats now, Senator Reid, first of all, how much impact do you think now Jim Jeffords will have as an independent and there I think that Senator Specter was referring to reports that you gave up your shot as being the chairman of the environment and public works committee to give it to him as a way of inducing him to, to switch.

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, first of all Jim Jeffords switched from being a Republican for the reasons he stated. He did it as a matter of principle. He outlined the issues, which he disagreed with, with the party. He didn’t beat around the bush and talked about education, he talked about the budget. He talked about taxes. He talked about health care. He outlined why he was disappointed in the party.

Now, Jim Jeffords is a man of principle. I served in the House with him. I’ve served in the Senate with him. And we’re going to get to organizational things at a later time. Jim Jeffords — there was no quid pro quo and you know, I have good working relationships with my two Republican colleagues here. We work together on a number of different issues but the fact is this isn’t anything new, party switching. We have Richard Shelby who switched right after he was elected; Nighthorse Campbell switched right after he was elected. Republicans, they were Democrats. That is part of what goes on.

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me, but are you saying it’s not a sure thing that Jeffords is going to get, Jim Jeffords is going to get this chairmanship?

SEN. HARRY REID: I think we have a lot of controversy I shouldn’t say controversy. When we do in the Senate is decide on seniority. We have a number of chairs that are stacked up there. It’s according to who takes what committee is going to happen with five or six different Senators. So any conversations that I had or anyone else had with Jim Jeffords there was no quid pro quo, which means this for that. Jim Jeffords outlined why he became an Independent and dropped out of the Republican Party. We here in Washington every day do things as a matter of principle. Outside Washington people have trouble understanding that. It’s not often you see a giant step of principle that Jim Jeffords took today.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator Dorgan, to you. What do you think is going to be the impact of this. How major? Do you agree with Senator Specter that it’s seismic?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well it’s a political earthquake of sorts here in Washington, D.C. because it changes the alignment of the Senate that was 50/50. It changes all of the committee chairmanships –subcommittee chairmanships — it changes the majority leader, it changes who sets the agenda in the Senate, so quite clearly this is a significant event…

But let me just say as Senator Reid said I have known Senator Jeffords for a long, long while. And I served with him in the U.S. House and the Senate. The statement he made today is one I greatly respect. I think is a man of great principle and I’m sure requires a profile of courage of sorts for him to do what he did. I admire that. I would be less than candid to say that we don’t welcome him. Of course we welcome him. We are pleased that we are now going to be in the majority when he organizes with us but the same 100 people will be voting two weeks from now that voted today in the U.S. Senate. It doesn’t change who is here. It simply changes the way we organize.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me follow up with something that Andy Card just said, and that is he agreed that the Democrats will get to set the agenda but he pointed out that many centrist Democrats have been voting with the White House certainly on the tax bill. You all approved the Ted Olson nomination today. So is he right when he says the Democrats can set the agenda but the outcome really of votes in particular isn’t going to be profound?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Oh, I think that the outcome is not very certain on a lot of issues. But one thing is certain as a result of that: We will, for example, move to put the patients bill of rights on the floor of the Senate and have the debate on the patients bill of rights because we believe that is an important part of our agenda, adding a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program. We very much want to do that. That will become part of the agenda and that will come to the Senate floor. So the ability to set the agenda on the floor is very, very important.

We believe that we ought to write a new farm bill. Now we’ll have I believe with the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee — to set in motion the events that will make that happen. I mean, this is a very important moment and something that I think will change the agenda of the Senate but again, my colleagues on the Republican side will be quick to point out and they’d be accurate that the same 100 people will be casting votes two weeks from now as did this week. You know, the alignment — we’re going to have to work with the president; we’re going to have to work in a bipartisan way to accomplish anything around here. We understand that. And that’s the way it should work.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hutchison, how do you see the impact, the likely impact here in terms of what really comes out of Washington?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I think setting the agenda is an important difference in the way things have been up until now and the way they will be because the Democrats will have the ability to bring something to the floor. But the Senate has no rules or our rules allow any amendment to be brought up –unlike the House. So we will be able to fully amend and fully debate any bill that does come forward. So I think we will have the same issues on the floor. We’ll have the same input. It will be a slower process probably because of the closeness of the situation as much as anything else.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Reid, Senator Schumer said today one area he thought there would be a huge difference had to do with judicial appointments. And he essentially said that the bench is now going to have to be moderate. That very conservative — I don’t want to put words in his mouth but he was saying very conservative nominees won’t be approved. Is he right about that?

SEN. HARRY REID: I would like to make two comments about that. I’m sure Arlen didn’t mean anything negative in the sense that Jim Jeffords did this for any reason other than principle. If Jim Jeffords had been looking for a deal when the Republicans learned including the White House that he may switch, there were all kind of things offered him as you know.

I would say on the judiciary, it points up the problem we have in Washington that has nothing to do were the four of us, it has everything to do with the system. Not only do we have problems getting judges confirmed but we have cabinet officers and sub cabinet officers and we simply can’t get through this funnel.

We would approve lots of people but they are not here. I think we need to join together Democrats and Republicans to improve the system to allow President Bush — he is not going to have his cabinet and sub cabinet officers until probably next February. That is not our fault. It’s the system.

With judges I think we have a lot of things we can do with judges. I think the president will send us more moderate judges but what we see here in the Senate I think is an indication that we can work together. Nevada has a Democratic senator and a Republican senator. We have no problem with our judges. Senator Anson and I worked together on these judges, once we get them out of this clogged up funnel we have and bringing us nominations they will be approved in a matter of hours here — vacancies we have in Nevada. I think the system can be improved upon. I think Schumer is right – we will get more moderate judges –

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Specter, will the White House have to change the way it does business?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I think there’ll have to be some changes. Let me preliminarily come back to a point which Senator Reid picked up on before he answered your last question and he came back to the quid pro quo, which is a term which he brought into this discussion. Let me say that I agree totally that Senator Jeffords is a man of principle beyond any question. But Senator Reid didn’t quite deal with the specifics as to whether there is an arrangement for Senator Jeffords to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is a position which would customarily go to Senator Reid and the word is that Senator Reid is going to step aside.

Senator Reid used the term quid pro quo. I’m not saying that Senator Jeffords did switch because he is getting the chairmanship. I think there are a great many reasons and I agree with Harry Reid that Senator Jeffords articulated those reasons. But one of the reasons may well be this chairmanship and we’ll fight about that, about that in due course if we don’t this evening.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I’m going to have to give Senator Reid a chance to reply to that. And then we’re out of time. Senator Reid.

SEN. HARRY REID: There is really nothing to reply. We’re going to organize in a couple of days. There was nothing that I did that in any way to promise Jim Jeffords anything. I’m happy — I’m in line to be chairman of the Ethics Committee and chairman to be in — I’m in line to be chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. I’ll look at this. The person will determine whether or not I’m going to be chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Ethics Committee is me. I’ll determine how much my responsibilities are with my new position as majority whip, and determine what the organizational needs of our caucus are at whatever time we decide to organization.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Senators, all four of you, thanks very much.