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Senator Jim Jeffords: Tipping Point

May 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: A year ago this week, one Republican Senator single- handedly changed the balance of power in Washington. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont left the GOP, declared himself an independent, and aligned himself politically with the Democrats. His action tipped the 50-50 Senate into Democratic hands. But did Jeffords’ dramatic declaration of independence, as he calls it, make a difference?

Some answers now from Senator Jeffords, who joins us from Capitol Hill. Senator, welcome.

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Pleasure to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: So let’s ask the last question first, did it make a difference a year later?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Oh, it certainly did. I just feel more confident every moment that I made the right decision, and that it did make a difference.

GWEN IFILL: In what ways?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, first of all, you have a situation where the majority at that time could control everything, because it was a very close Senate, 50-50 Senate. You had the power all in the Republicans, in the House, in the Senate, and in the White House. That was an unusual circumstance, which they could abuse. And they did abuse it in my mind, and that’s why I made the switch.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Daschle today in his speech at the National Press Club, said that there are a number of things which have happened in the Senate this year, which wouldn’t have happened without you. Now this is something that your former Republican colleagues take absolute issue with. What are the big issues that you would point to as examples of how your vote on other side made a difference?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, on everything we have done in the recent, what was part of the year, if you want to call it that, has happened by one vote. There have been several one-vote margins in important issues. The farm bill was the last one we had in that regard, and that was held up, one vote got it through. And any time you get into organizational matters, it’s one vote that makes a difference. So that’s the way it is, and things will be getting… I listened to the Tom Daschle on “Meet the Press” and he listed them, and these are things that have been accomplished.

GWEN IFILL: You are… are planning to campaign during the midterm elections, I gather, for Democrats this year, even though you are still technically an independent. Why are you campaigning for Democrats?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, because I made the switch, and the switch made the difference, and if we don’t hold that difference by reelecting those Democrats — and I’m only going for those up for reelection — you lose it, and then we’ll be back where we were with the majority being the Republicans, and I would have no reason to believe that they wouldn’t try and abuse it again as they did before.

GWEN IFILL: Well, then why not just become a Democrat? Why be an independent?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, because my life has been an independent. Vermont is an independent state, and I felt much more comfortable by becoming an independent so that I wouldn’t have the pressures of the parties saying, “you’ve got to do it because you’re a member of the party.” I’m an independent — independent judgment and the Democrats have found that out on occasion when I have gone against them on appointments saying, “No, I think that person is qualified and they ought to be put in office rather than denied.” And so I exercise that independence.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans obviously still control the White House and the House of Representatives, and there is a new Pew Poll out today by the Pew Center for People in the Press, which says that only 51 percent of the Democrats say that their party is doing a good or an excellent job as opposed to 61 percent of Republicans who think the same thing. Why do you think that gap exists?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Why? Because Republicans got majority and Democrats don’t and thus, obviously when you’re in the majority, you have more success.

GWEN IFILL: In what sense?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, when you vote, you win, and you win the bill and you win whatever it is you’re going after. If you’re in a minority, it’s hard to be successful in the sense of passing things, unless you can get some of the moderates — which happens fairly often, either side — that join to make a majority.

GWEN IFILL: When you decided to switch parties, there were two issues which were driving you at that time, as I recall. One was special education funding and the other one was dairy funding for the Northeast Dairy Compact, which was very important to you. You got one of those and didn’t get the other pretty much.

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I think certainly the dairy bill came through, but there was many other issues which have been one vote issues that came along as well.

GWEN IFILL: But what about the special ed funding?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Special ed funding, we’re going to get that eventually. To me, the reason I switched was the fact that the budget had money in it last year. $450 billion was set aside for education in the budget, but when we went to vote on it, and we did vote on it, and then it went to Congress, when it came back it zeroed out to $450 billion. And I said, “How did they do that?”

So I looked and I found out what had happened, they just created this very small vote situation with the Conference Committee– which had six Democrats and three Republicans– and they just gave no recognition at all to what had happened and just swept the whole $450 billion out.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, on another issue, when you decided to make the switch last May, obviously it was some months before September 11. Do you think the White House, the Republican White House is answering of the questions they should be answering now about what led up to September 11?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t want to get into that, other than to say this, I think both sides should recognize there was sufficient information out there that it should have got somebody’s attention, that there ought to have been an immediate look into see why the situation was that all of that information about somebody is going to hijack the plane, etc., etc., nothing got done. Who talked to who and why wasn’t action taken and what do we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

GWEN IFILL: Should there be an investigation of that?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Oh, yes, it certainly should. Somebody has to go run back through and find out who knew what and then decide how that we can prevent it from happening again.

GWEN IFILL: How you would describe your relationship now with the White House and with President Bush?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Oh, I think it’s cordial. I’m speaking just about to all of the Republicans now and I meet with them regularly, we smile, we have a good conversation. So there is nothing, a great enemy type situation. We’re trying to all do a good job, and I just differ with them.

GWEN IFILL: This White House and obviously Republicans in Congress have described Senator Daschle, who’s the head of the party that you have allied yourself with, as an obstructionist on a number of issues, including judgeships and some of the appointments you talked about. What is your reaction to that?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, I don’t know hoe you define those words. Sometimes, you’re going to find yourself in opposition, and you’ll find that sometimes it may be abused on the Democratic side. But I haven’t seen any evidence of that really in the appointments now. So it’s just something you have to live with, but I don’t think there is any great problems there right now.

GWEN IFILL: Have you ever had a moment in the past year to think you wish you could have stayed with the Republican Party, that maybe you weren’t getting everything accomplished that you had hoped to accomplish by switching parties?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well, certainly you never get everything you hope for, whatever party you’re in. So I don’t… I have not felt disappointed by my switch as far as getting things done, if that’s the question.

GWEN IFILL: That is the question, I guess. You feel like you have never regretted it?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: I haven’t regretted it one moment since I made that decision.

GWEN IFILL: Have your relationships with your former colleagues or other Republicans maybe in the state of the Vermont, have there been strained and broken friendships that you have attempted to mend or… what has been the personal toll, I guess this past year of having switched parties?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: Well I had a number of people back home in the state party that obviously were upset with me and I would guess they would go to avoid me if they saw me coming, but generally speaking I get along with everybody, always have. And still I speak to Republicans at home, and even though we don’t agree, we agree to disagree.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, Senator Jeffords, thank you very much for joining us.

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS: It was a pleasure.