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Jeffords' Big Switch: A Year Later

Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont
AP
It's been a year since Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont defected from the Republican Party to stake his claim as an Independent, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats and throwing Washington politics into turmoil.

Jeffords was vilified by his former Republican chums. Trent Lott – the former Senate majority leader, now minority leader – accused him of "trumping the will of the American people" and executing a "coup of one." He was even kicked out of the "Singing Senators" – a GOP quartet with Lott, Larry Craig of Idaho and now-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Jeffords, however, says he has "no regrets, none at all," and has been campaigning for Democrats, although none running against incumbent Republicans.

But beyond titles and the color of curtains in committee chairmen's offices, how different is the political climate in Washington since Jeffords split?

A year ago, it's hard to imagine that a Republican-controlled Senate committee would have issued subpoenas for White House records of meetings with Enron executives. On Wednesday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee – chaired by potential 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman – voted along party lines to demand disclosure of White House contacts with the failed energy giant. It's the first time Congress has subpoenaed the Bush administration.

A year ago, Charles Pickering, the handpicked choice of fellow Mississippian Trent Lott, would be sitting behind the federal bench by now. Instead, Democrats – now in charge of Senate committees and happy to use the privileges that entails – shot down Pickering's nomination in the Judiciary Committee before it could even reach the full Senate for a vote. Republicans have complained bitterly about the slow pace of hearings for Bush nominees and even held rallies last month to highlight the issue.

A year ago, Bush administration plans to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looked headed for passage by the GOP-controlled Congress. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was able to cut the drilling plan from the energy bill entirely last month.

"The main consequence of Jeffords' switch is that Republicans lost complete control of the agenda," said David Rohde, a professor of political science at Michigan State University. "Republicans aren't able to get the things they want, and the Democrats are able to press things the GOP on lots of issues they'd rather avoid."

Looking back at the last 12 months, Daschle – who owes his majority leader's job to Jeffords – says "Democrats have restored a sense of balance to our system of checks and balances.""

That may be true, but a new Pew Research Center poll shows a sizable minority of the Democratic Party's rank and file is raising doubts about the performance of party leaders. Republicans, on the other hand, are happier than Democrats with their leaders' job performance by an 81 percent to 64 percent margin.

Nationwide, slight more than half of Democrats, 51 percent, say the party is doing an excellent or good job of standing up for traditional party positions, compared with 61 percent for Republicans.

As the most visible leader in the Democratic Party, Daschle has become the favorite target of GOP attacks, called everything from an obstructionist to unpatriotic for not backing the Bush administration's political agenda and questioning the success of the war on terrorists. Republicans have run attack ads in Daschle's home state of South Dakota, and even put up a Web site, www.dumpdaschle.org.

Two days shy of the exact anniversary of Jeffords' defection from the GOP, Daschle defended himself and his party from those GOP charges.

"Some people want to call our refusal to rubber stamp the Republican agenda obstructionism," Daschle said. "I see it as rejecting ideas in the name of real solutions. And I call that progress."

On Friday, Senate Democrats will cap off a weeklong celebration of Jeffords' largesse with a rally criticizing President Bush's environmental policies – one of the key issues, along with a lack of funding for special education, that Jeffords says drove him from the party.

"In one year, we have passed some long-stalled measures that make a difference in people's lives, restored a degree of bipartisanship at a time of crisis, and protected America's most treasured resource and values," Daschle said.

If that's the case, why aren't Democrats happier with their leadership?

One factor, Carroll Dougherty of the Pew Center says, is that while Democrats control the Senate, that's just one-half of one branch of the government.

"They are in charge of the bulkiest, hardest-to-move branch of government," said Dougherty. "In that position, they have the apparent responsibility, but not the real power to move things. They are hamstrung."

Of course, Mr. Bush's stunning job approval ratings (71 percent in the latest CBS News poll) and the rally-around-the-flag atmosphere following Sept. 11, have hurt Democrats' efforts to inspire even the party faithful behind their bread-and-butter issues like Social Security and welfare reform.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says Jeffords' defection from the GOP might be an advantage for President Bush in the long run.

"It's allowed him to deflect criticism, deflect controversy and rally his base around beating up Daschle," Rothenberg said. "Anytime (conservatives) complain about something, the president can say 'the Democrats are not allowing votes' or 'the Democrats are won't hold hearings.' It keeps the base in line."

Jeffords, Rothernberg says, gave the GOP their boogeyman in Daschle. "You can do that if he's running the Senate, but its virtually impossible if he's in the minority," Rothenberg said.

Dougherty cautions that the poll's findings come five months before the 2002 midterm election, and that Democrats still have time to repair the situation, particularly among the party faithful that make up a large chunk of off-year voters.

"The findings are not a sign of malaise or deep unhappiness," Dougherty said. "The warning sign for Democrats is that if this is a base election, and the base is dispirited, that could have implications."

By Douglas Kiker