If you have seen or heard any American news source within the last 48 hours, this anticipated announcement has been the lead story. While political defections are not uncommon, most have garnered scant attention from the national press because of their relative insignificance to the nation at large. However, Senator Jeffords' decision will immediately change the political landscape of the Senate and quite possibly the nation until at least the 2002 elections. In short, Democrats are now in charge of the Senate, and Republicans are out.
Pragmatically, what does this all mean?
Tom Daschle (D-SD) is now the top contender for Senate Majority leader. The Senate Majority leader determines what legislation is brought to the Senate floor for discussion. Senate Committee chairmanships will revert from Republicans to Democrats. It is in committee where proposed legislation is first discussed and is either killed or passed along to the Majority Leader for consideration by the whole Senate. Republican Vice President Dick Cheney will play a diminshed tie breaking role as President of the Senate. (Note: Check out the US Senate homepage if you are unfamiliar with how the Senate works.) Finally, let us not forget that the Bush White House will not have as much leeway in promoting legislation as they would with a Republican Majority Leader.
So is this a surprise?
The Jeffords decision is not only significant for its immediate political ramifications, but it is also heralding a philosophical change in the Grand Old Party. While most New England Republicans including Lincoln Chaffee, R-RI and Olympia Snowe, R-ME are viewed as moderate, Jeffords has been known as a maverick ever since he was first elected to Congress in 1974. During his Senate career, he is known for such actions as voting against Reagan's 1981 tax cut, the Gulf War and President Clinton's impeachment. Jeffords was one of the few Republicans who regularly supported legislation for such causes as abortion, education and the environment. In his speech this morning, Jeffords noted that even though he recently disagreed with President George Bush, he felt that there was a problem with the Republican party at large. With the rise of party political leaders from the South and West, the GOP has been promoting an agenda more fiscally and socially conservative and leaving moderates like Jeffords behind.
Additionally, Vermont's political landscape has been changing towards a far more liberal slant since the days of Jeffords' father, a stalwart Republican State Supreme Court Judge. Jeffords defection marks the first time in 144 years that a Republican has not held this Senate seat from Vermont. Today, the Green Mountain state boasts only one Republican in elective office (state treasurer). Last year, Vermont made headlines for our first in the nation adoption of Civil Unions, a legal parallel to marriage which allows gay and lesbian couples the civil benefits which heterosexual couples enjoy. Finally, let us not forget that Bernie Sanders, I-VT is the only self described Socialist in the House of Representatives.
As a Vermonter
Even though I am presently a registered Democrat (conservative), I voted to re-elect Jeffords to a third Senate term last fall. However, I must admit feeling a bit cheated by this decision, especially that his political transformation seemingly occurred only six months after winning a tough re-election campaign. I know that there is very little love lost between Jeffords and the Vermont GOP. While attending a GOP event last fall, I witnessed firsthand the very chilly reception Jeffords and another moderate politician recieved from fellow Vermont Republicans.
At this writing, the future for Senator Jeffords looks mixed. At 67 years of age, he still has 5 1/2 years to look forward as a Senator. Or, if the local pundits are correct, he might leave the Senate and run for Vermont Governor in 2002. If you saw this morning's speech, there were plenty of supporters (and some detractors) on hand cheering his decision. But no matter where his personal political fortunes might lie, we all must admit, that today, a Senator from Vermont single handedly changed the national political landscape.