Jeffords Returns to Washington

Sen. James Jeffords said Monday he has no regrets about his decision to leave the Republican party to become an independent — a move that shifted the Senate's balance of power to the Democrats.

``I have no regrets at all,'' Jeffords said in an interview Monday upon returning to the Capitol for the first time since his announcement. ``I know I did the right thing.''

Jeffords announced May 24 that he was leaving the Republican Party because he felt it had become too conservative. His switch becomes official at the close of business Tuesday, and when it does, the GOP will lose control of the Senate.

``It has been a long and difficult month,'' he said. ``When I made my announcement I had felt I was doing the right thing, but now I am sure I did.''

Jeffords spent the past week attending a conference on environmental issues in Italy. He said he was overwhelmed by the worldwide reaction his decision generated.

``I had no idea of the reaction that I would get and the publicity that would come from that,'' he said. ``I was overwhelmed right from the start by the positive reaction all over the world after I made my speech — the feeling that I had really done something that might literally save the country from very difficult problems.''

The quiet senator from Vermont has been a relative unknown in his 26 years in Washington, as a member of the House for 14 years and senator since 1989. He routinely shunned cameras, news conferences and the Sunday talk show circuit, but now they seek him.

He has appeared on the cover of Newsweek, been the topic of almost every radio and television talk show and had his fashion choices critiqued by the Washington Post. His move has prompted praise and condemnation — even death threats that have prompted the Capitol police to provide security.

Outgoing Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has been among his harshest critics. ``It was a `coup of one' that subverted the will of the American voters who elected a Republican majority,'' Lott wrote in a letter to Republicans. He called Jeffords' action ``the impetuous decision of one man to undermine our democracy.''

Jeffords said Monday he was especially troubled by Lott's comments. ``I thought we were pretty good friends,'' he said. ``I understand his frustrations, this is a very difficult turn of events for him, but I can't understand the way he has handled me. It is very unfortunate.''

Jeffords said that Tuesday will be a difficult and emotional day, for him personally and for his Republican colleagues. ``It will be hard on all of us,'' he said.

Although Jeffords will become an independent, he will caucus with the Democrats. Jeffords has been invited to attend a weekly policy luncheon with Senate Democrats on Tuesday; his spokesman said no decision has been made on whether he will go.

Jeffords has also been invited to an afternoon meeting at the White House with President Bush. The meeting is of the Senate education working group. Jeffords cited Bush failures on education as one reason for his decision to become an independent.

Back home in Vermont, Jeffords' decision has received overwhelming approval. A poll by news organizations done the night of the announcement found 67 percent approved. Seventy percent said that Jeffords was doing a good or excellent job, while 46 percent felt that way about Bush. Jeffords was easily re-elected last year.