WASHINGTON – Jim Jeffords got the Capitol equivalent of a rock star's reception from Senate Democrats Thursday as they capped a week of celebrating Friday's one-year anniversary of Jeffords' defection from the GOP to become an independent.
The move ended the one-vote margin that gave Republicans control of the Senate, and handed Democrats the majority and strength to negotiate with President Bush and the Republican-controlled House.
"My decision to become an independent has forced all branches of the government to compromise, to seek moderation, and to find a balanced consensus," Jeffords said at a Thursday rally.
That's how Jeffords views it, but to Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Jeffords' defection was the ultimate political betrayal.
"Well, I try not to dwell on nightmares, I prefer to dream of visions of the future," said the former majority leader. "Certainly, it was very disappointing when Sen. Jeffords went against the votes of his own people, became an independent, and votes for the Democrats."
But to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Jeffords is a hero who made it possible for Democrats to control the legislative agenda and advance their priorities
"We've passed important bills that were languishing under Republican control. Campaign finance reform, election reform, a patients' bill of rights, a fair farm bill, a balanced energy bill, and the list goes on."
Republicans and the president have had much to say on those issues, and this week Republicans actually dragged out bloodhounds in a mock search for critical legislation that they say Democrats have lost or blocked.
Most notably, Republicans accuse Democrats of blocking the president's judicial nominations. So far, 57 of the president's first 100 judicial nominees have been confirmed. One controversial nominee was rejected in the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, and another was sent to the full Senate Thursday for a vote that Daschle says could come by year's end.
That record is fine by Jeffords, who praised fellow Vermonter Sen. Pat Leahy's handling of the process as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
"I sleep better, Pat, at night knowing that you are picking the judges," Jeffords said.
Cameras flashed like crazy a year ago when Jeffords defected from the GOP but until then he'd been a little-known liberal Republican. Now, he is the Democrats' hero.
"Some people call our refusal to rubberstamp the Republican agenda 'obstructionism.' I see it as rejecting failed ideas," Daschle said.
The other major difference in the Senate under Democratic control has been the number of investigations. Whether over failed energy giant Enron Corp., energy policy developments or what went wrong on Sept. 11, Democrats are almost certainly approaching the issues in a manner different from Senate Republicans.
But when it comes to actual legislation, even Jeffords admits that with the near-even split — both before and after his defection — it is almost impossible to get anything done.