Political Fallout From Jeffords Decision

This partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, May 23, 2001, was provided by the Federal Document Clearing House. Click here to order the complete transcript.

BRIT HUME, HOST:  So what would cause a veteran Republican senator, chairman of a
committee with jurisdiction over one of his pet issues, education, to switch parties and leave his old party in the minority?  Is it real or imagined slights by his colleagues and the White House, or is it his own beliefs and the changed political character of the state he represents? 
For a look at Vermont's Jim Jeffords and his momentous decision, I'm joined by Michael Barone, senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, and of course, the co-author of the Almanac of American Politics.

So Michael, what -- what tells us most about what Jeffords has done, the Republicans in the Senate or the state of Vermont or both, perhaps?

MICHAEL BARONE, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT:  Well, I think -- I think you got to give him credit, in part, for acting on conviction.  He has voted with Democrats on an awful lot of the key issues.  He seems to do so out of conviction.  And if he says he'll feel more comfortable in the Democratic Party, that's -- you know, I think that may be true, just as it was true of many of the -- of the Democrats who switched to the Republican Party.

HUME:  To include two now in the Senate.

BARONE:  Yeah, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Senator...

HUME:  Colorado.

BARONE:  ... Richard Shelby of Alabama, several members of the House.  You've got Senator Phil Gramm, who switched parties back in 1983, when he was a member of the House of Representatives, then resigned and went back and said, "If you want to elect me to the other party, I'll give you a chance to elect me or elect somebody else."  I don't think Jim Jeffords is going to do that.

HUME:  And he's just been reelected by a comfortable margin as a Republican.

BARONE:  As a Republican in the state of Vermont.  And interestingly, that's not -- Vermont has become now one of the most Democratic states.  You know, it's sort of a Ben & Jerry's liberalism, after Ben & Jerry's ice cream that originated in -- in Burlington.

There's a lot of support there for environmental restrictions of all kinds.  The Democratic governor, Howard Dean, has tried to push universal health care coverage through extending Medicaid in different ways.  They had the big dispute over whether or not they would have gay marriage.  The state legislature, under pressure from the Vermont supreme court, pushed a civil unions bill.  It was unpopular in some quarters.  The Republicans gained control of the state house in the last election.  But on the whole, that was a solid state for Al Gore.  It was never in contention.  And the basic thrust of opinion there is Democratic.  Jeffords has had to win despite his party label.

HUME:   So now -- so he's not likely to be in any trouble back home with any large number of people, although I'm sure the Republicans in the state are furious with him.  But he's not in any trouble politically.

BARONE:  He's not in any trouble.  And Vermont's single congressman, one congressman at large, gets elected as an independent, Bernie Sanders, self-declared socialist, former mayor of Burlington.  So getting reelected as an independent, if Mr. Jeffords chooses to do so, probably won't be too much of a difficulty for him.

BARONE:  All right, now, let's talk a little bit about what now unfolds in the Senate.  People are now going to look at 2002, the mid-term congressional election, and say, "Well, what chance do the Republicans have of getting it back, or what chance to the Democrats have of enlarging their lead?"

BARONE:  Well, you know, there are more seats up this time held by the Republicans than by the Democrats, so there's been a lot of thinking that the Republicans have more at risk.  I think when you look past the seats that are absolutely safe and solid, and there are a lot of those in both parties, what you see is there are about seven states at risk for both parties.

HUME:  Seven seats in play, really.

BARONE:  Seven seats that are in play or conceivably in play, depending on candidate decisions and...

HUME:  And who -- how many of them are Republican...

BARONE:  ... so forth.

HUME:  ... how many Democrat?

BARONE:  I think seven each.  So I...

HUME:  Oh, seven each?

BARONE:  Seven each.  So I think in that case, I'd give each party a 50-50 chance of increasing its Senate -- number of Senate seats in -- in 2002.  And if we're supposing that we've got 51 organizing with the Democrats and 49 organizing with the Republicans, that means the Republicans have got a little bit of an uphill road.  But it's by no means inconceivable that they could emerge in control.  And it's by no means inconceivable that the Democrats could pick up a -- net a couple of seats and solidify their control.

HUME:  Now...

BARONE:  Although I should say, using the term "control" for the Senate is always a misnomer because in a body where most business is done by unanimous consent, where you can always raise non-germane amendments, nobody has entire control over the Senate.

HUME:  But -- so the -- you hear -- you hear various takes on how much difference this is going to make.  The leadership -- the party in control, so to speak, who names the chairmen and has the leaders, does control the floor schedule and the committee agendas, correct?

BARONE:  It does -- it does present the floor agendas, and so forth.  But those can be upset, and they're -- you know, under the loose Senate rules, unlike the House of Representatives, the leadership can get rolled on procedure if -- if a significant minority or a majority of senators is unhappy.  Example -- John McCain insisted on two weeks of debate on his campaign finance bill, and he got it.

HUME:  Right.

BARONE:  Trent Lott, the then majority leader, didn't want it.  George W. Bush didn't want him to have that two weeks of debate.  That's a lot of time...

HUME:  And he got it anyway.

BARONE:  ... in the Senate.

HUME:  But let me ask you...

BARONE:  But he got it because there were a sufficient number of senators that were really determined to get it.

HUME:  Now, with control of only one house of the Congress and -- and -- and not having the White House, the Democrats really are not in a position to move an agenda of their own.  They're in the business of opposing, of blocking the agenda of the other party, correct?

BARONE:  Well, they're -- year, they're doing -- Benjamin Disraeli said the business of the opposition is to oppose, and they're not even pretending to come up with much of an agenda.

HUME:  Exactly.  So are they now -- now in a much stronger position to do that than they were before, now that they control...

BARONE:  I think they're in a stronger position to do that on a lot of low-visibility issues because people are not going to notice that they're not bringing up, you know, this or -- this Superfund change or something of that sort.  I think that it's going to be tough for the Democrats to prevent a vote on George W. Bush's major items, on things like Medicare
reform, on things like defense spending changes...

HUME:  Missile defense.

BARONE:  ... on things like missile defense and Social Security.  Bush's program has been aimed all along at amassing bipartisan majorities.  He did not want to depend on having Republican majorities.  I don't think the leadership -- Democratic leadership can deny him votes on those major things.  They can...

HUME:  All right...

BARONE:  ... stop a lot of judges, though.

HUME:  All right.  We'll get to that some later, too.  Michael Barone, thanks very much.

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