Reactions to Jeffords: Moderate Vermonter or Benedict Arnold?

Sen. James Jeffords' departure from the Republican Party Thursday was greeted with the emotion and gravity of a royal divorce, with all sides wanting to quickly bury the past and get on with their separate lives.

"While Republicans are saddened by the decision of Sen. Jeffords to leave the Republican Party, we do look forward to seeing Democrats in the Senate transition themselves from naysayers and obstructionists to a majority that actually has to lead and legislate," Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., said. "They now have the challenge of holding hearings and moving legislation. I look forward to seeing them roll up their sleeves and govern."

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York saw a bright future ahead.

"To say we're excited is an understatement," he said.

After a week of uncertainty that agonized Washington pols and pundits, Jeffords declared that he would leave the GOP and become an independent because he was increasingly uncomfortable with the Bush administration's political agenda and finding his relationships with other Republicans more and more strained.

"In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles that I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent," Jeffords said as his supporters erupted in cheers.

The switch has U.S. political circles still trembling from the far-reaching consequences. For the first time in history, the previously evenly split U.S. Senate will change leadership in the middle of a session. Democrats will take control of key committee chairmanships, jeopardizing White House plans for everything from judicial appointments to energy concerns.

"I respect Senator Jeffords," Bush said during an appearance at a Cleveland school gymnasium. "But, respectfully, I couldn't disagree more. I was elected to get things done on behalf of the American people, and to work with both Republicans and Democrats, and we're doing just that."

Bush then asked Congress not to leave for the holiday weekend until it had passed his tax-cut package.

Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also called for both parties to work together.

"We can't dictate to them, nor can they dictate to us," he said outside the Capitol.

But he did say that he would use his party's slim majority to tone down Bush's policies.

Vermont Republican leaders were furious.

"My concern for Jeffords is that his legacy will be as one of Benedict Arnold," said Skip Vallee, the state GOP's national committeeman.

Some Republicans called on Jeffords to resign his Senate seat, then run again in a special election without a party banner.

"To honorably serve the people of this state, what he should do is resign his seat, allow the governor to appoint an interim, and then fulfill his right to seek election under another party affiliation," said Jeffrey Wennberg, former mayor of Jeffords' home town of Rutland, Vt. "But let the voters decide."

Democrats, on the other hand, were understandably ecstatic at some of the best news for their party since former Vice President Al Gore conceded the narrow presidential election.

"In the best traditions of Vermont senators throughout history, he clearly put Vermont's interests ahead of partisanship," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and Jeffords' fellow senator from the Green Mountain State. "It is one of the most courageous acts I have seen in 25 years in the Senate. Regardless of the political effects, I know this decision will promote incalculable good for our children, for our environment, and for the future of Vermont and the nation."

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., shot down the Bush administration's talk of having worked with both parties, saying Jeffords' defection was clear evidence that the White House is moving away from the political middle ground, not toward it.

"I think Sen. Jeffords' decision sends a very loud, clear message that while the Republicans talk bipartisanship, they fail to do things in a bipartisan way," he said. "When he didn't support the President's budget, the White House punished him. It's a chilling message for bipartisanship."

But perhaps the most stinging rebuke to the Republicans came from one of their own.

"For his votes of conscience, he was unfairly targeted for abuse, usually anonymously, by short-sighted party operatives from their comfortable perches in K Street offices, and by some Republican members of Congress and their staff," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to respect honorable differences among us, learn to disagree without resorting to personal threats, and recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day. Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."

In interviews Wednesday in Rutland, most people were supportive of the senator.

"I think the rest of the country is getting a little bit better picture of what it is to be a Vermonter," John Alexander said. "He's voting his conscience. I just wish the rest of the Congress was like that."