Republicans set to lose the Senate if Jeffords jumps, and a green group sues Bush over arsenic rules.

Published May 23, 2001 9:29PM (EDT)

Daily line

"Our nation needs tax relief, our people need tax relief."
-- President Bush telling the Senate to "stop [the] delay and move forward" on his tax cut

Rant: Payback time for the Bush White House

Payback is a bitch. That is the lesson being learned in the White House this morning, as Vermont Republican James Jeffords prepares to announce he will bolt the GOP and give Democrats organizational control over the Senate, fundamentally altering the balance of power both in Congress, and in the government at large.

The thing that must gnaw at the White House is that this is a crisis entirely of its own making. Jeffords' move is just the latest in an escalating game of political chicken that ends Thursday -- with Jeffords having beaten the Bush administration, badly.

Tensions between Jeffords and the White House began this spring when the senator refused to support Bush's budget with its $1.6 trillion tax cut. Jeffords has also clashed with the White House over his proposal to have the federal government pay the full cost of special education in public schools, a proposal that Bush rebuffed because of its $200 billion price tag.

Jeffords is no John McCain. He's been a fairly low-key presence in the Senate, and did not seem to have a personal animus toward Bush until lately. His disagreements with the White House have been philosophical, not personal. Lately, though, his moderate stripes have earned him pot shots from conservative magazines like the Weekly Standard, which recently referred to Jeffords as "James Jeffords (R-Sort of)."

And he did play hardball with Bush on the budget. After he lost his bid to fully fund special education, Jeffords was one of a handful of senators from both parties who pared back the tax cut to $1.3 trillion, and made a number of other changes to the budget bill, changes that did not sit well over at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The White House responded with the type of petty response that is not uncommon in Washington, Bush's promises to "change the tone" notwithstanding. When a teacher from Jeffords' home state won the National Teacher of the Year award, Jeffords was not invited to the ceremony honoring the teacher at the White House. There have also been reports that the administration was seeking changes in a dairy support system that provides assistance to farmers in Vermont and the Northeast.

The Standard led the call to kill the dairy farmer subsidy. "What better way to punish Jeffords than by denying him his pet project and doing away with a prime example of pork?" the magazine asked.

"The White House is not giving specifics, but there's a one- or two-year plan to punish him for his behavior," an anonymous GOP source told the AP after Jeffords bolted on the tax cut vote. "And it's stuff that may hurt him, but stuff that's not going to draw a significant amount of attention. So they're going to get him."

So much for changing the tone. This time, though, the White House will pay a steep price for playing politics as usual -- losing control of the U.S. Senate.

-- Anthony York

Bush buzz

Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., has postponed his planned Wednesday afternoon announcement about whether he plans to leave the GOP. While he hasn't yet clarified his decision, earlier reports indicate that he expects to become an independent. Whether he does so or choses to join the Democratic Party, the Republicans would lose their control of the Senate.

Democrats have been courting Jeffords heavily since the beginning of the congressional session, and his opposition to Bush's original $1.6 trillion tax cut proposal put him on the outs with the administration. Jeffords has a history of bucking the party line, and has been rewarded for that by independent-minded Vermont voters.

News of Jeffords' defection may explain why Democrats were willing to go to the mat on Tuesday evening against Bush's tax cut plan, proposing a series of amendments late into the night that delayed the vote for at least one day.

Senate Republicans had predicted that the bill would get that body's final go-ahead first Monday and then Tuesday, and now GOP optimists believe that the tax cut plan will pass Wednesday. When debate on the bill started in the Senate last week, GOP leaders vowed to have the plan ready for Bush's signature by the Memorial Day recess. But that's just two days away, and Democrats, perhaps with Jefford's help, believe that they may be able to bury what they consider an irresponsible $1.35 trillion tax cut.

Aside from the legislative complications that could result from a Jeffords defection, Bush's more controversial nominees could have trouble as well. At the top of the list would be solicitor general nominee Theodore Olson, who has been heavily opposed by Democrats, who found his confirmation testimony about his involvement with the anti-Clinton "Arkansas Project" dubious. Had the Republicans not had control of the Senate, last week's 9-9 vote on Olson by the Senate Judiciary Committee would have killed his bid.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was one of the targets of the Arkansas Project, but has so far kept fairly quiet about Olson's nomination.

Meanwhile, many Republican senators, preoccupied with taxes and Jeffords, missed their party's big fundraising gala Tuesday night. With Bush headlining the event, the GOP collected approximately $24 million from partiers. Much of that cash included unregulated "soft money" that campaign finance reform crusader Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has sought to do away with.

Tuesday's Republican gala was the second night of donor wooing by the White House. On Monday, Vice President Cheney hosted 400 guests at his official residence who had donated $100,000 or more to the GOP. This event angered government watchdogs and many Democrats, who said that Republicans flogged former President Clinton and ex-Vice President Gore for similar events. The GOP replied that Clinton and Gore improperly held fundraisers at the White House, while Cheney was just holding an event thanking people who had previously given a lot of money, a big difference, it contended.

That explanation isn't flying even with some conservatives, and the new scrutiny of the Bush team's fundraising practices has already altered the schmoozing schedule of administration officials. Plans have been dropped for three Cabinet secretaries to conduct briefings this week with top Republican donors.

And don't miss Vogue magazine editors' decision that Vogue's profile of first lady Laura Bush doesn't merit their cover. Republicans are crying foul because former first lady Hillary Clinton got the cover in 1998, but Vogue editors claim that accusations of unfairness are ludicrous. They point out that Clinton at least partially owed her cover to the Monica Lewinsky mess that was front-page news at the time. Bush has been on the cover of People magazine, and made its recent list of the 50 most beautiful people in the world.

In another administration development, the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council plans to take Bush to court over his flip-flop on regulations controlling arsenic levels in water. The NRDC says Bush's decision to suspend last-minute Clinton regulations on arsenic is illegal.

Wednesday schedule: Bush will meet with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. In the afternoon, the president will participate in a reenlistment ceremony for military service members.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

May 23, 1996: Texas Gov. George W. Bush requested that the federal government step in and help his state deal with a record drought and the resulting economic crisis. "I have applied for every federal program that's available for drought relief or feed programs," he said. "We've pretty much exhausted our remedies in terms of disaster relief related to drought." Bush offered suggestions for how Texans could cope until the affected counties were deemed official disaster areas and Washington sent relief. "The solution is to be smart about how we use water. To conserve. And also pray for rain," Bush said.

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

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Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

By Salon Staff

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