Bush and the GOP brace for Senate flip as Dems relent on taxes.

By Salon Staff

Published May 24, 2001 9:05PM (EDT)

Daily line

"The president is going to continue, no matter what Senator Jeffords decides, to treat him well, to respect him and to work with him."
-- White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer

Bush buzz

Bush did have something to celebrate on Wednesday. The House voted overwhelmingly in favor of his big education initiative, and after days of Democratic stalling, the Senate passed his tax cut plan, with the approval of 12 Democrats and all 50 Republicans.

But Bush and company may not be able to count on all 50 Republicans again for a while. Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., is set to announce his departure from the GOP Thursday morning. Though he is not expected to become a Democrat, opting instead for the independent label, the effect is the same for the Republicans: Their Senate majority days are over. Now the president will need the cooperation of Democratic leaders to get his agenda through Congress, and his more conservative initiatives are likely to fail.

Some conservative observers assert that the doom-and-gloom outlook by Republicans is premature, and that Jeffords' defection is an opportunity for Bush to learn how to play well with those who disagree with him. But most conservatives were wailing their laments all over Washington on Wednesday as last-minute efforts to keep Jeffords on-board appeared to come up short, and conservative Georgia Democrat Sen. Zell Miller quashed rumors that he might switch parties, too. Republicans have now shifted to finger-pointing, with blame being assigned to a heavy-handed White House, an asleep-at-the-switch Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and the stubbornly independent Jeffords himself.

Meanwhile, Democrats are keeping their champagne on ice, at least for now. However, they're reportedly giddy over the partisan change in forces. Senators from solid Democratic states like California and New York could rise in prominence now that they will be in the majority. And tiny Vermont has become a political powerhouse overnight, thanks to the long-standing leadership of its senior Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, and the goody bag of committee assignments Jeffords will get from Democrats for jumping ship.

While nothing rose to the level of the Jeffords disaster, the president did get another shot over his ideological bow on Wednesday. House conservatives punished him for abandoning school vouchers, which went down hard in a 273-155 vote. When the House voted on the overall education package, 35 of the 45 votes against the plan came from those in Bush's own party.

And don't miss Bush heading for hostile territory when he meets with California Gov. Gray Davis next week. The president hasn't visited California since he won the White House, and his administration's energy policy -- and its unwillingness to set price controls -- has many of the state's citizens fuming.

Thursday schedule: The president travels to Cleveland and tours the social services center at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church to promote his faith-based charity initiative.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

May 24, 1996: Gov. George W. Bush convened a state committee to study whether citizens were discontented with the level of property taxes, and the feasibility of using another method to fund public schools. "The message really is to take the temperature of our state. It's growing hot outside right now; it's going to get hotter," Bush told committee members. "The job of this committee really is to determine whether the people of Texas are hot enough about property taxes to move forward and consider replacing them with a different source of revenue." The governor promised to not make any changes to the tax system unless the committee found a "collective will" among citizens to support an overhaul.

Rant: Payback time for the Bush White House

Payback is a bitch. That is the lesson being learned in the White House Wednesday 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 his disagreements with the White House have been philosophical, not personal. Lately, though, his moderate stripes have earned him potshots 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 $1.35 trillion, and made a number of other changes to the budget bill, changes that did not sit well 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 is 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 Associated Press 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

Burning Bush

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

Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

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!

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