Why'd he do it?

Sen. Jim Jeffords has had problems with his party for a long time, but President Bush appears to have pushed him over the edge.

Published May 25, 2001 12:03AM (EDT)

When former Sen. Bob Stafford, R-Vt., first saw little Jim Jeffords, he was just "a small boy on skis sliding down the hill by his father's house, down to a little road at my folks' place." That little boy would grow up to replace Stafford in the Senate in 1988, and he's embarking on an altogether different slide down a different kind of Hill right now.

Jeffords, a Republican as of this minute, will announce Thursday morning which party he plans to be a part of -- thus delivering control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats. And as he does so, there are myriad reasons speculated as to why he is embarking on this journey.

President Bush began the push when he unveiled his plans for a $1.6 trillion tax cut. In a 50-50 Senate, Bush needed every vote, but Jeffords was reluctant to go along, thinking the cut too large. Unable to reach an agreement with the Bush White House after asking for increased funding for special education, Jeffords broke from the GOP fold, joining with a bunch of moderates from both parties to push a compromise $1.25 trillion tax cut. In the process, he aroused the wrath of the vengeful Texan, a man whose administrators have reportedly been flagging and often eliminating potential staffers if they supported Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the 2000 GOP primaries.

So the retribution against Jeffords began. But Jeffords' staff says that there's more to Thursday's move than that.

"It's not about being snubbed by the White House," says Jeffords spokesman Erik Smulson, referring to a now-infamous dis: On April 23, President Bush's team didn't invite Jeffords, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, to the annual ceremony for the National Teacher of the Year award, which went to a Vermont social studies instructor.

"It's not about the Dairy Compact," Smulson goes on, referring to threats in the media made by unnamed GOP sources that Bush and his mercenaries might seek their revenge by having the GOP-controlled Senate kill off the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, which benefits Vermont dairy farmers.

"And it's not about any chairmanship," Smulson says. Jeffords, 67, will be term-limited out of his chairmanship of the committee next year. Democrats -- in exchange for Jeffords' possible support for now-Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to serve as majority leader -- are said to be willing to give him the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, should they suddenly find themselves in charge of the Senate.

So, what is causing Jeffords to rethink a career as a Republican?

"It's more about his priorities," Smulson says.

Priorities aside, the White House's "Vengeance Is Mine, Sayeth the Bush" campaign -- a mystifying combination of charmlessness and cluelessness said to be orchestrated by senior presidential advisor Karl Rove and the White House's Hill lobbyist, Nick Calio -- seems to have worked its magic: Bush has now cut off his Jeffords to spite his face. Hooray for Bush! Bush wins!

Or does he? Suddenly, Bush's legislative agenda seems far less likely to become law, his judicial nominees far less likely to become federal judges, if -- as expected -- Jeffords becomes an independent and joins the Democratic Caucus. (Which is still a big if. "Sen. Jeffords has an independent streak in him as long as a Vermont mile," says a senior Democratic Senate aide, cautioning that no one knows exactly what Jeffords will do Thursday.)

Assuming he jumps ship, however, some of the credit for this can be attributed to the assistant Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Several weeks ago, Daschle and Reid got together to talk about opportunities possibly available to them. The Republican leadership didn't appear to be taking care of its members, the Democrats thought, and they seemed to be possibly alienating some of their more moderate members. Unlike the Republicans, there were no reports of internal strife over Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who sided with the GOP on Bush's tax cut, or Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., who has sided with the GOP on most everything.

"It's a combination of Republicans needing Jeffords more than Jeffords needs Republicans," observes a former Senate GOP leadership aide. "That, and the fact that his care and feeding wasn't up to snuff."

The low-key Reid began talking to Jeffords, Senate sources say, and, with Daschle, began exploring what sort of home they could make for the senator should he ever decide to leave the confines of the GOP caucus. No one was forthcoming with a chairmanship -- certainly not Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking Democrat on Jeffords' committee -- so in the end, Reid offered up the one on which he serves as ranking Democrat: Environment and Public Works.

In other ways, though, this fight began 26 years ago.

Jeffords, a liberal Republican, has taken stands on issues over the years, including education, the environment, abortion rights and gay rights, that have never been particularly popular within his party. But perhaps the most significant priority that has led to this moment began for Jeffords in the U.S. House in 1975. That year, one of the first real achievements by then-Rep. Jeffords was his work on a bill requiring states to offer full and complete education for disabled kids, regardless of the severity of the students' disability.

Stafford, who as a senator worked on the House-Senate conference committee on the bill with Jeffords, says those behind the bill tried their darnedest to get the federal government to kick in 40 percent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, funding, but Congress balked. "We had a hell of a time trying to get it through the Congress at all," Stafford says. "We only got around 7 or 8 percent funding" from the federal government. "We were hoping we could get some more later."

Despite a line in the original 1975 bill that promises that the 40 percent benchmark will soon be reached, 26 years later the feds are still kicking in only slightly less than 15 percent. Stafford says Jeffords has told him that failing to get IDEA funding up to 40 percent has been a major regret.

For many Republicans -- not just Jeffords -- IDEA was a major cause during the Clinton years. It is, after all, one of those notorious "unfunded mandates" -- a law handed down from the federal government without the resources with which to implement it -- that has forced the money to be raised locally, and has led to higher property taxes, especially in sparsely populated states like Vermont. When Clinton education initiatives were introduced on the floor of the Senate, Republicans would cry that there was no way funding could be provided to reduce class sizes, or to modernize schools, until and unless IDEA funding had become a reality.

"Jeffords has been probably the most active in terms of real leadership, in terms of actually pushing the funding issue for IDEA," says an expert on education legislation in Washington. "He and his staff were always working hard behind the scenes," always lobbying Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the appropriations cardinal on education issues, for greater IDEA funding. By contrast, the expert says, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., was active in front of the cameras "but that was more for posturing."

During budget negotiations, Jeffords made it clear that his vote was essentially for sale. If the administration secured full funding for IDEA -- $120 billion over 10 years -- he would support its $1.6 trillion tax cut. At a time of unprecedented budget surpluses, 26 years after he'd worked on writing IDEA, with him as chairman of the Education Committee and in a 50-50 Senate, this was his time to leave a legacy.

"We've gone all these years and we have not lived up to that obligation," Jeffords told reporters on April 4, in the midst of negotiations, standing with a bunch of Senate moderates from both parties. "And in my mind, looking toward the future, especially with the tax income far exceeding expenditures, if not now, when will we live up to that promise of paying 40 percent of those costs?"

Jeffords said that he held out hope that a deal could be struck with Bush. "This president has said he wants to do what we want to do," he said. "And so I am hopeful after the discussions I just came from that eventually, as we work through the process, we will end up doing what must be done, and that is fully funding IDEA."

"Good group," Jeffords added of the mix of senators. "I feel very comfortable here. The first time in a while."

"We feel comfortable that you're here, too," joked Sen. John Breaux, D-La.

Jeffords never found such comfort with the new president and his team. They offered greater IDEA funding, but they never agreed to make it mandatory; it would remain discretionary -- subject to the whims of Congress each year. A deal was never struck.

But clearly more was afoot. After all, during the May 3 debate over the education bill, the first amendment, offered by Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would fully fund IDEA as a mandatory spending item, adding $2.5 billion to the program every year until 2007. It passed on a voice vote, meaning it was so uncontroversial no one thought it worth taking a roll call of yeas and nays. That doesn't ensure that it will become law, of course, but it does seem to indicate that IDEA was only part of the Jeffords equation.

Overall, Democratic Senate sources close to Jeffords say he just doesn't feel at home in the Republican Party anymore, and was not looking forward to four more years of having to deal with Bush while he fought for his moderate-to-liberal priorities. A Wednesday meeting between Jeffords and Bush at the White House is said to have gone poorly, the sources say, though that was disputed by Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer Wednesday, who described the meeting as a "good dialogue between the two."

After all, Wednesday's White House protestations notwithstanding, not inviting Jeffords to the Teacher of the Year ceremony was a purposeful snub. "To my knowledge, this is the first year that the chairman of a Senate education committee who is the same party as the president has not been invited," says Jon Quan, director of the National Teacher of the Year program. "I was certainly surprised" Jeffords wasn't invited to the Rose Garden ceremony, "considering Mr. Jeffords' position in the Senate."

"I thought it was very unusual when they informed me he had not been invited," adds Michele Forman, the Middlebury Union High School social studies and history teacher who was given the award, the first Vermonter to be so honored in the award's 51-year history. "That was unfortunate, however that happened." Forman says that "no explanation was given" at the time, though "later the White House said it was an oversight. Then they said it was too crowded. But there was quite a bit of room there."

After the ceremony, Forman went to Jeffords' office, where he expressed his "disappointment" about the whole affair, telling her something along the lines that he "would have liked to have been there." That said, Forman says that whatever he decides, she thinks he will be reelected with no problem in 2006 (he did win with more than 65 percent of the vote last November) if he wants.

"He's very experienced and a seasoned politician, a man of great integrity," says the teacher of the year. "He has enormous support in Vermont. Large numbers of independents and Democrats support him." After Thursday, they'd better.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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