W A S H I N G T O N, May 24, 2001 -- Democrats will regain control of the Senate following Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' decision to abandon the Republican Party and become an independent.
Ending days of speculation, Jeffords headed home to Vermont today, telling his constituents and a mob of reporters that he would give Democrats the key to power in the Senate.
"I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent," Jeffords said. "Control of the Senate will be changed by my decision."
Condemning the increasing control conservatives have gained at the White House and in Congress, Jeffords said he would throw his support behind Democrats for leadership positions. The move will give Democrats a 51-49 balance of power in the Senate. The current split is 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote tilting power to Republicans.
Jeffords, a lifelong Republican who was first elected to the Senate in 1988, told a cheering crowd he has been struggling with the decision for weeks.
"Increasingly I find myself in disagreement in my party," Jeffords said. "I understand that many people are more conservative than I am and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."
Last-Ditch GOP Effort Proves Futile
Republicans had spent much of Wednesday pleading with Jeffords — virtually offering him the moon and stars — to change his mind.
Sources tell ABCNEWS' Linda Douglass the pressure was intense, with nearly all of the 49 Republican senators meeting with him at some point during the day, either individually or in groups.
They tried guilt, telling him he was going to cost staffers their jobs. They tried essentially bribery, the leaders offering him a leadership position in the Senate and in the Republican Party. Some of the old guard Republican committee chairmen and others told him the move would dilute the voice of moderates in the Senate.
Seizing the opportunity to express his own frustration with the Republican leadership, another maverick senator — John McCain, R-Ariz. — ripped into his party for driving Jeffords away.
"Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up," McCain said in a prepared statement e-mailed and faxed around Washington.
McCain's comments dovetailed on Jeffords' pointed complaint that "the freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the party's agenda" has been lost in the Republican Party.
"The election of President Bush changed that dramatically," Jeffords said.
At an event in Ohio today, the president defended both his agenda and his approach.
"I respect Sen. Jeffords … but respectfully, I couldn't disagree more," Bush said, adding that his agenda "represents the hopes and dreams of mainstream America" and "the best hope for peace in the world."
While the Jeffords drama played out, Republican leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill were moving to quickly reconcile different versions of tax cuts passed by the House and Senate so the finished product can be sent to the president before Memorial Day.
The tax bill will be the last victory lap around the Senate floor for Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, as Jeffords said he assured Bush the decision will not take effect until after the tax plan has cleared Congress.
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who will soon become Senate majority leader, said he planned to call Bush this afternoon to offer an olive branch. Following the Memorial Day recess, Daschle said, the Senate's agenda will change. Democrats plan to focus first on education reform and a patients' bill of rights.
Following the announcement, Jeffords, 67, was met with roaring cheers and chants of "Thank you Jim!"
Move Is Bad News for Bush
The switch by Jeffords is bad news for Bush, whose agenda faces substantial opposition from Democrats. Daschle will now take over the Senate and prominent liberals will take over key committees.
Jeffords has been unhappy with the White House. He fought for more education spending than the president wanted, forced Bush to scale down his tax cut, and is said to feel the White House has tried to punish him in return. One example: Jeffords was not invited to the Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House, even though the educator being honored was from Vermont.
Sources say Jeffords was upset about the teacher incident, and that he even called the White House the morning of the event, assuming he would be invited. He had always gone in past years, as chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
The final straw for Jeffords, they say, came when a White House official began threatening to block the Northeast Dairy Compact, perhaps Vermont's most critical issue.
But Jeffords called those reports "laughable." "That had nothing to do with it," he said. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected suggestions that hardball tactics have driven Jeffords away.
Democrats promised Jeffords he could become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. In an interview today with WVNY TV in Burlington, Vt., Jeffords said he had accepted the post.
ABCNEWS' Linda Douglass, Vic Ratner, Dan Harris, Elizabeth Wilner, A.B. Stoddard, Terry Moran and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.