Jeffords Delays Party Switch Announcement

ByABC News

W A S H I N G T O N, May 23, 2001 -- Keeping Capitol Hill in suspense for yet another day, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont now will not reveal whether he is leaving the GOP — and throwing control of the Senate to Democrats — until Thursday.

Jeffords, 67, had said Tuesday he would end speculation and announce his intentions today. But he changed course and delayed an announcement until Thursday, when he can be in Vermont to speak directly to his constituents.

"I want to go home to my people," Jeffords said.

GOP Staffers: Jeffords Will Jump

Several sources said Jeffords has made up his mind and is leaving the GOP — most likely to become an independent. Jeffords has even, according to The Washington Post, informed his staff of the planned move.

If he does join the Democrats, they would retake control of the Senate, 51-49. Though the Senate is now split 50-50, Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote tilts the balance of power to Republicans.

Though Jeffords' defection seemed all but certain late today, Republicans still held out hope that his mind could be changed. GOP moderates pleaded for him to stay. Sources told ABCNEWS Jeffords has been offered a leadership position if he sticks with the GOP.

Move Would Be Bad News for Bush

A switch by Jeffords, who was first elected to the Senate in 1988, would be bad news for President Bush, whose agenda faces substantial opposition from Democrats. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., would take over the Senate and prominent liberals would take over key committees.

On Tuesday, Jeffords met with Cheney on Capitol Hill and later with Bush at the White House in a last-ditch effort by the GOP's standard-bearers to get him to stay.

But Democrats have been aggressively courting Jeffords for weeks. Perhaps the most moderate Republican in the Senate, Jeffords has often been at odds with many of his more conservative GOP colleagues.

If Jeffords does switch, it can be viewed as much as a slap at Bush as an ideologically driven decision.

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, GOP staffers and a Republican senator told ABCNEWS, came when a White House official began threatening to block the Northeast Dairy Compact, perhaps Vermont's most critical issue.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer today rejected suggestions that hardball tactics have drive Jeffords away.

"I dismiss that. I don't think that's an issue," Fleischer said. "And it's not ... an issue that Sen. Jeffords has made."

Sources in both parties say Democrats have promised Jeffords that if he switches, he could go from being chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to becoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

While many Republicans say they are resigned to losing the majority, GOP leaders are not giving up. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said there is "enormous pressure onJeffords not to change parties and significant pressure on Sen. Zell Miller [D-Ga.] to change the other way."

One of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, Miller has voted with Republicans on several key measures. But late today he released a statement pledging allegiance to the Democratic Party.

"While I am certain that in the future I will often vote withPresident Bush and the Republicans on many issues," Miller said, "I will notswitch to the Republican Party and have no need to proclaim myselfan independent."

But lest his colleagues take his loyalty for granted, Miller issued a "word of warning" to fellow Democrats: "What is sorely needed around here is much more getting along andmuch less getting even."

Before releasing the statement, Miller reportedly huddled with Democratic colleagues today and assured them he would not switch over to the Republican side.

ABCNEWS' Linda Douglass, Vic Ratner, A.B. Stoddard, Terry Moran and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.

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