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Jeffords: Bush Policies ‘Even Worse’ Now

Marking the two-year anniversary of his decision to quit the GOP, Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) will offer a scathing critique of the White House today and restate that he has no regrets about the decision that rocked Capitol Hill.

Jeffords said he believes the direction the White House is driving its policy agenda is “even worse” now than when he decided to become an Independent and aligned himself politically with the Democratic Party.

“I believe I did the absolute correct thing by leaving the party and trying to work from the outside with the Democrats as well as trying to bolster my moderate [friends] on the other side [of the aisle] on the things the White House is doing that are pretty bad and try to make sure they don’t continue,” Jeffords said in an interview on the eve of his anniversary speech to the National Press Club.

Jeffords’ defection in 2001 turned the Washington political world upside down, boosting Democrats into the majority and ripping the committee gavels and control of the legislative agenda out of GOP chairmen’s hands. Two years later though, many Republicans say they learned two valuable lessons from the Jeffords episode: the need to be more inclusive of moderates and, more importantly, an appreciation of being the majority party.

“He made us a better majority,” said a senior Republican Senate aide. “He gave us hunger. He gave us appetite. He gave us drive and he gave us the majority. He really motivated the hell out of us.”

The motivation Republicans talk about helped them defy the odds to recapture the Senate in 2002 by defeating two incumbents and winning several open seats.

“I think it was helpful to us in the election,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “It set up the obstructionism argument, which seemed to work very effectively for us in certain parts of the country.”

But Democrats, too, claim Jeffords’ desertion of the GOP helped their party, most importantly providing a soapbox for them to advance their positions on issues such as the patients’ bill of rights and prescription drugs.

“I think we got some things out which we wouldn’t have gotten out” if there was a Republican majority, said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who became the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as a result of Jeffords’ switch. “We never would have had that opportunity if we didn’t have that chance.”

Even though many Republicans’ anger at Jeffords for banishing them to the minority has subsided over the past two years, a bitter taste remains for several GOP Senators.

“Whom?” responded Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), a former singing partner of Jeffords, when asked to talk about Vermont Senator. “I don’t discuss the issue.”

“I still think there are some hard feelings about it,” said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). “Most of us accept the fact that is the decision he made for himself, but most of us think it was a damn poor decision and that is not the way to operate.”

While Senate Republicans suffered as a group by being relegated to the minority, Jeffords’ defection had a more personal consequence for a handful of veteran GOP lawmakers.

Had Republicans maintained the majority in the 107th Congress, a number of GOP Senators would have reached Republican Conference-imposed term limits as committee chairmen. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) would now be the head of the Appropriations Committee; McConnell would run the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee; Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) would chair the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) would lead the Judiciary Committee.

“On a personal level I would be chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the moment if he hadn’t switched,” Specter said of Jeffords’ decision two years ago. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) “would have finished his term limit and that would have been it.”

Even though it is widely known that Specter covets the Judiciary chairmanship, especially if there is a retirement on the Supreme Court this year, the Pennsylvania Republican said he doesn’t hold a grudge.

“It is unrealistic to be angry around here about anything,” Specter said.

Jeffords maintains that he has not received a cold shoulder from his former political allies, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said there appears to be a great weight lifted off of his Green Mountain State colleague’s shoulder.

“I have never seen him more happy,” Leahy said. “I have never seen him more at ease with himself, and I have never seen him happier in Vermont and more accepted in Vermont.”

Jeffords is careful not to criticize President Bush personally, saying he “still likes the president.” But he does question the cadre of advisers and aides the president relies on for counsel who have advised him “what they have to do is go to the right.”

“He has surrounded himself with people that are really giving him bad [advice],” Jeffords said.

To reinforce his desire to knock Republicans out of the Senate majority and White House, Jeffords said he will campaign on behalf of Democratic candidates running in the 2004 elections.

“I will do everything I can to change the power again,” he said.

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