WASHINGTON -- The puzzling question of why Sen. Jim Jeffords should suddenly decide that, after 25 years, life as a congressional Republican had become intolerable was answered for some GOP colleagues by Sen. Strom Thurmond's appearance Monday night. He looked every bit of his 98 years, prompting speculation of whether he might not survive the ordeal of roll call votes on the tax bill extending far into the night.
The demise of Thurmond would have instantly turned the evenly divided Senate over to the Democrats. Jeffords crossing the aisle then would have been interesting but hardly the cosmic event of last week. As the 52nd rather than the 51st vote in the Democratic caucus, Jeffords would have lost his bargaining leverage that is enabling him to continue among the Senate's elite as a standing committee chairman.
Until the eleventh hour, Jeffords kept his prolonged negotiations with Democrats secret from his closest Republican colleagues. His dramatic announcement visit to Vermont was laid on after his deal with the Democrats showed signs of coming undone. Intentionally or not, he misled Senate Republican friends into hoping for a late change of heart.
Belying Jeffords's contention that it is harder for a liberal to endure in the GOP when the president is a conservative Republican, he began exploring his options with Democratic leaders last year when Bill Clinton was still in the White House. With the Senate divided 50-50 after the 2000 election, Jeffords stepped up talks with Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and Democratic Whip Harry Reid.
In the gossipy Senate, not a word leaked to Republicans. Jeffords lunched weekly with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine but said nothing. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a relatively conservative friend and supporter, last Tuesday morning discounted rumors about Jeffords defecting.
The GOP first learned the truth Tuesday afternoon. A Republican senator overheard Jeffords telling a Democratic colleague he would be going to the White House that day to inform the president he would cross the aisle and announce his intentions in Washington Wednesday morning.
However, the deal Jeffords had secretly cut to make him Environment Committee chairman seemed to be falling apart. According to Senate sources, Sen. Robert Byrd, graybeard of the Senate Democrats and a stickler for precedent, did not like it. At that point, Jeffords postponed his announcement until Thursday morning in Vermont, and agreed to meet with Republican colleagues late Wednesday.
The meeting was drenched with emotion. Tears rolled down the cheeks of Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Finance Committee chairman. Sen. Pete Domenici, the Budget chairman, cried a little too. Jeffords never mentioned supposed slights by the Bush White House but claimed not getting his way on education funds for the disabled in April was the last straw. In fact, Jeffords reneged on a $150 billion, 10-year agreement after being convinced by staff that he should ask for more.
Participants passed the word that it was a "good meeting," and that Jeffords would ponder his decision in the quiet of Vermont for another two days. Thus, old Senate friends were stunned when the next morning in Burlington, he unilaterally tilted the capital's balance of power.
As a Republican representing a very liberal state, Jim Jeffords always has been in closer step with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy than the GOP. His vote on the Foreign Relations Committee in 1991 enabled Democrats to launch their later discredited investigation of charges that an "October surprise" fixed the 1980 election for Ronald Reagan by delaying release of the Iranian hostages.
Still, when Jeffords was terrified that independent socialist Rep. Bernard Sanders might challenge and defeat him in 2000, the liberal senator went to Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott. The result was passage of the Northeast dairy compact and a refundable children's tax credit engineered by Lott, who earlier had saved the Education Committee chairmanship for Jeffords. Sanders did not run, and Jeffords was re-elected easily.
Things were different this year. Republican term limits would end his reign at Education after 2002. The 50-50 Senate gave Jeffords infinite bargaining strength, so long as an act of God did not give the Democrats the Senate majority too soon. Jeffords had to act quickly, and he did.