Washington — Republican Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont decided to abandon his party and become an independent, officials said Wednesday, a momentous switch that would end GOP control of the Senate and crimp President Bush's ability to pass his agenda.
Jeffords, a moderate in a party of conservatives, told reporters in the Capitol he had made up his mind about his political future and would fly home to Vermont to make an announcement on Thursday. "I want to go home to my people," he said.
Senators in both parties as well as aides to the longtime Vermont lawmaker said he had told them he would leave the Republicans, become an independent and align himself with the Democrats for organizational purposes.
Republicans, facing the loss of their majority in a 50-50 Senate and the committee chairmanships that go with it held out faint hope. "Until it's final it's not final," said Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Democrats sounded like they thought it was all but final.
"This isn't about a single Senate seat. It's about controlling the legislative agenda ...and it's about the federal judiciary," Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J. told reporters, referring to the fact that the majority party controls the flow of legislation and nominations.
"This is an enormous shift of influence in the federal government."
Several Democratic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Jeffords might defer the effective date of his switch for a short period. That would enable Republicans to push through Bush's income tax cut, now pending on the Senate floor.
The switch would automatically elevate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to the post of majority leader. Democrats would regain committee chairmanships they lost in the 1994 elections.
Officials at the White House said they were in the dark about Jeffords' plans. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney met separately with the Vermont lawmaker on Tuesday in an attempt to keep him in the GOP fold. The senator offered no assurances, according to several officials familiar with the conversations, only promising to give the president a courtesy call.
"The president clearly hopes Senator Jeffords will remain a Republican," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. But looking toward Jeffords' expected shift, Fleischer stressed that Bush already had proven himself able to work productively with Democrats.
In private, the White House outlook was more grim.
"It's like a funeral here, said one senior aide as the president and his high command contemplated the impact on Bush's legislative program.
Rep. Amo Houghton of New York, a moderate Republican, walked into Jeffords' office Wednesday shaking his head. "It's awful," he said to reporters.
Democrats have quietly courted Jeffords in recent weeks, offering him the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee if he bolts the GOP, according to sources familiar with the discussions, as well as retention of his seat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.
Stung by the potential defection, the White House urgently contacted longtime Jeffords' donors and political supporters Tuesday, hoping they could persuade the senator to stay in the GOP. Officials also said they were redoubling their efforts to persuade Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia to become a Republican, in hopes of countering any move by Jeffords.
But Miller seemed an unlikely convert. His fellow Georgia senator, Democrat Max Cleland, said Miller had told him he was sticking with the Democrats.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican who is frequently the subject of speculation, said during the day he is not following Jeffords lead. But asked whether he could say so with complete certainty, he said, "I can't say absolutely on anything."
Apart from its impact on the Senate and the administration's legislative fortunes, a switch could open the door to upheaval within the ranks of Republicans, where Lott could face a challenge for his post.
A sort of gallows humor pervaded the ranks of Republicans, who hold control in a Senate split between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats by virtue of Cheney's ability to cast tie-breaking votes.
Republicans who now preside at committee meetings openly addressed Democrats as "Mr. Chairman."
One chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, said he didn't know if Jeffords would switch. Asked if he felt let down, he said he wasn't. "The only thing surprising is how it happened. We always figured it might happen some other way," he said in an apparent reference to 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, whose advanced age and unsteady step are a constant reminder to Republicans of the fragility of their majority.
Jeffords is among a dwindling band of moderate Republicans in an increasingly conservative party.
House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said the reported switch was sorry evidence that "there's no room for moderates within today's inside-the-beltway Republican Party."
The chairman of the Education and Labor Committee by virtue of his seniority, Jeffords has a moderate-to-liberal voting record and frequently crosses party lines on high-profile issues. He supports abortion rights, for example, votes for environmental legislation his GOP colleagues generally oppose and favors more education spending than many other Republicans, including Bush.
His relations with the White House have been strained in recent weeks, fallout from a struggle over the budget and the senator's desire for more education funding than the administration wants.
Jeffords sought a commitment from the White House for more federal education funding for disabled students as a condition for supporting the president's spending plan and $1.6 trillion tax cut. The White House balked, and GOP aides accused Jeffords at the time of reneging on a compromise hashed out with Cheney and senior Republican leaders.
Shortly after the vote, Jeffords was not invited to the White House for a National Teacher of the Year award ceremony honoring a Vermont high school educator. In addition, some GOP aides have whispered that the White House might retaliate by seeking changes in a dairy support system that benefits farmers in Vermont and the Northeast.
In addition to Daschle's ascension, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts would soon replace Jeffords as chairman of the Education Committee, his ability to advance minimum wage and a patients bill of rights bill enhanced. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, with sway over Bush's judicial nominations.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., ordinarily would be in line to take over as chairman of the environment committee. But he could defer to Jeffords while retaining his post as majority whip. He declined comment.
Control of the Senate has never switched from one party to another between elections, according to Senate historians.
The closest thing was in 1953, when Republican Majority Leader Robert Taft died and was replaced with a Democrat, giving the Democrats a 48-47 edge. But Oregon's Wayne Morse, an independent, promised to continue voting with Republicans on organizational matters, and GOP Vice President Richard Nixon held the tie-breaking vote.
Associated Press writer Christopher Graff in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.