How Jeffords Got Away

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DIANA WALKER FOR TIME

The media-shy Jeffords gets use to the bright lights

The defection of Jim Jeffords may be remembered as one of the most successful covert operations in American political history, with Democratic leader Tom Daschle as the mastermind and Jeffords as the spy who came in from the cold. But when Jeffords helped blow his own cover, the scene was like something out of Ally McBeal. By last Tuesday morning, rumors had been swirling for days that the Vermont Senator was thinking about leaving the Republican Party. That morning Jeffords stood in a rest room off the Senate floor staring at his haggard face in the mirror. Republican Senator Pat Roberts sidled up to him at the next sink. "Jim, how you doing?" Roberts asked. Jeffords just shook his head.

"Well, I hope some of the stories I've been hearing are not accurate," said Roberts, trying to get Jeffords to open up.

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"I've got to do what's in my heart and mind," Jeffords replied, and that's all he would say. He walked out. But Roberts knew what it meant. He found majority leader Trent Lott and warned him that "it's pretty doggone serious." Lott had been getting similar reports and sounded the alarm to the White House and the Senate's G.O.P. leadership. But he was too late. The defector had already slipped past the gate.

White House aides were dumbfounded. "The horizon was clear; there were no clouds," says one. "No one saw it, and then it poured." As Republicans from Bush to Dick Cheney to party hacks in Vermont tried everything they could think of to lure Jeffords back, Daschle and his top lieutenant, minority whip Harry Reid, sat in their offices hiding broad grins from the rest of the world. They knew something else that Lott was in the dark about. The Jeffords deal had been practically sealed a full week before. In fact, for almost a month, Daschle and Reid had conducted their secret negotiations under Lott's nose, with the Republican leader clueless that he was the victim of a silent, slow-motion fleecing.

The recruitment of Jim Jeffords had no code names, no dead drops, no encrypted communications, but it followed all the rules of a classic CIA operation. Democrats had targeted Jeffords as a possible party switcher practically from the day he came to Congress 26 years ago. Daschle, a former Air Force intelligence officer, knew that spymasters don't have a chance of bagging a high-value defector unless he is eager to defect. Even then, he has to be slowly and carefully cultivated. By last month, Jeffords seemed ready to come over. His disenchantment with the Republican Party had been building for months.

Moderates don't survive in the Republican Party without a thick skin. Over the years, the proud, laconic Jeffords had endured countless arm twistings, cold shoulders and petty slights for taking stands at odds with his party--against Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut and Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination, for the Clintons' health-care reform, minimum-wage hikes and more money for the National Endowment for the Arts. But by last year, the hostility had begun to wear him down. He was chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a post that could be powerful in promoting his passion for schools, but conservative G.O.P. upstarts on the panel, such as New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, were constantly maneuvering to undercut Jeffords' authority, doing things like convening private meetings of the committee's Republicans and not inviting him. Jeffords complained to Lott, but the majority leader didn't rein in the right-wingers.

When Bush was elected President, Jeffords hoped that this "new kind of Republican," as the Texan liked to call himself, was actually an old kind of Republican--a closet progressive in the mold of Nelson Rockefeller. Jeffords soon realized Bush was nothing of the kind, as the President catered to his Republican base by appointing such right-wingers as John Ashcroft as Attorney General and Gale Norton as Interior Secretary. By January, Jeffords was no longer ignoring the casual entreaties that came from the other side. At that point, Daschle, Reid and other Democrats made them half jokingly to keep things low key, even though they were hungry for a defector to break the fifty-fifty split in the Senate.

Jeffords began withdrawing from his Republican colleagues and finding Democratic friends more appealing. Some of the "Mod Squad"--moderate G.O.P. Senators Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chafee, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter--found Jeffords increasingly quiet at the private lunches they held each week. After Senator Hillary Clinton sat down from delivering an impassioned floor speech about education funding, Jeffords stopped at her desk. "I really agree with you," he said. "We've got to fight harder, so don't get discouraged." But Jeffords was becoming gloomy.

"The past couple of months just brought everything into focus," he told TIME. In April, his budget negotiations with Lott and the White House about boosting education money for disabled students ended in a bitter stalemate. The White House was furious with him. Jeffords wasn't satisfied with the Administration's proposals, and Bush aides felt that Jeffords backed away every time they were ready to nail down a compromise. Lott was irritated as well. He had fended off conservatives who wanted to steal Jeffords' chairmanship, and put him on the prestigious Finance Committee. Lott had even invited Jeffords into the Singing Senators vocal quartet. Yet all he seemed to get from Jeffords was obstinacy.

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