Senator Jim Jeffords: A Career Marked by Small Rebellions

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Jim Jeffords, left, with fellow Vermont U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy

James Jeffords, 67, has represented Vermont in the U.S. Congress since 1974, when he was elected as the Green Mountain State's lone U.S. Representative. In 1988, his constituents voted him to the U.S. Senate, where he now holds the chairmanship of the Education and Labor committees. If he does leave the GOP to be either a Democrat or an independent, he will reportedly become chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Jeffords would also maintain his seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

A moderate with a reputation for standing apart from an increasingly conservative Republican power structure, Jeffords has long defined himself as a renegade. He was the sole Republican opponent of President Reagan’s 1981 tax cut, and defied party lines by voting against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Jeffords also opposed the impeachment of President Clinton, a decision he has characterized as personally excruciating but ultimately right.

Jeffords’ departure from the Republican party line was most evident in 1994, when he condemned Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America," which he worried had "a Southern, religious-right focus, which is not the United States."

Jeffords and the new Bush adminstration have got off to a rocky start, despite his importance as a member of the party’s shrinking moderate ranks. Jeffords has clashed with the White House over environmental and education funding, particularly over programs for disabled students. The strains have resulted in a notable behind-the-scenes slight: Soon after Jeffords cast a critical vote against the Bush tax plan, the Senator was not invited to attend a Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House honoring a Vermont high school teacher. Such invitations are a routine courtesy.

Political observers do not expect leaving the GOP to hurt Jeffords’ reputation in Vermont. His constituents, who rank among the nation’s most progressive voters — their other Senator, Patrick Leahy is a liberal Democrat while their Congressman, Bernie Sanders, is an Independent Socialist — are reportedly reacting positively to news of Jeffords’ defection.