Jeffords Jumps — the Ins and Outs

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Independent's Day: Sen. James Jeffords

U.S Senator Jim Jeffords is expecting to announce this morning at 9:30 that he is leaving the Republican Party. All day Wednesday, speculation was swirling through Washington as the country's lawmakers waited to hear whether U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords, Republican of Vermont, would part ways with the GOP. The will-he-won't-he reached fever pitch with reports of a 2 p.m. press conference, then waned just slightly with the news that the fiercely independent Jeffords was returning later in the day to his home state.

If he does leave the GOP, it is not known whether Jeffords will cast his lot with the Democrats or become an independent. Either way, his desertion spells disaster for Senate Republicans, who will lose control of the chamber and thus the all-important chairmanships of the powerful legislative committees.

TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller spoke with Wednesday morning as the political world began its dissection of a Jeffords' likely defection. Has a possible Jeffords switch been a long time coming?

Douglas Waller:Key Senate Democrats like Harry Reid (the minority whip from Nevada) have been intensively wooing Jeffords to try to get him to defect from the Republican Party. And while the efforts have definitely stepped up over the last couple of weeks, it has just been an intensification of a long history of wooing; because of his propensity to vote with Democrats as often as he votes with Republicans, Jeffords has been a target for defection his entire Senate career.

Are the Republicans prepared to respond in kind by wooing a Democrat across party lines?

Georgia Democrat Zell Miller, who has a very conservative voting record, has been considered a possibility for defection, but at this point he looks like a very distant possibility. Miller testily and adamantly denies he has any interest in switching sides.

What's the rationale behind a Jeffords move?

Jeffords has been feeling increasingly isolated in the Republican caucus, and he's suffered slights from the Bush White House, including veiled threats to Vermont's dairy interests. He's also pointedly not been invited to high-profile ceremonies, like the Teacher of the Year awards honoring a Vermont schoolteacher.

He knows this move won't hurt him politically — Vermont has a rich history of electing political independents.

What benefits does Jeffords stand to reap from a defection?

At the very least, he'll get the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works committee. He might also keep a spot on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, but that would involve some shuffling. Senior Democrats would also benefit from the party switch; they'd take control of Senate committees. Senator Ted Kennedy is slated to take over as head of the Education committee; and possibly Patrick Leahy, who is also from Vermont, could be expected to head up the Judiciary committee.

Jeffords' move would be great news for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle....

Absolutely. This could mean big things for Tom Daschle — he'll become the majority leader, a position that really paves the way for more power. Daschle is interested in running for president, and although it's not easy to make the leap from majority leader to president (just ask Bob Dole), he'll definitely reap benefits from a higher-profile post.

What's the mood among Senate Republicans?

As I'm sure you can imagine, things are pretty grim among Republicans right now. They know very well that when you lose control of a chamber, you lose not just control, but also perks, power and prestige. This changeover will hit the party hard.