In the late afternoon of May 22, 2001 an apocalyptic-looking set of thunderstorms rolled across the National Mall, with bolts of lightning striking just outside the Capitol dome. Inside the Senate chamber, an even bigger storm was brewing -- James Jeffords, the venerable patrician Senator from Vermont, had informed Democratic and Republican party leaders that he was likely crossing the aisle.
Two days later Jeffords, who died Monday at age 80, would leave the Republican Party that he served in on Capitol Hill for the previous 26 years, first in the House and then the Senate, and would caucus with Democrats. The move ended an historic five-month run in which the Senate sat deadlocked at 50-50 margin, with Vice President Dick Cheney giving Republicans titular control as the tie-breaking vote. Jeffords was handing Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) the title of majority leader and putting the breaks on the domestic agenda of the Bush White House.
"Lord," Don Nickles (R-Okla.), then the Senate majority whip, shouted as he walked off the floor that Tuesday afternoon, looking out at the crackling skies as if to find a metaphor for the storm inside the Capitol. The next night, in an unplanned coincidence, the entire Senate gathered for a bipartisan huddle for one of the now-extinct "Leader's Lecture" series. (The event was one of Gerald Ford's last big speeches in the Capitol.)
"A few mistake the clash of ideas for a holy war," the former president, vice president and House minority leader told senators, in words that Jeffords would echo the next morning although he wasn't on hand for the Ford speech -- instead en route to Burlington to publicly drop his bombshell.
It was one of those rare singular moments when one lawmaker, with one vote, truly bent the arc of politics in a different direction. It also served to highlight the feud between the still-dominant conservative wing and the increasingly marginalized moderate faction of the Republican Party. "Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them," Jeffords said in Burlington.
The entire episode, from the point at which voters left the Senate at 50-50 until Jeffords' switch, also serves as a guide post to what could happen should November's midterm elections leave the Senate similarly deadlocked.
Back in May 2001, there was no social media, cable news focused more on car chases than Congress, and throughout that pre-9/11 summer the nation was gripped by shark attacks, the controversy surrounding the true age of a Little League pitcher (Danny Almonte!) and Gary Condit's affair with a murdered intern. The most important half hour of political television came every weekday at 4 p.m., when CNN's then version of "Inside Politics" would run, with Judy Woodruff as the usual host. With a congressional reporting team of Jonathan Karl (now ABC News' White House correspondent) and Dana Bash (back at the congressional beat for CNN the past few years), they broke the news that Jeffords was leaving the GOP and declaring himself an independent while caucusing with Democrats. The moved followed weeks of build-up about his increasing feud with President George W. Bush and his senior staff.
Many congressmen had switched parties before Jeffords and many would switch parties after, but no one in Senate history had tipped the balance of power by walking across the aisle. The switch was months, if not years, in the making, given the moderate style of GOP politics in New England, where the Bush family had its original roots, versus the Texas-style conservatism adopted by the latest generation of Bushes.
On Election Day 2000, Republicans entered with a 54-46 edge in the Senate, but faced a terrible map -- incumbents up for re-election in a number of states that Vice President Al Gore would defeat Bush in: Minnesota, Washington, Delaware and Michigan. All four lost, and after the shakeout in a few other states, including an epic Missouri race in which a dead governor defeated incumbent John Ashcroft (R) and was replaced by his widow, Daschle had reached 50 seats in his caucus and entered into negotiations with Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the Republican leader.
After days of talks, the two leaders emerged with a plan that would leave the chairmen's gavels in the hands of Republicans, including Jeffords, who was chairman of what is now called the Health, Education, Labor, Pension Committee. Staff salary and office space were split 50-50, with some non-partisan administrative overhead costs technically under the chairmen's control. Special rules would allow for either Lott or Daschle to place legislation or presidential nominees on the floor if committees, also split evenly in terms of membership, had a tie vote.
In a recent interview, Lott recounted that his Republican chairmen were so furious with the deal that they nearly forced him into resigning as GOP leader during a tense meeting at the Library of Congress. Finally, Lott recalled, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) stood up and rallied his fellow Senate Republicans around the plan as the best they could possibly hope for given the 50-50 split in the chamber.
Almost immediately Democrats began maneuvering to find a Republican who would switch sides and give them full control, with Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then the minority whip, playing a key role. Jeffords was one of three senators targeted, along with Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), who was then a Republican but would later follow Jeffords' lead, first becoming an independent and winning his state's governorship. Another target in those days was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who despite a very conservative voting record to that point exited the 2000 presidential primary against Bush with a strong grudge against the president.
Jeffords became the focal point of Reid's efforts during the tax-and-budget battle in the spring of 2001, as the size of Bush's first tax cut kept growing and growing in the Republican-dominated House. Jeffords wanted to rein in the size of the tax cut while also securing funding for special education. Then-Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a senior member of Jeffords' committee, began working with Jeffords, letting him know that if Democrats were in charge, more funds would flow to his favored programs.
He sided with Democrats on a key amendment that knocked $450 billion off the size of the tax cut, sending more money to education programs, and according to an Associated Press account at the time, signaled he was ready to make the leap. Reid began actively courting Jeffords in private huddles.
One key sticking point: a chairman's gavel. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the longtime ranking member of HELP, was his party's leading spokesman on domestic issues and no one expected him to step aside as chairman if Jeffords switched caucuses. Nor did Kennedy offer. At the time, Reid served as ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, a key perch but one that, if Democrats held the majority, he would not have much time for since he would be running floor operations for Daschcle.
As a final carrot for Jeffords, Reid gave up his top spot on the committee and Jeffords became chairman once he formally switched caucuses in June -- the sort of move that, in today's overly heightened partisan tension, would be simply impossible.
There was a last-ditch effort to keep Jeffords by the other four moderate Republicans -- Chafee and Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) -- but it failed.
"I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders," Jeffords, who retired in 2006, told supporters in Burlington.