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  Jeffords Leaves Republican Party

By Christopher Graff
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2001; 10:17 a.m. EDT

BURLINGTON, Vt. –– Sen. James Jeffords bolted the Republican Party and declared himself an independent on Thursday. "Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party," he told cheering supporters.

Jeffords, standing in front of a Vermont state flag in a crowded hotel ballroom, made his announcement after a last-ditch effort by Republicans and President Bush to keep him in the fold. His decision will give control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats.

"In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principals that I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent," Jeffords said as his supporters erupted in cheers.

Jeffords said that he had been "struggling with a very difficult decision" for the past several weeks.

The senator said as recently as the November elections he had "no thoughts whatsoever" about changing parties. But he said that the Republican takeover of the White House had made it more difficult for GOP members of Congress to take positions at odds with President Bush.

"I understand that many people are more conservative than I am and they form 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.

Supporters chanted "Thank you, Jim! Thank you, Jim!" as Jeffords announced his momentous switch.

Jeffords, declaring "I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders," said he made his decision Wednesday night after meeting with moderate colleagues in the Senate.

"I met with my moderates yesterday. It was the most emotional time I have ever had in my life, with my closest friends urging me not to do what I was about to do because it affected their lives substantially," he said.

Jeffords said he felt unwelcome in a caucus so dominated by conservatives.

"Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I'll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues – the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small," Jeffords said.

"I think it's unfortunate that the Republican Party has been such a difficult place for moderates," said Barbara Snelling, a state senator and former lieutenant governor. "The party has changed, and now it doesn't seem to be able to live with moderates."

Jeffords, 67, won re-election to a third term last year. Polling shows him to be the state's most popular politician. He has served in elected office in the state since the 1960s and in the Congress since 1975 – 14 years in the House and 12 years in the Senate.

State Republican leaders were furious about Jeffords' decision. "My concern for Jeffords is that his legacy will be as one of Benedict Arnold," said Skip Vallee, the state GOP's national committeeman.

Some Republicans called on Jeffords to resign his Senate seat, then run again in a special election without a party banner. "To honorably serve the people of this state, what he should do is resign his seat, allow the governor to appoint an interim, and then fulfill his right to seek election under another party affiliation," said former Rutland Mayor Jeffrey Wennberg. "But let the voters decide."

But interviews Wednesday in Jeffords' hometown of Rutland found most people supportive of the senator.

"I think the rest of the country is getting a little bit better picture of what it is to be a Vermonter," said John Alexander. "He's voting his conscience. I just wish the rest of the Congress was like that."

Longtime Republican activist and Rutland lawyer Arthur Crowley said he would stick with Jeffords.

"This issue is based solely on Jim's moderate political philosophy and what he thinks is best for Vermont," said Crowley, a former county and state GOP committee chairman.

"I will agree with whatever decision he makes," Crowley said. "He has always represented us well in Washington, and I'm sure he will continue to do so."

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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