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More Fallout From the Jeffords Defection
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 1, 2001

Question: Can a senator switch parties and completely change the balance of power without the voters' approval? After all the bellyaching by the Democrats during the presidential election that every vote should count, how can the power shift take place without even asking voters? Isn't this a little disingenuous?
– Mary Ann Phillips, Palo Alto, Calif.

Answer: What you are describing is, of course, precisely what Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont did when he left the GOP to become an independent. Any lawmaker may change parties without getting permission from the voters who elected him or her. A point many people are ignoring is that the question of which party would control the Senate was not what Vermont voters faced last November. They weren't asked whether they wanted Trent Lott or Tom Daschle to run the Senate. They WERE asked whether they wanted Jeffords for another six years, and 66 percent of them said yes. They liked his voting record, his independence, his views, and so he was re-elected. So maybe it's unfair to ask Vermont voters how they feel about the historic power shift in the Senate, because that was never on the ballot to begin with.

In any event, not one of the 11 popularly-elected senators who switched parties (see May 25 column) did so with either a plebiscite from his state's voters or, as some have suggested with Jeffords, by resigning his seat and seeking re-election under his new party's banner. Of course, no previous senator's switch had the effect of Jeffords's. His disenchantment with the Republican party is responsible for the Democrats regaining Senate control that they lost in the 1994 elections. But if history is any guide, and given the polls in his state, Jeffords would win a special election no matter what party banner he ran under.

Gramm let voters decide on his party switch by resigning from Congress in 1983. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Two members of the House who switched parties did what you suggest. In January of 1983, Phil Gramm, then a Democratic congressman from Texas, had his seat on the House Budget Committee taken away from him by party leaders because of his close (and secret) dealings with President Reagan on the budget. Two days later -- after the punishment was handed out -- Gramm resigned from Congress and announced he would seek re-election as a Republican. He won overwhelmingly in the special election. Gramm's action replicated that of Rep. Albert Watson, a Democratic House member from South Carolina. Democrats stripped Watson of his seniority, all two years of it, for backing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Watson then joined the GOP, quit his House seat in February 1965, and easily won the special election in June as a Republican.

Many outraged Republicans have demanded Jeffords resign his seat and then seek the blessings of Vermont voters in a special election. Of course, Democrats scoff at that. But it is interesting to note that when Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado left the Dems for the GOP in 1995, none other than Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) - who becomes majority leader thanks to Jeffords' switch - called on Campbell to resign his seat and run for re-election as a Republican. He also asked the Coloradan to return the money given to him by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for his 1992 campaign.

Question: I have read that Sen. Daschle will automatically become majority leader once Sen. Jeffords officially becomes an Independent. Does this mean there is no formal vote to organize the Senate?
– Dan Lavery, Washington, D.C.

Answer: Both Daschle and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the outgoing majority leader, need to come to terms regarding the language for a resolution on organizing the Senate, which will include, among other things, the ratios of the committees. When the Republicans opened the 107th Congress and found themselves with a 50-50 tie that could be broken by a GOP vice president, Lott - though operating with a nominal majority - worked out a power-sharing arrangement with Daschle. With Jeffords' action comes Democratic control of the Senate; of that there is no debate. But Republicans, who say they went out of their way to be congenial in January, will be asking for concessions this time around. If the Democrats decide to exercise their newly-found power by deciding on a two-seat Dem advantage for each committee, the GOP could threaten a filibuster to block the plan.

Here is a look at the expected new Senate committee chairmen.

Question: Had Sen. Jeffords not restricted himself to mentioning Vermont senators during his dramatic press conference announcing his party switch, would he have been right in associating President Bush's grandfather, the late Sen. Prescott Bush (R-Conn.), with the likes of former Sens. Jacob Javits (N.Y.), Clifford Case (N.J.), Warren Austin (Vt.), Leverett Saltonstall (Mass.), Edward Brooke (Mass.), Margaret Chase Smith (Maine), and Lowell Weicker (Conn.), among others, as traditional New England Republican senators? All were conservative on fiscal matters and moderate to liberal on social matters.
– Ted Gershenow, Stockholm, Sweden

Answer: I don't know if I'd be inclined to call some of these former Republican senators "conservative" on fiscal matters - or on anything else for that matter. But they all were part of an era when liberal Republicans were not considered an endangered species. And while you can count on one hand the number of like-minded Republicans in today's Senate, the ones you mentioned for the most part did not leave office in triumph.

(Collection of Ken Rudin)

Conservatives did to Case & Javits what they could not do to Jeffords -- beat them in the GOP primaries. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Prescott Bush, the grandfather of the 43rd president and father of the 41st, dropped his bid for re-election in 1962, the chances of which were seen as iffy at best. The Senate careers of Brooke, Smith and Weicker all ended in defeat as conservatives either sat out the general election or backed their Democratic opponents. Two of the more liberal senators of those you listed, Case and Javits, were beaten by conservatives in their respective primary races in 1978 and '80. Austin and Saltonstall managed to leave in good condition - Austin resigning in 1946 to become the U.S. representative on the United Nations Security Council, and Salty retiring in 1966 at the age of 75. But that was in the days before a strong conservative movement had developed in the Northeast.

Question: How is it that Abraham Lincoln campaigned for the Senate in 1858 when up until the 20th century, state legislatures elected their state's senators? Or was Illinois an exception?
– C.E. Croke, Sydney, Australia

Answer: Illinois, as with the other states in the union, elected its U.S. senators via the state legislature until the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913. The legendary 1858 debates between Sen. Stephen Douglas (D) and his Whig challenger, former Congressman Lincoln, were more of a lobbying effort aimed not at the public but at the state legislators. At that time, Illinois' legislature was overwhelmingly Democratic, and its members were not about to choose a Whig senator. But Lincoln put on an impressive performance, which led to bigger and better things in 1860.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2001 Ken Rudin


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