Jeffords’ defection helps Northwest

Herald news services

WASHINGTON — Northwest Democrats are cautiously hopeful that Sen. James Jeffords’ decision to switch parties may lead to the kind of progress they’d like to see on energy and other issues important to the region.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is now in line to become chairman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, the panel with jurisdiction over funding for Sound Transit’s troubled light rail program.

Murray talked to Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., the Appropriations Committee chairman, about the slot, but wouldn’t tip her hand on Thursday.

Ending several days of fevered speculation and suspense, a sometimes emotional Jeffords said Thursday the Republican Party has become increasingly uncomfortable for moderates in recent years, especially since Bush’s election, and acknowledged the potentially far-reaching effects of his decision on Congress and the nation.

"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 told cheering supporters in Burlington, Vt. "In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent."

Jeffords’ bombshell signaled a far-reaching realignment in national politics, catapulting Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota into the majority leader’s post now occupied by Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott and threatening many of Bush’s initiatives.

The transfer of power will affect what bills come to the floor and how the Senate handles President Bush’s priorities, including the confirmations of judicial nominees. The U.S. District Court in Tacoma has a vacancy to fill.

Murray is already a member of the Senate’s Democratic leadership as chair of the campaign committee. If named an appropriations subcommittee chairwoman, she would join the so-called "College of Cardinals" — the powerful chairmen of the 13 Senate Appropriations subcommittees that decide how hundreds of billions of federal dollars are spent.

"She’s going to have a lot of influence," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Murray sought to downplay her growing influence, but said, "I am in a unique position to bring forward issues important to Washington state. We have been very stymied over the past six years."

The change in the Senate’s makeup could also mean trouble for Bush’s comprehensive energy plan, which called for expanding oil and gas drilling on public land, rejuvenating nuclear power and undertaking conservation efforts. Democrats criticized parts of the plan as anti-environment and pro-industry.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she was hopeful the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would now take up legislation to provide temporary price caps on wholesale power — perhaps getting it done before looking at longer-term solutions to the energy crunch.

But "there is no guarantee. We are still the same Senate and the same people," said Cantwell, a member of the Energy Committee.

In one concession to his soon-to-be-former party, Jeffords said he had told the president he will not officially make the switch until after Congress completes work on the tax bill that is one of Bush’s priorities, effectively postponing his departure until Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess on June 5 — or even later if the bill hasn’t been passed by then.

Bush took issue with Jeffords’ suggestion that that he hadn’t considered moderate views, telling reporters during an appearance in Cleveland, "I respect Senator Jeffords, but respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more."

Bush said, "I was elected to get things done on behalf of the American people, and to work with both Republicans and Democrats, and we’re doing just that."

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