Jim Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican Party and tip the Senate to Democrats certainly puts a hitch in President Bush’s legislative and judicial plans. But here’s something that could be more painful for the GOP and pleasurable for everyone who wants centrist governance: What if Jeffords persuaded his three fellow moderate Republicans from the Northeast—Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine—to go along?
It’s not as unlikely as it may sound; after all, the new administration has been hard on middle-of-the-road Republicans. When Collins and Snowe proposed to make Bush’s tax cut dependent on the actual existence of projected surpluses, they were steamrolled by their colleagues and the president. Chafee’s legislation reforming the environmental regulations known as brownfields laws passed the Senate 99-0. His reward? Trent Lott suggested that he might not be allowed to negotiate if the bill went to a House and Senate conference. Jeffords chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Welfare, but Bush has routed important legislation through Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. At one hearing this winter on early childhood learning called by Jeffords, not a single other Republican bothered to show up.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. In December, everyone thought that a 50-50 Senate would be a boon for moderates of both parties, who would finally redesign Social Security, rein in the administration’s tax cut, and soften its environmental policies. But that’s not how it worked out. Centrist Democrats like Louisiana’s John Breaux did gain influence, but Bush gave the moderate Republicans a bucket of cold fish. (For more about why centrist Republicans haven’t been more influential, read my article in the May issue of Washington Monthly.)
By becoming independents, the Northeasterners will be able to avoid Democratic partisanship, and if the Republican Party swings back toward the middle, they can always switch back. If the party remains the same, the four will have their own miniature Bull Moose Party, with far more influence than they wield as backbenchers now.
With 50 Democrats, 46 Republicans, and four independents, partisanship would be impossible. The Democrats would need the mod squad for everything; if the four voted with their old party, Dick Cheney would have the 51st vote. The Republican leadership could obviously no longer ignore them, and convincing four Democrats to cross the aisle requires vastly more compromise than convincing one.
More important, if the mod squad wants to strike a blow for moderation, defecting might be the best way to do it. For one thing, it would remind Bush that he won with less than a plurality of the vote. (And he lost Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont along the way—a good sign for the moderates’ re-election chances if they switch.) But the lesson also would not be lost on Democrats, and Tom Daschle would presumably keep his partisan instincts in line too.
All three New Englanders deny that they are considering becoming independents, and maybe they won’t. Collins and Snowe are close to the president and have even been christened with nicknames (“Sweet Suzy” and “The Big O”). Chafee’s more likely to go, but his father was a longtime Republican senator who always believed in changing the party from the inside.
But there is some grumbling. When I asked an aide to one of the moderates what the Republicans could have said to dissuade Jeffords, he replied: “What, ‘We’re going to be nice to you now’? How could he believe that after the last four years? Would he have to get it in writing? … Will the party now become more exclusive or more inclusive? We’re all waiting with bated breath.”