Did the Democrats Sucker Jim Jeffords?

Stiffed by a Republican Senate, and now stiffed by a bipartisan conference committee.

Half a year ago, the most urgent question in Washington was, “Why did Jim Jeffords quit the Republican Party and flip the Senate to the Democrats?” Jeffords had remained a liberal Republican for several decades past the point of that species’ virtual extinction. Why become an independent now? Six months later, he’s finally explaining why. Only now, of course, nobody is very interested because Dr. Political Gossip has become Dr. Win-the-War. As a result, today’s press accounts reporting that a House-Senate conference committee finally hammered out a compromise on Dubya’s “leave no child behind” education bill largely missed out on a significant irony: The Democratic Senate proved no better than the Republican one at satisfying Jeffords on the very issue that made him walk.

In a new book, My Declaration of Independence, Jeffords portrays as the precipitating event of his Republican departure the Senate Republicans’ refusal to fund fully the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which Jeffords had helped pass as a House member back in 1975. “I decided to winnow down my list of spending priorities to this one,” Jeffords writes. “It seemed to me the most fruitful avenue, in part because it was the most Republican.” Jeffords explains that IDEA required state and local governments to mainstream disabled children in public schools. To ensure that this would not become an “unfunded mandate”—a federal directive requiring state governments to do something, but not giving the states the money to get it done—the feds pledged to pick up 40 percent of the cost. But they didn’t deliver the promised funding; according to Jeffords, Washington was never able to provide more than 15 percent. This past spring, with the federal budget in surplus and an exorbitant tax cut under discussion, Jeffords felt that enough was enough. He demanded full funding for IDEA. A chasm immediately opened between himself and other Republicans. “What Jeffords wants is crazy,” Pete Domenici said in the presence of a Jeffords aide. “He’ll never get it. I’m done dealing with him.” The White House, annoyed that Jeffords had rejected a transparently phony compromise, famously failed to invite Jeffords, chairman of the Senate education committee, when a Vermont teacher was feted at the White House as National Teacher of the Year. Finally, one day in late March, Jeffords was sitting in the Senate office of Sen. Chris Dodd:

For close to an hour we discussed poverty, schools, child care, the solutions, and the prospects. I allowed as how I simply could not support the Bush budget without mandatory funding for IDEA. Dodd was convinced it would never happen and suggested that I should announce my opposition to the budget. I wasn’t ready for that, but I wondered aloud whether there was room for me in the Republican party anymore.

The rest is history: Jeffords jumped, the Senate went Democratic, and Jeffords pushed an amendment sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin and Chuck Hagel to provide full funding for IDEA. (Jeffords was no longer chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, but he was on the House-Senate conference committee for the education bill.) The newly Democratic Senate passed it, but the conference committee balked. Yesterday, pronouncing himself “deeply saddened” that Harkin-Hagel had not been adopted and that the bill contained new, additional unfunded mandates, Jeffords voted against the conference report. He will also vote against the bill on the Senate floor, according to press aide Erik Smulson. Apparently Jeffords has never before voted against an education bill.

So, Chatterbox asked Smulson: Did Jeffords quit the Republicans for naught? No, Smulson said, pointing out that in the May 24 speech announcing his defection, Jeffords had also cited energy policy, the environment, and abortion as three other issues on which he disagreed with President Bush. (Jeffords had also mentioned “the direction of the judiciary,” “tax and spending decisions,” and “missile defense.”) Smulson said that Jeffords’ switch had made it easier for the Democrats to block Bush’s proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. “Imagine,” Smulson added, “what the anti-terrorism legislation would look like if [Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat] Leahy was not there to provide balance to the debate.” Still, Jeffords had made plain that of all these issues, “The largest for me is education.”

Is Jeffords at least glad he didn’t become a Democrat? “I don’t know the answer to that,” Smulson answered, laughing.