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Capitol Hill Shop Steward

No Miracle Cure

As featured in
Labor Party Press

If you think that Jim Jefford's Resignation from the Republican Party (giving control of the Senate to the Democrats) spells salvation for working people ... you may want to think again ...

Before May 24, few people outside Washington, D.C., or Vermont had even heard of Senator Jim Jeffords. But Jeffords’ surprise decision to resign from the Republican Party and assume the status of the lone Independent in the Senate gave him sudden front-page status. The Jeffords switch has turned control of the Senate back to the Democrats by giving them a one-vote majority — and the political shockwaves are still being felt. It was one of those out-of-the-blue happenings that takes our minds off the otherwise bleak political situation for working people here in Washington, D.C.

I have to admit that watching this whole spectacle was fun. The big business lobby crowd and their Republican subordinates didn’t know what hit them. It only took about three days from the time rumors got loose until Jeffords held his press conference to leave the Republican Party. All over our fair city, corporate and Republican operatives were suffering seizures and conniption fits as they realized their master plan was coming unglued. And to top if off, these guys can’t stand the fact that the cause of their setback came from – of all places – Vermont! For this bunch, Vermont is just a piddly state up north someplace that’s full of cows.


Over at the White House, Bush and Cheney were frantic. At first they hadn’t taken the Jeffords rumors seriously. After all, who would dare to do such a thing? By the time they realized that Jeffords really was on his way out, it was too late. Jeffords met with Bush and Cheney just two days before his announcement. Congressional Quarterly reported later that "Neither meeting went well." And the Vermont Senator’s phone was already ringing off the hook as White House and Republican staff lined up personal calls to Jeffords from senior Republican Congressional leaders, and even his wealthy campaign contributors. For a few days, Jeffords was offered just about anything he wanted, but in the end he turned it all down and made the switch.

At his press conference on May 24, Jeffords said his decision to leave the Republican Party was based on his fundamental disagreement with the increasingly extreme positions of the Republican leadership. He cited education as the biggest issue, noting that "for some time, success seems to be measured by the number of students moved out of the public schools." By this yardstick, Jeffords should have quit the Republican Party 20 years ago. And unfortunately, I can think of more than a few contemporary Democrats who seem to share the Republican outlook on education.


One of the byproducts of the Jeffords episode was a tendency by the news media to describe the Vermont Senator as a "moderate" or a "liberal Republican." There was even rampant rumor-mongering in the several days leading up to the switch to the effect that Jeffords was going to join the Democratic Party. The talk show circuit was jammed with those paid to speak for the Democrats encouraging this speculation. Odds were the Democrats would have welcomed him.

But is Jeffords really a "liberal"?

Jeffords has been in Congress for 26 years, the last 12 years in the Senate. He has a history of straddling Democratic and Republican lines on issues. But more often than not, he’s gone with the Republicans. According to Congressional Quarterly, out of 74 party-line Senate cloture votes (to cut off debate), Jeffords voted with Republicans 59 times. Eight of the 15 times he sided with the Democrats, he was voting in support of campaign finance reform.

Jeffords co-sponsored the Clinton health care plan in 1994. He voted for the job-killing China trade deal in 1997 but against it in 2000. He supported the outrageous "NAFTA for Africa" bill in 1999 but voted against the regressive bankruptcy bill in the same year. The Senator voted against the voucher scheme to attack the public schools in 2000, but he opposed the weak "Patients Bill of Rights" last year and again this year.

My union, UE, rated Jeffords as voting for working people just 23 percent of the time over the past two years, while the AFL-CIO gave him a 38 percent correct rating for 2000 and a lifetime 39 percent pro-worker rating.

But Jeffords scores well with big business. In 1998, he was awarded a perfect 100 percent pro-business rating by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That same year he scored a 75 percent rating by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors.

So what does it mean to have this pro-business Republican switch sides?

Some Congressional Democrats, as well as the paid spokespersons, "strategists," and consultants for the Democratic National Committee want us to think that a return to Democratic control of the Senate is the miracle cure. They would have us believe that we are saved when in fact we are not.

Some of the Republicans’ very worst anti-worker initiatives have been slowed, and the Bush-Cheney locomotive has certainly lost a lot of steam. But we still face a Congress that is likely to pass a very anti-worker bankruptcy bill. Any kind of meaningful campaign finance reform is in serious trouble. An education bill that leaves a lot to be desired is likely to pass. A phony bipartisan "Commission" to privatize Social Security is well underway with little criticism from Democrats. And the "Fast Track" scheme to rush new and destructive trade bills through Congress will probably pass the Senate with votes to spare. And forget the good stuff that should really be on our agenda — from Just Health Care to workers’ rights. Jeffords and the Senate may now tilt to the Democrats, but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean as much as it ought to.

The Jeffords affair at least buys us some time. Time to organize our defenses, time to plan our counterattack, time to ask someone to join the Labor Party.

Chris Townsend is political action director of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE).

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