The Corner

Specter on Jeffords

When Jim Jeffords became an “Independent” in 2001, Specter wasn’t happy. He said, “I intend to propose a rule change which would preclude a future recurrence of a Senator’s change in parties, in midsession, organizing with the opposition, to cause the upheaval which is now resulting.” A full transcript:

Mr. SPECTER . Mr. President, I have sought recognition this morning to comment on Senator Jeffords ‘ announcement that he will vote with the Democrats on organization of the Senate. I have delayed in expressing these thoughts to further reflect upon them and perhaps avoid saying something that I would later regret. I have written them down, which is unusual for me because I believe that floor statements, as speeches generally, are best made from the heart rather than text. 

When I first heard last Tuesday that Senator Jeffords was considering this move, I told the news media: “It shouldn’t happen–it won’t happen–it can’t happen.” Well, I was wrong. 

When Senator Jeffords confirmed that he was about to vote with the Democrats, I joined five other Senators who tried to dissuade him in a morning meeting last Wednesday. The group reconvened for an afternoon meeting, with some ten other Senators and Senator Jeffords . Between the two meetings, we conferred with the Republican leadership on what suggestions we could make to Senator Jeffords to keep him in the fold.

For 13 years, JIM JEFFORDS has been one of my closest friends in the Senate and he still is. We have had lunch together every Wednesday for years. First, with Senator John Chafee, and later with Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE, Senator SUSAN COLLINS, and Senator Lincoln Chafee. He had never given any hint to me of such a move.

Before discussing the suggestions which would be made to Senator Jeffords , we first pleaded with him, saying his change would disrupt the Senate, it would change the balance of power in the Federal Government generally, it would severely weaken the Republican Party –of which he was a lifelong member, it would hurt his Senate friends, and likely cost many staffers to lose their jobs.

Senator Jeffords replied that he was opposed to the party’s policies on many items and believed he could do more for his principles by organizing with the Democrats.

We then told Senator Jeffords that we were authorized by the Republican leadership to tell him that if he stayed, the term limits on his chairmanship would be waived, he would have a seat at the Republican leadership table as the moderate’s representative, and IDEA, special education, would become an entitlement which would enrich that program by billions of dollars for children across America.

At the end of our second long meeting, I felt we had a significant chance to keep him. On Thursday morning, I was deeply disappointed by his announcement that he would organize with the Democrats. My immediate response to the news media was that it felt as if there had been a death in the family. Other Senators from our close-knit group were, candidly, hurt and confused. For some, that has turned to anger. Most of the Republican Senate caucus has had little to say, trying to put the best face on what is really a devastating loss.

The full impact has yet to sink in. It will undoubtedly be the topic of much contemporaneous columnist comment and beyond that for the historians.

Well, the question now arises, Where do we go from here? The Senate leadership, notwithstanding Senator Jeffords ‘ departure from our caucus, has created a moderate seat at the leadership table to address some of Senator Jeffords ‘ concerns. More needs to be done. And I think more will be done.

How should these issues be handled by the Senate for the future? I intend to propose a rule change which would preclude a future recurrence of a Senator’s change in parties, in midsession, organizing with the opposition, to cause the upheaval which is now resulting.

I take second place to no one on independence voting. But, it is my view that the organizational vote belongs to the party which supported the election of a particular Senator. I believe that is the expectation. And certainly it has been a very abrupt party change, although they have occurred in the past with only minor ripples, none have caused the major dislocation which this one has.

When I first ran in 1980, Congressman Bud Shuster sponsored a fundraiser for me in Altoona where Congressman Jack Kemp was the principal speaker. When some questions were raised as to my political philosophy, Congressman Shuster said my most important vote would be the organizational vote. From that day to this, I have believed that the organizational vote belonged to the party which supported my election.

When the Democrats urged me to switch parties some time ago, I gave them a flat “no.” I have been asked in the last several days if I intended to switch parties. I have said absolutely not.

Senator PHIL GRAMM faced this issue when he decided to switch parties. He resigned his seat, which he had won as a Democrat, and ran for reelection as a Republican. As he told me, his last vote in January 1983 was for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and he voted for Tip O’Neill with the view that he was elected as a Democrat and should vote that way on organizational control. Even though, he intended to become a Republican and would have preferred another person to be Speaker.

To repeat, I intend to propose a Senate rule which would preclude a change in control of the Senate when a Senator decides to vote with the opposing party for organizational purposes.

One other aspect does deserve comment, and that is the issue of personal benefit to a changing Senator. In our society, political arrangements avoid the consequences of similar conduct in other contexts.

For example, if company A induces a competitor’s employee to break his contract with company B and join company A, company B can collect damages for company A’s wrongful conduct. If A gives a benefit to an employee of B to induce the employee to breach a duty, that conduct can have serious consequences in other contexts which are not applied to political arrangements.

On the Lehrer news show on Thursday night, the day before yesterday, Senator HARRY REID and I sparred over this point. I expressed my concern about reliable reports that Democrats had told Senator Jeffords that Senator Reid would step aside so Senator Jeffords could become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Senator Reid replied that there was no quid pro quo, an expression I had not used.

Accepting Senator Jeffords ‘ decision was based on principle for the reasons he gave at his news conference on Thursday morning, a question still remains as to whether any such inducement was offered and whether it played any part in Senator JEFFORDS’ decision. Questions on such offers and counteroffers should be considered by Senators and by the Senate in an ethical context, but at this moment I do not see any way to effect such conduct by rulemaking or legislation.

This week’s events raise very profound questions for the governance of our country as well as the operation of the Senate. I intend to press a rule change which would preclude a recurrence of this situation and will be discussing with my colleagues the whole idea of inducements as an incentive for a party switch.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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