Sen. Jim Jeffords announced yesterday that was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent, citing that he had increasingly found himself in disagreement with the Republicans and the Bush administration.
Jeffords switch shifts the balance of power in the Senate from the GOP to the Democrats for the first time since 1994.
The shake up in the Senate is likely to have a tremendous impact on the legislative and political agenda.
The move means Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., will be taking over Sen. Trent Lott''s, R-Mo., job as majority leader and ensures that all Senate committees will be chaired by Democrats.
Democratic committee chairmen will decide what bills get hearings and what measures will be allowed to reach the Senate floor.
Likewise, the Bush administration may find it more difficult to get its court and agency nominations through a Democratic-controlled Senate.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said that Jeffords'' decision is unfortunate and may complicate life in the Senate, but it does not change the voting coalitions necessary to get bills passed in the Senate.
"The one certain change in Washington will be the added pressure on Sen. Daschle," said DeLay. "Blocking legislation is one thing, running the Senate efficiently is quite another. We''ll soon see if he can get results, not just throw up roadblocks."
A well-known advocate for the environment, Jeffords is expected to become the chair of the Environment and Public Works committee. The committee has jurisdiction over endangered species, wildlife refuges and nuclear power plants.
Jeffords currently chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension.
His dedication to environmental issues is said to be a root cause for his departure from the GOP.
"Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I''ll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues -- the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment and a host of other issues, large and small," said Jeffords at a press conference yesterday.
In recent months, the Bush administration has faced intense criticism from environmentalists because of its decisions regarding environmental policy such as arsenic in water and carbon dioxide emissions.
Environmental groups praised Jeffords for his decision and view the change in Senate leadership as a positive step for the environment.
"Sen. Jeffords is a champion for the environment, regardless of what party label he wears," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "With Sen. Jeffords heading the Senate''s environment committee, the safeguards protecting our air, water and lands will be in good hands."
Pope continued, "[The shift of power in the Senate will be beneficial to the environment], both because of Sen. Daschle''s dedication to clean air and water, and because Sen. Lott has ignored environmental protection as a priority."
by Virginia Sutcliffe