JEFFORDS move undercuts Bush's political image

Friday, May 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Suddenly, President Bush has lost control of his agenda.

Allowing Republican Sen. James Jeffords to slip from his grasp, Bush no longer will have the luxury of dealing with two GOP-run chambers in Congress. Once Jeffords organizes with Democrats, he'll make Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the majority leader.

Democratic initiatives on the minimum wage, health care, prescription drugs, education and other issues will leap to the top of the Senate docket, shoving aside Bush's priorities. Democrats had forced Bush to table a few conservative judicial nominees this month, and now they'll hold even more sway.

If a Supreme Court seat opens up, Democrats will demand a say in filling it.

``Judges will have to be moderate. The president will get some he wants. We will get some we want,'' said Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who sits on the Judiciary Committee.

Democrats had accused Bush of reneging on his pledges of bipartisanship by muscling conservative measures through the narrowly Republican Congress: tax cuts, abortion restrictions and a series of initiatives supported by big business or opposed by environmental groups.

With Jeffords' defection, Bush will either seek more compromises or face something close to gridlock.

He came into office knowing he had a fragile hold on Congress and a limited time to achieve his goals.

``Time. That's what Bush lost with Jeffords' decision,'' said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. ``We had a window to get things done. It just closed.''

Though unapologetic for his party's stands, Bush pledged to cooperate with the new Democratic majority.

``I was elected to get things done on behalf of the American people and to work with both Republicans and Democrats _ and we're doing just that,'' said Bush, who worked well with a Democratic Legislature as governor of Texas.

Aides said Bush accepted Jeffords' decision but reacted angrily to the Vermont lawmaker's claim that the White House budget plan would cause ``misery in the school systems.''

Desperate for a silver lining, some Republicans held out hope that an empowered Democratic leadership would drive moderates from their own ranks. However, GOP leaders and Bush advisers said they had little chance of replacing Jeffords with a wavering Democrat.

Several Democratic operatives said there could be a downside to Jeffords' switch: It could force Bush to strengthen his appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, making him a better candidate for re-election.

Five months into his presidency, Bush has not convinced swing voters that he is a new blend of Republican who can control the spread of government without weakening its powers to serve people.

``What we're seeing in polls in Michigan and the Midwest is the same sentiment raised by Jeffords: They still like George Bush, but they're not too sure that he's the compassionate conservative that he said he was,'' said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus.

His most recent polls show that Bush's negative rating has climbed 15 points since February.

Jeffords' departure _ and the rhetoric that came with it _ will only fuel doubts about Bush's ideology, said analysts in both parties.

Several Republican senators said party leaders need to change their ways.

``Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to respect honorable differences among us,'' said Sen. John McCain, who ran against Bush in the GOP primaries and has bucked the White House ever since.

It is too late to keep Jeffords.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican whom Democrats would like to steal away, has quietly asked for a White House meeting. He wants to improve his relationship with the president.