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Senator Jeffords' Party Change a Result of a Dispute over Funding for the Disabled

July 27, 2001

After the 2000 election, the focus of policy has shifted in Washington with the Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House. Issues such as tax cuts, education reform, defense spending, and Social Security reform were set to dominate the early legislative agenda. President Bush campaigned on these issues, and planned on making them the centerpiece of his first one hundred days in office. This forced the Democratic agenda of much smaller tax cuts and large new increases in social spending to the background. With the Republicans focused on reducing tax rates and their own spending priorities, the chance for increased funding for programs directly aiding the disabled are slim. Even with the record budget surplus currently enjoyed, the President's proposed tax cut and spending initiatives leaves little room to expand funding for needed social programs, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The focus away from social spending caused a rift between more moderate Republicans and their conservative leadership, and eventually cost the Republicans control of the Senate.

Senator Jim Jeffords' (I-VT) recent change in party affiliation is the most significant political development of the Bush Administration and directly impacts the disabled. The defection of Jeffords from the Republican Party shifted the balance of power in the Senate from 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, to 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and a single Independent, giving control of the Senate and each committee to the Democrats. The significance of Senator Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party should not be underestimated. Before Jeffords' departure, President Bush enjoyed a majority for his party in both Houses of Congress, which made enacting his agenda relatively simple. Because of the shift of power, Senate Democrats may now press their own issues and use the Senate to block the President's proposals. Democratic control of the Senate will force compromise and not allow the President the ease in legislating he previously enjoyed. Because of Jeffords' defection, many people are now questioning if any of the President's proposals, in their current form, will be enacted into law. In addition, Jeffords leaving the Republican Party over funding education of children with disabilities brings disabled issues into the national discourse.

In essence, Senator Jeffords left the Republican Party because the President and Party leaders would not make concessions on funding for education of children with disabilities. The events surrounding Senator Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party began shortly after the election of George W. Bush as President. The focus of Bush's campaign was his $1.6 trillion dollar tax relief package. After President Bush's inauguration in early 2001, the proposed tax legislation was sent to Congress for consideration. The House of Representatives, with a cohesive Republican majority, passed the tax cut at the exact funding levels requested by the President within weeks of receiving it. Unlike the House, Republicans in the Senate possessed a technical majority and conflict between moderates and more conservative members over spending and tax cuts already existed. Many moderate Republicans worried about the size of the President's tax proposal, fearing it would consume the surplus and push the government back into deficit. Others wanted to increase spending in other areas, like education, in concert with a smaller tax cut. When the tax legislation reached the Senate it was subjected to intense scrutiny and multiple amendments.

A long time moderate, Jeffords had increasingly found himself voting with the Democrats on issues like taxes and spending, while the leadership of the Republicans became increasingly conservative and less willing to negotiate on policy with the Democrats. The direction of the Republican Party and Jeffords' own personal beliefs were diverging very quickly. Senator Jeffords was the leading Republican to call for a reduction in the scope of the President's tax cut. He demonstrated his willingness to oppose the White House by voting for an amendment offered by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) that reduced the tax cut by $448 billion and redirected those funds to education and debt reduction.

Ultimately, the White House lost Jeffords' vote when they would not agree with his education proposal. Senator Jeffords has been a long time advocate of increasing education funding, especially meeting the federal funding requirements for the IDEA. Under provisions in the Act, the federal government is supposed to provide funds to cover 40 percent of the costs of educating children with disabilities. Currently, the federal funding level for the IDEA is around 14 percent and leaves states and localities to cover the remaining costs. Jeffords wanted to make full and complete funding of the IDEA a condition of supporting the president's tax and budget proposals. The White House did not want to support full funding fearing it would push spending too high, resulting in Jeffords withholding support for the president's $1.6 trillion tax cut. Jeffords defection on the tax cut led to a smaller version being passed, at approximately $1.35 trillion.

The White House was furious with Jeffords' actions. In retaliation, the Bush administration did not invite Jeffords to the White House for a ceremony honoring the nation's teacher of the year, who happened to be from Vermont, his home state. Because Jeffords was Chairman of the Education Committee in the Senate, he had attended similar events in the past with teachers not from his home state, but received no invitation for this most recent event. The Bush Administration further antagonized Jeffords by proposing to end the Northeastern Dairy Compact (a program which sets higher milk prices to benefit dairy farmers in the Northeast) which directly benefits Vermont.

The lack of agreement among Senate Republicans policy-wise, the snubbing by the White House, and overtures from the Democrats eventually led Senator Jeffords to leave the Republican Party and declare himself an Independent. In return for leaving the Republican Party, the Democrats offered Jeffords the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee if they regained control. This, combined with the fact that the IDEA would be fully funded was enough to convince Jeffords to become independent and change the balance of power in Washington, D.C.

President Bush miscalculated this situation. If the president had agreed to fully fund the IDEA, he could have received full support from Senator Jeffords for his full $1.6 trillion tax cut. Additionally, Jeffords would have received the funding he wanted for the IDEA and more than likely would not have left the Republican Party. Instead, because the President chose to alienate Jeffords and oppose IDEA funding, he lost the Republican majority in the Senate. Senate Democrats will be sure to fully fund the IDEA and it would be very difficult politically for the President to veto funding for education of children with disabilities.

The impact of Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party, and the accompanying policy changes will have on people with disabilities is great. Now, the IDEA funding will be increased by the Senate, and after compromising with the House of Representatives, there is a strong possibility that funding will near the required 40 percent of costs. Also, with the Democrats in control of the Senate, there will be legislation on a Patient's Bill of Rights and a Prescription Drug Benefit added to Medicare. Adding these two pieces of legislation will greatly aid the disabled, enabling them to receive better medical care and affordable medication. In addition, Jeffords' defection brings issues affecting the disabled, such as funding for the IDEA, to the forefront. Much more attention will be placed on funding education, adaptive technology, and medical care. The change in control of the Senate will bring some much-needed attention to long neglected issues impacting the disabled.

Information for this editorial was obtained from the following news source:

Cable News Network (CNN)

For more on the topic of Legislation:

Legislation and the Law

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[Updated July 27, 2001]
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