Vermont Senator Leaves GOP, Lott Will Lose Majority Leader Post

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' departure Thursday from the Republican Party will cost Mississippi political clout on Capitol Hill, starting with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Jeffords told a news conference that ``looking ahead I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president.''

He said he would continue to serve his state as an independent. His move bumps Lott from his top Senate post to minority leader. Lott had used the majority post since June 1996 to steer millions, possibly billions, of federal dollars to his home state, one of the poorest in the nation.

Jeffords said he had discussed his decision with Lott and President Bush.

"They are good people with whom I disagree," he said.

Lott said he had worked until the final hour to keep Jeffords in the GOP.

Mississippi's other U.S. senator, Thad Cochran, has been in line to become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Republicans' move to the minority party spoils that scenario, said Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government.

"It puts butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it,'' Wiseman said. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Lott's hometown of Pascagoula has been among the beneficiaries of the majority leader's influence, receiving defense contracts.

Jerry St. Pe, the executive president of Ingalls, doesn't think that Lott's work for his industry will be less effective without the title of Senate majority leader.

"Sen. Trent Lott has been, and will continue to be, a strong voice for Mississippi, for our national defense and for the shipbuilding industry,'' he said.

Lott also played a crucial role last summer in persuading Nissan to build a manufacturing plant that's now under construction north of Jackson. It will mean 4,000 jobs for Mississippi.

Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who worked with Lott to secure the Nissan deal, said Thursday he'll continue to work with all members of Mississippi's congressional delegation, regardless of whether Lott is leading the majority or the minority in the Senate.

"We have crossed party lines to work with our congressional delegation and reopened Mississippi's Washington office to maximize federal dollars and support,'' Musgrove said in a news release.

Cochran, as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee for agriculture, has steered research dollars into the state.

The Senate has been evenly divided since January, with Republicans and Democrats each holding 50 seats. Lott has remained majority leader because Vice President Cheney, as presiding officer, would give Republicans an advantage in tied votes.

Asked about his future as possible appropriations chairman, Cochran said there were still uncertainties about how Jeffords' decision will translate into leadership changes.

Jeffords, a liberal Republican who bucked the party's conservative leadership, had harmonized with Lott at times. Lott and Jeffords made up half a barbershop quartet called the Singing Senators that performed at political conventions and fund-raising parties. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., now the attorney general, were also in the group.

With a reshuffling in the Senate, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is in line to become majority leader.

Mississippi native Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now lobbies in Washington, said Daschle would ``obstruct the passage of legislation that is supported by the majority of Americans.''

"It's obvious how bad it is for Mississippi to lose the majority leader, but I'm more concerned about the country,'' Barbour said Wednesday. ``I think it's equally bad for the country.''

Cochran said Jeffords' decision will have important consequences.

"One thing is for sure,'' Cochran said. ``The president's relationship with the Senate will be changed. He can no longer count on the Senate being on his side in all the legislative battles that are to come along.''

Jackson lawyer David Dunbar, a former member of the Mississippi Republican executive committee, said Lott's position ``has resulted in a smaller state gaining much greater influence than we normally would have.''

Lott, now 59, represented a south Mississippi district in the U.S. House from 1972 to 1988. He was Republican whip, the second highest party position, his last eight years in the House. He won an open U.S. Senate seat in 1988, and became Senate Republican whip in 1995. He became majority leader June 12, 1996, after Bob Dole resigned from the Senate to run for president.

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)