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G.O.P. Liberal Goes Against the Grain

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Washington

In 1982, with President Ronald Reagan wavering over whether to sign the Job Training Partnership Act, a key senator phoned Rep. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., with a scheme to secure Mr. Reagan's approval.

"'It would be good if you could criticize the bill,'" Mr. Jeffords, who was elected to the Senate in 1988, remembers his colleague saying. "'I know how hard you worked on it, but if you were to come down [to the White House] and complain and moan and groan about [the bill], it would probably help to get it signed.'"

So Mr. Jeffords--who earlier had angered the President and G.O.P. Congressional leaders by having been the only House Republican to vote against Mr. Reagan's 1981 tax-cut bill--cheerfully complied.

"I went down and moaned and groaned about it, and the President nodded his head and said, 'I guess I better sign this bill,'" Mr. Jeffords said. "That's one of my very memorable experiences."

While the memory evokes a smile and a laugh from Mr. Jeffords, it also perfectly illustrates his 20-year Congressional career as a quiet moderate, who in many years is the Republican who most often votes against the majority of his party.

Now Mr. Jeffords finds himself holding his dream job: chairing the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities and following in the footsteps of another liberal Republican Vermonter, Robert T. Stafford.

It is a position education lobbyists hope will enable him to counter budget and program cuts backed by the more cohesive and conservative Republican majority in the House.

Backing Education Aid

Indeed, in a year when many of his G.O.P. colleagues are seeking to reduce the federal role in education, Mr. Jeffords is a leading proponent of increased federal education spending.

Several years ago, he introduced a resolution calling on lawmakers to increase by 1 percent per year the percentage of the federal budget spent on education, until it reached 10 percent. Education aid now amounts to less than 2 percent of the budget. The non-binding measure was added last year to the law reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"He raised the standard for what the federal investment should be," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group, "far higher than what anybody else in was saying, including President Clinton and the Democrats in Congress."

Now, Mr. Jeffords says he will work to boost federal spending on special education from the 8 percent of total costs now paid for by the federal government to the 40 percent Congress promised in 1975, when it enacted the landmark law guaranteeing children with disabilities an education.

"I want to emphasize at this time when we're trying to cut the deficit down, that it is counterproductive to cut education," Mr. Jeffords said.

The senator also plans to champion standards-based education reform, an effort that he sought to advance by helping organize a bipartisan education summit here last week. (See related story .)

Mr. Jeffords contends that, as one of a handful of Senate Republican moderates, he is in a good position to(See education. There are 54 Republican senators, and a three-fifths majority is required to cut off debate on controversial measures.

But others say Mr. Jeffords will have to pick and choose his battles to be effective.

"Jeffords's voting record is probably being much more closely scrutinized by the Senate power brokers than it has in the past," said Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont. "They've convinced themselves they're going to implement the House agenda."

Moreover, Mr. Nelson argues that Mr. Jeffords's calm demeanor and penchant for working behind the scenes is ill-suited for more overt power struggles. "This guy is the quintessential back-bencher maverick, and to be thrown into this position, where his vote is important, he doesn't really like it," Mr. Nelson said.

"But when push comes to shove, more often than not he'll vote with Dole because Dole's been good to him," he said, referring to Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Senate majority leader.

Mr. Jeffords backed Mr. Dole in the 1988 Republican Presidential primary in Vermont, while most of the state's Republicans voted for George Bush.

Independent Thinking

But Mr. Nelson and others say Mr. Jeffords is well-suited to represent the no-nonsense, independent population of Vermont--a state that counts among its representatives the only independent member of Congress, Rep. Bernard Sanders, a socialist who was the mayor of Burlington.

"In a place where independent thinking can get you in trouble, he doesn't seem to worry about that," said Richard P. Mills, the Vermont schools superintendent. "He just says what he thinks, and that's what the people of Vermont expect."

"There doesn't seem to be much flash to what he does," Mr. Mills added. "He just delivers the goods."

As an example, Mr. Mills mentioned a provision of last year's E.S.E.A. bill that guaranteed small states a hefty minimum grant under the new Title I formula. Thanks to Mr. Jeffords, low-population states, Vermont chief among them, stand to gain the largest increases relative to the previous formula. (See related story

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