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A Farewell to Independents

By Erik W. Robelen — April 26, 2005 1 min read
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Sen. James M. Jeffords will retire from his Capitol perch.

The Senate will be losing its only Independent voice. No doubt, many lawmakers would claim that title, but only one senator can do so with a capital “I.”

Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the chamber’s sole Independent and a former chairman of the education committee, announced last week that he’s calling it quits. He won’t seek re-election to a fourth term next year.

He pointed to his wife Elizabeth Dailey’s battle with cancer as the main reason, but also cited his own health.

“I am feeling the aches and pains that come when you reach 70,” he said at an April 20 news conference in Vermont. “My memory fails me on occasion.”

Mr. Jeffords, a soft-spoken maverick, shook Washington in 2001 when he quit the Republican Party, tipping control of the Senate to the Democrats by one vote.

Life wasn’t always easy for Mr. Jeffords in the GOP fold. A moderate, he often disagreed with his party on critical issues, including education.

In a 2001 interview with Education Week, he said his influence with the Republican majority was limited even as head of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, a post he held from 1997 until he split with the GOP.

“In practical speaking, I wasn’t chairman,” he said, “so that’s one of the reasons I moved over.”

Once the Democrats took control, Mr. Jeffords relinquished his chairmanship to head another committee, but he stayed on the education panel. The Democrats’ hold on power was short-lived: The 2002 elections returned Senate control to the Republicans.

As a House freshman in 1975, Mr. Jeffords helped craft the landmark 1975 law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Since then, he’s worked on almost every major education bill in Congress. In 2001, he was one of just 10 senators to vote against the No Child Left Behind Act. One of his chief worries was whether the federal government would match the law’s mandates with enough money.

He recently reiterated those concerns when speaking of the president’s fiscal 2006 budget request.

“President Bush often mentions that education is a priority,” Mr. Jeffords said on the Senate floor on April 4. “He and I obviously define ‘priority’ differently. To me, priority means you pay for the promises you make.”

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