WASHINGTON - Sen. James M. Jeffords, a moderate maverick from Vermont, told President Bush yesterday that he is considering leaving the Republican Party and throwing control of the Senate to the Democrats, a move he is expected to announce today.
Jeffords, 67, told reporters that he would divulge his plans today. He is expected to shift his party registration to Democrat or independent.
If he chose to vote with the Democratic caucus, that would give the Democrats a 51-49 edge in the Senate and allow them to gain committee chairmanships. The current 50-50 split favors the GOP because of Vice President Dick Cheney's power to cast a tie-breaking vote.
Cheney and other Republican leaders were hoping to dissuade the three-term senator from switching parties - and from seriously undermining Bush's ability to get his agenda through Congress. But the mood late last night among White House and Senate Republican officials was grim.
"We thought this might happen some day," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley told reporters of the prospective transfer of power to the Democrats. "We just didn't think it would happen this way."
Another Republican, 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, is in frail health. He had also switched parties, leaving the Democrats in 1964.
Democrats promised Jeffords he could have the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee for the remaining five years of his Senate term if he abandoned the GOP, according to Senate sources. Jeffords currently chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and has been leading floor debate on Bush's education bill.
Rumors of his defection built throughout the day after Jeffords met with Cheney, then with Bush in the Oval Office but declined to offer them the assurances they sought that he would remain in the party.
Republican leaders made efforts during the day to contact longtime Jeffords supporters and contributors in hopes that they could persuade the senator to stay on the GOP side of the aisle.
"Lots of people are trying to get me to do different things," Jeffords told reporters.
Meanwhile, Republicans tried to counteract the potential loss of Jeffords by renewing their drive to enlist Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia to switch to the GOP. Miller has consistently said he will not do so.
Jeffords, one of the last of a shrinking band of GOP moderates, has been increasingly uncomfortable with his party since Republicans gained control of the White House in January as well as both houses of Congress.
His relations with the White House have been particularly strained in recent weeks. He refused to support Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut, a moved that forced the president to accept a reduced package of $1.35 trillion over 10 years that the Senate is now struggling to pass.
Shortly after that refusal, Jeffords was not invited to the White House for a National Teacher of the Year award ceremony honoring a Vermont high school educator, despite his prominence on education issues. That annoyed Jeffords, according to Senate sources, and may have led him to consider switching parties. In addition, there have been veiled threats that the White House might further retaliate against him by seeking changes in a dairy support system that benefits farmers in Vermont and the Northeast.
Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party could have a profound effect on the mood, tone and style of the Senate. But its impact on the legislative product of the body may not be as great because the realities of a dealing with an almost evenly balanced Senate would remain.
The most immediate effect, should Jeffords vote with the Democratic caucus, would be to shift leadership of the Senate from Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi to Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Senate committees, now evenly divided between the two parties, would dissolve. They would be reconstituted by Daschle, who would make sure each had a Democratic majority of at least one and appoint Democratic members.
Democrats would take over as committee chairmen, largely according to seniority. In most cases, the senior Democrat on each committee would simply assume the chairmanship. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts would replace Jeffords as chairman of the Education Committee and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, with jurisdiction over Bush's judicial nominations. Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, would ordinarily be in line for chairmanship of the Environment Committee, but he could defer to Jeffords and retain his influential post as Democratic whip.
Plans for such a transition have already been made by some committee leaders, who anticipated the fragile balance might be upset by the death of any of the Senate's several elderly members.
Grassley said last night that he and the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, had worked out such an arrangement months ago.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said he would expect a similarly smooth transition if he takes over leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee from Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
But the Democrats could barely hide their excitement last night at the prospect of taking control of the Senate for the first time in six years.
"There is an ascending sense of expectation," Biden said.
Democrats were treading carefully in their comments yesterday, both for fear of getting out in front of Jeffords and also because they are mindful that the balance of power will continue to be delicate.
As a practical matter, it usually takes at least 60 votes to win on an issue in the Senate because a minority of 41 can wage a filibuster. Often, a single senator can delay a vote indefinitely. Republicans as well as Democrats have discovered that they can only govern through consensus.
Even so, the power of the majority leader to determine what issues will be taken up by the Senate and when is critical.
Jeffords has told some of his colleagues that he would delay his party switch until after the tax cut bill is approved by the Senate and a compromise is worked out with the House. If he acted before that, Daschle would appoint the Senate negotiators on the tax cut measure and considerably change the outcome of those negotiations, a result Jeffords hopes to avoid.
The Associated Press contributed to this article..