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US Democrats Celebrate Anniversary of Jeffords' Defection

Opposition Democrats were celebrating in Washington this week. They marked the one-year anniversary of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party to become an Independent - a decision that shifted control of the Senate back to the Democrats and had a significant impact on the balance of political power in Washington.

With Senate Democrats acting like cheerleaders, Senator Jeffords and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle made their way down the steps of the U.S. Capitol to mark the one-year anniversary of a party switch that made history.

17 U.S. Senators have switched parties since 1893. But the Jeffords defection was the first to lead to a shift in party control of the Senate.

Senator Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party a year ago hit Washington like a political bombshell. Republicans had been savoring the prospect of controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Instead, President Bush found a new adversary in Senator Daschle, who sought to change or derail much of the president's domestic agenda. "Some people call our refusal to rubber-stamp the Republican agenda obstructionism," he said. "I see it as rejecting failed ideas in the name of real solutions, and I call that progress."

Though hailed as a political savior by Democrats, Senator Jeffords was branded a traitor by disappointed Republicans and became a favorite target for conservatives on radio and television call-in programs.

Despite the criticism, Senator Jeffords has said he has no regrets. "Many people have asked me, 'Would you do it over again?' My answer absolutely," he said.

The Jeffords defection allowed Democrats to set the Senate agenda. It also made it easier for them either to slow down or block the president's policy initiatives and nominees.

In March, the president complained about the Democrats' tactics in defeating his nomination of Judge Charles Pickering for a vacancy on a federal appeals court. "I believe that they are holding this man's nomination up for political purposes, and it is not fair, and it is not right," he said.

But the Democrats' one-vote margin is not enough to secure passage of their own domestic programs. In fact, the president got his tax cut through the Congress and also secured passage of a compromise education reform bill.

The extremely narrow margin of control in the Senate raises the political stakes for November's congressional mid-term elections when all 435 House seats and 34 of the 100 Senate seats will be contested.

Republicans are pinning their hopes for recapturing the Senate and retaining control of the House on President Bush's extraordinarily high public approval ratings stemming from his handling of the war on terrorism.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says that is probably a sound strategy. "The president's job [approval] rating right now is 75 percent," he said. "It varies anywhere from 72 to 78, depending upon the poll. But three out of four Americans and something like 88 percent of Republicans give him good job ratings. Those are terrific numbers."

But House and Senate races usually revolve around local issues, and Democrats are trying to shift the focus away from terrorism to jobs and health care at home.

Jim Thurber is director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at the American University here in Washington. He said the president's poll ratings, though still high, have slipped a bit in recent weeks. "He has rally effects, in other words, rally around the flag effects, rally around the president effects as a result of terrorism," said Mr. Thurber. "It is decaying, and it can decay very rapidly if there are other events, like a bad economy."

At the moment, though, it is the Republicans who seem more confident about their chances in November than Democrats. Democrats backed off from their recent criticism of Mr. Bush over intelligence failures related to the September 11th terrorist attacks after public opinion polls indicated that most voters still strongly back the president and felt the Democrats were simply looking for political gain.