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The BBC's Nick Bryant in Washington
Although Jefford is likely to sit as an independent, he is expected to vote democrat
 real 56k

The BBC's Peter Marshall
"James Jeffords holds the future of George Bush's bold plans in his hands"
 real 56k

Robert Hoopes, Shandwick International
"It is a good day... for the Democrats"
 real 56k

The Boston Globe's David Shribman
"He will deny his former Republican colleagues his vote and giving it a Republican cast. That is now gone"
 real 28k

Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
Senator to quit Republicans
Senator Jim Jeffords (left) with three other US senators
Mr Jeffords (left) is being courted by both parties
The expected departure of a liberal US senator from the Republican Party will change the balance of forces on Capitol Hill, potentially derailing President George W Bush's policy agenda.

The move by Senator James Jeffords will effectively hand control of the Senate to the Democrats for the first time since 1994.

Mr Jeffords is expected to say that he is becoming an independent in an announcement in his home state of Vermont at 0930 local time [1330 GMT] on Thursday.

His relations with the White House have been particularly strained in recent weeks, after his decision to oppose Mr Bush's proposals for huge tax cuts.

Finely balanced

Mr Jeffords, 67, who is under strong pressure from the White House to stay in the party, delayed an expected announcement until Thursday, saying: "I wanted to be with my Vermonters when I made the decision."

A defection by Mr Jeffords would swing the finely balanced upper house, where each party currently has 50 senators.

Lots of people are trying to get me to do different things

Senator Jim Jeffords
It would then make it difficult for Mr Bush to get key points of his conservative programme through Congress, in the following areas:

  • Plans to drill oil in sensitive areas such as the Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska.

  • Appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court to replace retiring members.

  • The controversial education voucher system providing public funding for private education.

  • The missile defence system.

  • Confirmation of appointments to top positions in government. Only 11% have so far been approved.

'Glimmer of hope'

The White House has contacted Mr Jeffords' donors and political supporters, hoping they could persuade him to stay in the party.

Both President George W Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney met Mr Jeffords on Tuesday, urging him to remain a Republican.

Vice-President Dick Cheney
Dick Cheney's casting vote in the Senate under threat
But the New York Times newspaper quoted Republicans close to the administration as saying that the White House did not take rumours of Mr Jeffords' defection seriously until Monday evening and that he had already made up his mind.

The party leadership had expected unconditional loyalty since Mr Bush took office, the sources said, adding that the administration had tried to punish Mr Jeffords for his rebelliousness by cutting him out of important decision-making.

But Republicans continued to hold out a glimmer of hope.

"Until it's final it's not final," said Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott.

In the past 20 years, 14 Democrats in Congress have switched to the Republican Party, while only one Republican has gone the other way.

Chairmanship offer

The defection could also enable the Democrats to take control of some key committees.

Senate sources said Democrats had indicated they would allow Mr Jeffords to claim the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee if he abandoned the Republicans.

Party switches since the 1950s
Democrats to Republicans: 14
Republican to Democrat: 1
Democrat to Independent: 1
Switch back: 1
He now chairs the Health, Education and Labour Committee in the Republican-led Senate.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said: "There certainly is a sense we could be on the eve of a big change here in the Senate."

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See also:

22 May 01 | Americas
Bush argues for urgent tax cuts
30 Apr 01 | Americas
Who runs the Bush White House?
06 Jan 01 | Americas
Senate reaches power-sharing deal
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