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James Jeffords, Vermont Senator Who Left The GOP, Dies At 80

By Rebecca Bratek, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Although he made his career in politics, Jim Jeffords was a modest man who disliked cameras and speeches.

In May 2001, however, the three-term senator from Vermont found himself in the spotlight when he quit the Republican Party and tipped the Senate into Democratic hands. The GOP, he said at the time, no longer reflected the moderate principles in which he believed.

Jeffords died Monday at a military retirement residence in Washington, D.C., according to Diane Derby, a former press secretary and family spokeswoman. The cause of death was unclear, but Jeffords had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 80.

Jeffords served more than 30 years in Congress, starting when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974. He moved to the Senate in 1988.

He decided not to run for a fourth term and retired from the Senate in 2007, citing his and his wife’s health problems. His wife, Elizabeth “Liz” Daley, died that year.

In a statement, President Barack Obama hailed the renegade Republican for “the fiercely independent spirit that made Vermonters, and people across America, trust and respect him.”

“Whatever the issue — whether it was protecting the environment, supporting Americans with disabilities, or whether to authorize the war in Iraq — Jim voted his principles, even if it sometimes meant taking a lonely or unpopular stance,” Obama said. “Vermonters sent him to Washington to follow his conscience, and he did them proud.”

Before Jeffords left the GOP, the Senate was split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, providing the tie-breaking vote.

Jeffords’ move left Senate Republicans with 49 votes. Although he declared himself an independent, he caucused with Senate Democrats, giving them effective control of the chamber.

It was a rare moment in U.S. history when one lawmaker upended the political status quo with just one vote.

“In 2001, he displayed enormous courage by leaving a party that, he often said, had left him because of its dramatic move to the right,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who succeeded Jeffords. “Jim was one of the most popular elected officials in the modern history of the state.”

“He was a Vermonter through and through, drawn to political life to make a difference for our state and nation,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is Vermont’s other senator.

Liberal on social issues and cautious on fiscal matters, Jeffords showed his maverick streak early in his career.

He was the sole Republican House member to vote against President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981. He also voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Brady Bill on gun control, and an end to the ban on gays serving in the military.

James Merrill Jeffords was born in Rutland, Vt., on May 11, 1934. His father, Olin Jeffords, served as chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, and his mother, Marion Hausman, was a homemaker.

He attended public schools in Rutland, and received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1956. He served three years in the Navy before he attended Harvard Law School, where he was awarded his degree in 1962.

While practicing law in Shrewsbury, Vt., he got involved in local politics and was elected to the state Senate in 1966. As Vermont’s attorney general from 1969 to 1973, he helped draft landmark environmental laws, including a ban on billboards and land protection legislation.

He and his wife were married twice, first in 1961, and then after a divorce in 1978, again in 1986. He is survived by his two children, Laura and Leonard.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Senate Sends $16.3 Billion Veterans Affairs Reform Bill To Obama

By Rebecca Bratek, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Nearly four months after Veterans Affairs employees were exposed for allegedly falsifying records to cover up long wait times for patients, the Senate on Thursday night overwhelmingly approved a $16.3 billion compromise bill to overhaul the department.

The chamber’s 91-3 vote comes as Congress heads into a five-week recess. The House passed the joint conference committee legislation Wednesday. Now the measure awaits President Barack Obama’s signature.

“My belief is that the cost of war, in terms of what it does to the men and women who fight our battles, is a lot greater than most Americans fully understand,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the Senate’s chief negotiator. “It is absolutely imperative we don’t make veterans into political pawns.”

The deal includes $10 billion in emergency funds to pay private doctors to treat veterans who can’t get a VA appointment within 14 days or those who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The remaining funds are allotted to build up the health care system’s clinical staff and lease new clinics across the country.

The legislation also establishes an independent committee to review VA operations and act as a liaison with Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the reform legislation would increase the federal deficit by about $10 billion over the next 10 years.

Some of the five House Republicans who voted against the bill said Congress was throwing money at the problem and not addressing its cause.

“We need structural changes, a purge of those who made this mess, and more choices for our veterans,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA).

In early April, amid reports of mismanagement in the VA system, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that a secret waiting list may have contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans.

The wait lists, hidden from official records, concealed thousands of veterans who were forced to wait months to see a VA doctor, even though the health care system has a 30-day goal when scheduling new appointments.

By the end of May, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki had resigned, and investigations into the vast agency were in full swing.

The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved separate versions of a VA reform bill in early June, but legislators clashed over the costs. In previous versions, the House would have spent $44 billion while the Senate authorized $35 billion.

The scaled-down compromise parallels the $17.6 billion that Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said recently that the agency needed over the next three years to begin reform.

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Robert McDonald, former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, as Shinseki’s replacement.

The reform measure grants McDonald broad authority to fire or demote senior executives who are accused of mismanagement and dishonesty.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer ( D-MD), supported the bill, but said the firing provision undermines civil service protections that have existed for decades.

Senate Republicans who opposed the bill echoed their House counterparts. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), offered a “better choice” to his fellow lawmakers Thursday: “Let’s wait a bit,” he said, and see how effective McDonald is at the top of the agency, letting the new secretary review the VA and offer his input.

Rep. Dan Benishek (R-MI), who worked as a VA doctor for 20 years, said the “true test” would come next.

“Our bill is not perfect, and the problems at the VA will not be solved overnight,” he said. “But this is our best chance.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Lawmakers Join To Honor MLK Jr., But Are Split Over Voting Rights Bill

By Rebecca Bratek, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress joined in a rare moment of unity Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Leaders linked hands and gently swayed together to the tune of “We Shall Overcome” during the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony.

The ceremony, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, honored the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

“Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to your father and mother that can never be repaid,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told King’s children, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King and Bernice King, who accepted the award on their parents’ behalf.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delivered remarks at the ceremony.

Levin; Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio; and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., also joined the leaders to honor the Kings.

But even though the congressional leaders held hands in King’s memory, they remain divided on pending legislation aimed at strengthening voting rights for African-Americans.

Pelosi, Levin and Fudge, who is chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called upon their colleagues to pass a proposal to restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If the Rev. and Mrs. King could speak to us now, if our predecessors who passed the Civil Rights Act could speak to us now, would they not challenge us to come together across lines of party and geography in a great cause?” Levin asked.

The Voting Rights Act provision that was invalidated had allowed the federal government to require preapproval before some states could amend their election rules. It was aimed largely at Southern states to prevent voting laws that discriminated against African-Americans.

New voting restrictions are slated to be in place in 22 states by the 2014 midterm election, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Seven of 11 states with the highest African-American turnout are imposing regulations, according to the report.

A bipartisan proposal introduced in January would essentially restore that section and create new criteria to determine which states need federal “preclearance” before changing their laws.

But many House Republicans have opposed the bill, according to Rich Hansen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and election law blogger. He called the remarks at Tuesday’s ceremony “lofty rhetoric.”

“There’s no one who has the interest or the power to move this in the House, even if it passes the Senate,” Hansen said. “This is an issue people are going to continue to push going into the 2016 elections.”

Photo via AFP