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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

James Jeffords

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood speaks with reporter Cat Lazaroff about what the defection of Vermont senator James Jeffords from the Republican Party may mean for environmental issues on Capital Hill.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The delicate power balance in the U.S. Senate has tipped away from the Republicans. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont says he's now an Independent and has bid the GOP goodbye. As the Democrats take control of the Senate for the first time since 1994, big changes are underway on Capitol Hill. To discuss the impact of the party change by one of the Senate's most pro-environment members, I'm joined now by Cat Lazaroff, the Washington bureau chief of Environment News Service. Hi there, Cat.

LAZAROFF: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Overall, what do you think will be the environment impact of Senator Jeffords' party switch?

LAZAROFF: I think this is going to have a major impact on the ability of the Bush administration to push through its agenda. There was a lot of concern last fall when Bush won over Gore, that environmental issues were really going to have to take a back seat over the next, at least the next, four years. I think now there is a sense that environmental issues may now be able to push to the forefront again, at least in the Senate.

CURWOOD: Now, Senator Jeffords was part of, what we might call, the green elephants: moderate Republicans, largely from the northeast, who were supportive of environmental causes. How well do you think he's going to be able to get along with those moderate Republican colleagues now?

LAZAROFF: Jeffords said, when he made this decision, that he needed to stick by his own principles. And in general, the moderate Republicans, the green elephants, as you call them, have been doing that all along. They have felt a little bit stifled under the Bush administration. They have felt as though the more moderate side of the Republican Party has not had as much of a voice, particularly in the Senate, as it might have in the past under past administrations. So I think that the moderate Republicans, Jeffords' colleagues, are really going to welcome this change as giving them more of an ability to make their voices heard.

CURWOOD: Senator Jeffords is likely to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He chairs Health and Human Resources, but of course, Senator Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, has seniority there when the Democrats take over. So, what would be the impact of Senator Jeffords on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and what issues in particular do you think he would embrace?

LAZAROFF: I think that as the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, we're going to see Jeffords pushing his own agenda, which includes keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil drilling, which includes making a lot more positive moves to combat global warming. And a lot of public lands preservation. And those are things that we have not seen under Bob Smith, who has been much less open to supporting traditionally Democratic, liberal environmental issues.

CURWOOD: What other committee changes are we likely to see as the Democrats take charge? I'm particularly thinking of the Energy Committee, and Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico would be next in line with seniority there.

LAZAROFF: Yes. That's going to be an enormous change as well. Bingaman has voted about 70 percent of the time pro-environment, according to the League of Conservation Voters. And he's going to be taking over from Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, who has voted zero percent of the time pro-environment over the last two Congresses. Bingaman introduced his own comprehensive energy package earlier this month, and his package differs from President Bush's on a number of very important ways. Particularly, it strongly addresses climate change and combating global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. It would boost the fuel efficiency of vehicles. It would cap electricity prices, something that the Bush administration is strongly opposed to. And it would also oppose opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. All of these things are now going to be open to much more debate in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee than they would have been under Murkowski, who, as an Alaskan, strongly supported opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, for example.

CURWOOD: Let's look for a moment at the Appropriations Committee. Ted Stevens from Alaska has had that committee for a number of years and influenced the environmental agenda there. Robert Byrd from West Virginia will take over now. How will that change the environmental approach of the Appropriations Committee?

LAZAROFF: Well, Ted Stevens has done a very good job of pushing the interests of Alaskans, and that has included a strong emphasis on revenues from oil drilling, which directly benefit Alaskans. And also, keeping the timber industry active in the Tongass and other national forests in Alaska. Robert Byrd has his own agenda. He is very interested in keeping mountaintop removal mining, coal mining, alive in his home state of West Virginia. So, I think we may see a situation in which Senator Byrd is willing to compromise on things like logging and oil drilling in order to keep the coal industry healthy in West Virginia.

CURWOOD: What do the environmental activists say about this switch in the Senate?

LAZAROFF: Well, what I'm hearing from groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters is that they've been very happy in the past working with Senator Jeffords, and that they're really excited that Jeffords may end up chairing the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. And in particular, they're just thrilled that the Senate is now going to be controlled by the Democrats, who traditionally have voted a lot more consistently in favor of environmental initiatives than have the vast majority of the Senate Republicans.

CURWOOD: Cat Lazaroff is the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the Environment New Service. Thanks for filling us in, Cat.

LAZAROFF: Thank you very much.

(Music up and under: Turtle Island String Quartet, "Crossroads")



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