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    James Jeffords Defects From GOP

    Vermont Senator's move shifts control of Senate, impacts Bush agenda.

    Citing strained relations and increasing differences of opinion with his own political party, especially regarding issues such as education funding, environmental legislation and Bush's tax cut, Sen. James Jeffords officially withdrew his membership from the Republican party Thursday at a gathering in Burlington, Vt. Democrats now hold 50 Senate seats to the Republicans 49.

    The Vermont lawmaker, who will become the legislative body's only Independent, has agreed to cast his vote for Democratic Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to become majority leader, giving Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 1994. Daschle, currently the minority leader, will have the ability to bring bills to the floor, and Democrats will also take over as chairmen of most committees.

    The impact of Jeffords' move on the petroleum marketing and c-store industry remains to be seen. However, Jeffords, an extremely popular politician in Vermont, where he was recently reelected to a third term, is generally aligned with environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and will likely accept chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee soon. With their new power to stall or block legislation, Senate Democrats are almost certain to demand more extensive compromises on the Bush /Cheney energy plan.

    Also, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a vocal proponent of increased minimum wage, will probably replace Jeffords as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.

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