Vt. Senator Jim Jeffords

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Jim Jeffords of Vermont, the lone Independent member of the U.S. Senate, says social issues, particularly those important to women and children, are being pushed aside for the foreseeable future while the nation focuses on the double threat of terrorism and the sharply falling economy.

When Jeffords bolted from the Republican Party five months ago, his goal was to swing power toward moderates and give them an opportunity to take the lead on a number of social and civil rights issues. At the top of his list were expanding funding for early childhood education and protecting abortion rights. But those goals are on hold now as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Last week terrorism landed on his doorstep when an anthrax-laced envelope arrived at the majority leader’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building, one floor away from the suite where Jeffords and his staff work.

As a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Social Security, and chair of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, Jeffords said in an interview that he is worried about how women and children will fare as the country deals with the current crisis of terrorism, anthrax fears and a faltering economy.

“I’m very concerned about the ramifications for low-income people, women in particular, in view of this very sharp reversal in expectations,” he said.

Pressures on Women, Particularly Single Mothers, Likely to Increase

Pressures on women, particularly single mothers with low incomes, will become more intense, both economically and because of their fears for the health and safety of their children, Jeffords said.

The anxiety that many women are feeling about their children’s safety in the shadow of terrorism is of particular concern to Jeffords because of the Environment Committee’s oversight of clean air and water, nuclear power plants and other potentially vulnerable areas. He said he sympathized particularly with single mothers who bear the full responsibility of explaining the situation to their children.

Jeffords recently held a hearing with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to review the safety of the nation’s water supplies, and as he put it, “There’s no question we’re vulnerable.” He said systems already in place guard against bacteriological threats and would serve as a first alarm against changes in water supplies. But the possible introduction of other toxins, more difficult to assess and fight, must be taken into consideration, Jeffords said.

By switching parties Jeffords hoped to help move the Senate to increase funding for education, one of his top priorities. Just a few months ago, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill told the Finance Committee that the surplus was so large that it was “coming out his windows,” Jeffords recalled. Now the nation is facing decisions on how to pay for all that needs to be done, and Jeffords said Social Security already has been taken out of its “lockbox.” He plans to work to protect Social Security in the face of pressure to dip into reserves, while safeguarding support for important social programs. Women are the majority of the program’s beneficiaries.

“My main concern in that regard is education, especially as that affects women. The most important education deficiency that we have in this country is providing good child care with an educational component for three- to four-year-olds,” Jeffords said.

Jeffords: U.S. Should Pay Early Childhood Education

“To those who can afford it, the cost is incredible, $6,000 a year, which is more than in most states you pay to go to college, and you have to pay for it for a three- and a four-year-old. Every other industrialized nation in this world pays totally for it in the public school system,” the senator said.

He also is worried about the future of the Head Start program, which he feels not only has helped prepare children to compete in society, but also has provided young women in need with an opportunity to interact with each other and find employment while their children are at school.

“Head Start is underfunded and its educational component, from all indications, is seriously inadequate. With the downturn in the economy, these things are not going to get better, they’re going to get worse,” he predicted.

“The worst thing is that the perception we had a year ago was that we’d be able to get these things under control, even though the administration, I’d have to say, has never shown any enthusiasm for spending money in these areas. They have the right-wing philosophy that the government should stay out of child-rearing,” which appears to include early childhood education and care, Jeffords said.

Jeffords has been a consistent and outspoken defender of choice in the abortion rights debate. He sees no change in its status for the immediate future because the current national crisis, at least temporarily, has sidetracked opponents’ efforts to undermine those rights. Those efforts, as well as appointments of federal court judges, must pass through Senate committees on the way to becoming law and, by switching parties when the Senate was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, Jeffords gave Democrats the majority and control of all committee chairs.

Left Party to Preserve Independence of Supreme Court

“One of the main reasons I did what I did was to make sure that Pat Leahy, the Democrat senator from Vermont, was chairman of the Judiciary and that the Democrats or the moderates had the ability to stop the Supreme Court from being turned around on its ear,” he explained.

One unexpected outcome of Leahy’s chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee has been his standoff with Attorney General John Ashcroft over the sweeping legal powers the administration seeks in its pursuit of terrorists. Jeffords said he was gratified that Leahy was able both to work with Ashcroft and to block “some of the more dangerous things that might have come about that were eating into our ability to have free speech.”

Vermont is the only state in the nation that has legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, and it is one of 12 states that has outlawed employment discrimination because of sexual orientation. In July, before terrorism diverted the nation’s attention, Jeffords and a bipartisan group of senators and representatives introduced legislation to extend the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, to gays and lesbians. The law would ban discrimination in hiring, firing, promotions and compensation.

The coalition, Jeffords said, is within one or two votes of having enough for passage, but along with other social and civil rights legislation, it has been pushed into the background, and will have to wait until next year for passage.

The only consolation for proponents of a wide range of civil rights appeared to be that, even if they aren’t getting better, at least they’re not getting worse, Jeffords concluded.

Patti Reid is a partner in Reid Associates, writing and editing consultants. She formerly was an Associated Press writer, editor and staff manager in New England.

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