SACRAMENTO — Sen. James Jeffords’ defection from the Republican party could boost California’s clout in Washington and help the state’s quest for price caps on wholesale electricity.
With Jeffords as an Independent, Democrats will control the Senate for the first time since 1994 – a boon for this largely Democratic state where leaders have complained of being ignored by the Republican White House.
“All in all, it’s a big win for California because it seemed as if we were sort of being written off,” said Nancy Snow, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Now, California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, likely will take over the chairmanships of key subcommittees and enjoy the clout that comes with the majority party.
Other Democrats also will take leadership posts in most Senate committees, including the energy and appropriations panels that are pivotal to the nation’s most populous state.
“On most resource issues, whether it’s water, forestry or air, this is a big plus for California because we are on the same wavelength with most of the Democratic leadership,” said Steve Maviglio, spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.
On energy, Feinstein would gain an ally at the helm of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which had been chaired by Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who declined to take up issues at the heart of the state’s energy crisis.
Now, the committee will be led by Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a supporter of Feinstein and Davis’ request for federal price controls on wholesale electricity.
Feinstein said that with Bingaman’s help, the price caps bill she cosponsored could win Senate approval – a slim possibility under Republican control.
“I’m optimistic that this change will bode well for California,” said Feinstein.
Feinstein is the ranking Democrat on the military construction subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. If she becomes chairwoman, she could influence the spending of federal money on defense contracts and help prevent the closure of military bases in California.
She also is in line for the same position on the technology, terrorism and government information subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, Boxer is the senior Democrat on the Superfund, waste control and risk assessment subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and the international operations and terrorism subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee.
California also could gain an edge in securing more funding for programs including housing criminal illegal immigrants and a joint federal-state pact to resolve the state’s water wars.
“The chances of just getting California’s fair share of our tax dollars that go to Washington increase dramatically,” Maviglio said.
Plus, the shift could infuse new life into the Democratic party and force Republican leaders in Washington to consider its proposals.
“Nobody was really interested in talking to the Democrats because there was no majority there,” Snow said. “Now it’s like they’ve got a heartbeat now, whereas we were looking for signs of life just a couple of days ago.”