Jeffords' Departure a Crucial Turn for Pensions, Patients

May 25, 2001 ( - As expected, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords Thursday changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent, with the potential to send shockwaves through key legislative benefits initiatives, as the Democrats assume majority roles.

And while the changes aren’t expected to exert a direct impact on the pension reforms imbedded in the current tax relief bills, the particulars and implementation schedule for those changes is anything but certain. 

Independent’s Day
Jeffords said he was becoming an independent but would join the Democratic caucus, citing fundamental disagreements with President George Bush on issues from abortion to national defense.  That moves the Senate from a 50-50 split, to one that favors the Democrats by a 50-49-1 margin.
Perhaps most significantly, Jeffords, 67, would relinquish the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, most likely to Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.  That move could well change the complexion of the still-pending debate on a Patient’s Bill of Rights (PBOR).

That change in leadership could well shift the focus from the Frist-Breaux version of a PBOR submitted earlier this month to a more controversial earlier proposal from Sens. Kennedy, McCain and Edwards. “The issue is, will Kennedy negotiate in order to get legislation passed, or will he be focused on an election issue for 2002?”, ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC) President Mark Ugoretz told

Musical Chairs
Jeffords’ departure from the GOP will likely bump up Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) to the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee currently chaired by Jeffords. 
Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) is expected to take over from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as chair of the Finance Committee.

Now or Never?

Current pension reform initiatives will likely be unaffected by Jeffords’ party change, which is not expected to take effect until after the tax bill is signed.  However, initiatives on cash balance plans, spousal coverage and notice requirements are likely to find a more receptive ear under the new leadership, according to Ugoretz.  Furthermore, it’s uncertain at this point whether the final version will draw more from the popular House version co-sponsored by Reps. Portman and Cardin, or the Senate version, which differs in some respects.  “It’s up for grabs now”, said Ugoretz, “and nobody’s talking.” 

Uncertainty seemed to be the order of the day, despite the popularity of the pension reform bill on both sides of the aisle.  Jim Klein, president of the American Benefit Council, told, “Plan sponsors need to realize that the dynamics have changed.  Employers are more likely to find themselves in a defensive stance than previously on these issues.”

Indeed, it now seems more likely than ever that this could be the last chance for pension reform in this Congress.  “The current landscape underscores the importance of getting this bill passed now,” according to Klein.  “Plan sponsors need to keep the pressure on Congress.”   
Up For Grabs

Not wasting any time, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) said the previous power sharing agreement with Republicans was now “null and void.”

Congressional scholars note that virtually all of the logistics of a switch of party control in the Senate are open to negotiation, from determining the ratio of Democratic to Republican members on the committees to the amount o