WASHINGTON - Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens mourned the loss of his "beautiful office" in the Capitol on Thursday but expressed few other regrets over surrendering the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"If anything it gives me more time to work on Alaska matters," Stevens said, reflecting on the upcoming Democratic coup in the U.S. Senate that will relieve him of the chairman's seat. The takeover was made possible by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' defection from the Republican ranks Thursday.
"When I think back on the things we've done, we've accomplished as much in the minority as we have in the majority," Stevens said in a news conference with Alaska media.
Stevens, as the soon-to-be top or "ranking" minority member on Appropriations, will be well-served now by his long-standing friendships with the top two Democrats on the committee.
Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, will replace Stevens as chairman of the full committee. Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, will replace Stevens as chairman of the defense subcommittee.
Byrd reflects often upon his respect for Stevens. Inouye, speaking at a meeting last fall, described Stevens as his best friend in the Senate.
Stevens said that as chairman he had the responsibility to managestaff, and keep the committee records. "As a reward for doing that chore you get this beautiful office."
Beyond that, though, he expects to give up little influence on the committee.
Stevens was among a group of GOP senators who met with Jeffords on Wednesday.
"It was very clear that he felt he hadn't been properly treated, primarily by the White House staff," Stevens said.
Stevens said he knows the feeling. He said he once physically threw an aide to President Nixon out of his office. The aide had been sent to tell Stevens that the president would "cut me off" if the senator's votes didn't begin to align with Nixon's desires. Stevens said he told his staff not to let anyone from the White House in until the president called to apologize. Nixon did the next day, Stevens said.
Recently, when White House aides were quoted saying that Jeffords should be "disciplined" for obstructing President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut, the words were of a sort that would "rankle" any senator, Stevens said.
"We are not subservient to the executive branch," he said.
Stevens said he disagreed with Jeffords' action but recognized that he "had a right to be hurt."
"I came from a family that believes you should never go to bed on an argument. You should stay up and fight," Stevens said. "I think Sen. Jeffords is not of the same temperament. He decided he'd rather be an independent than fight."
But indelicate treatment by the White House wasn't the only problem. Jeffords also differed with Republican congressional leaders on numerous issues.
"He didn't have a price - he was seeking recognition of his philosophy within the Republican Party," Stevens said.