WASHINGTON — James Jeffords, the maverick Vermont politician who in 2001 gave Democrats a short-lived majority in the U.S. Senate when he left the Republican Party and declared himself an independent, died of complications of pneumonia Monday at a retirement residence in Washington. He was 80.
Sen. Jeffords declined to seek re-election to the Senate in 2006, citing his wife's and his own declining health, and was succeeded by Bernie Sanders, his state's longtime U.S. representative, who also is an independent.
A former Vermont state senator and attorney general, Sen. Jeffords served seven terms in the U.S. House before winning election to the Senate in 1988. He established himself as a moderate-to-liberal Republican, a reflection of his state's political tendencies, and frequently voted with Democrats on matters such as health care, taxes, abortion, gay rights, gun control and the environment.
He had long considered a party change, he said, without making the move. But his alienation worsened in the later years of his career — a shift attributed, depending on the source, to factors such as genuine philosophical disagreements or a desire for greater influence on behalf of his state.
On May 24, 2001, Sen. Jeffords announced that he would become an independent and caucus with Democrats. Before his move, the Senate had been split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Dick Cheney, the Republican vice president, casting the deciding vote. Suddenly, Democrats had a one-seat advantage.
"Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party," Sen. Jeffords said at the time. "I understand that many people are more conservative than I am, and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."
Critics cast him as a turncoat and a traitor to voters who had sent him to the Senate as a Republican three times. His decision snatched committee chairmanships from Republican colleagues and booted Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, as majority leader. Thomas Daschle, the Democrat of South Dakota, took his place.
But in the November 2002 elections, Republicans regained control of the Senate.