James M. Jeffords, who died Monday at age 80, built a three-decade career in Washington but cemented his place in history with one decision: fleeing the Republican Party and siding with Democrats, delivering them control of the Senate in 2001.
Angered by sour relations with President George W. Bush and dismayed by the GOP's rightward tilt, Mr. Jeffords ditched his lifelong party and became an independent who caucused with Democrats, giving them control of the chamber and thus a veto on Mr. Bush just months into his tenure.
"History will remember Sen. Jeffords as a courageous man who listened to his conscience, and I will always respect him for doing so," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who played a key role in getting Mr. Jeffords to leave the Republican Party.
Trent Lott, the GOP leader in the Senate at the time, said Mr. Jeffords, who six months earlier was re-elected as a Republican, carried out a "coup of one."
In the end, Mr. Jeffords' switch mattered less than it otherwise might have if not for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks three months later. In the aftermath of the attacks, Mr. Bush got a huge boost of support. The president restocked his political capital and shifted the focus to terrorism and international issues, where he was able to forge bipartisan consensus on bold moves such as the Patriot Act and the Iraq War.
Mr. Jeffords ended his tenure in Congress quietly, failing to notch a single law to his name after his partisan switch. He decided against seeking re-election in 2006 and retired from the Senate at the end of his third term.
He was elected to the House in 1974 and won his Senate seat in 1988. He was part of the liberal wing of the Republican Party at a time when conservatives were ascendant.
Mr. Jeffords voted against President Reagan's signature tax cuts and against confirming Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice.
Outside of politics, he made a name for himself as one of the four "singing senators" — a barbershop quartet led by Mr. Lott that included two other Republicans. Mr. Jeffords' party switch helped end that venture.
His chief legislative accomplishments were bills to assist the disabled and AIDS patients, as well as some bills specific to his native Vermont.
"Jim was one of the most popular elected officials in the modern history of the state," said Sen. Bernard Sanders, another independent who won Mr. Jeffords' seat.
"Vermonters admired him because of his low-key and down-to-earth qualities, and because of his obvious and strong love of the state and the Vermont way of life. He was an effective champion of education, disability rights, the environment and the arts — and millions of Americans have benefited from his efforts," Mr. Sanders said.
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