Jim Jeffords, the former senator from Vermont who single-handedly redrew the national political map in 2001 when, after a quarter-century as a moderate Republican lawmaker, he declared himself an independent, shifting control of the Senate to the Democrats, died on Monday in Washington. He was 80.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his son, Leonard, said.
Vermont’s lone congressman from 1975 until his election to the Senate in 1988, Mr. Jeffords was a solid Republican on military issues. But as early as 1981, when he voted against President Ronald Reagan’s package of tax and budget cuts — the only House Republican to do so — he showed a disinclination to be bound by his party’s conservative orthodoxy.
A supporter of abortion rights, gay rights and the National Endowment for the Arts — left-leaning stances perhaps befitting an elected representative of a state that had become one of the nation’s bluest — he was in favor of the health care plan proposed by President Bill Clinton and opposed Mr. Clinton’s impeachment. He backed legislation promoting environmental protection, funding for education and aid for the disabled. He voted against President George Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
But many of his Republican colleagues were shocked when, after the election of George W. Bush in 2000, his displeasure with the further rightward shift of the party caused him to abandon it and to caucus with the Democrats as an independent.
As chairman of the Education and Labor Committee (in 1999, under his watch, the name was changed to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions), he had become frustrated by what he viewed as Republican parsimony. He was especially unhappy with a tax-cutting bill backed by President Bush that diminished funding for public education and that did not provide full support for a program that would bring special education students into the mainstream.
“Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party,” Senator Jeffords said in announcing his decision on May 24, 2001. “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.”
The move came at a sensitive political moment: The Senate was split between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, but the Republicans held the tiebreaking vote in Vice President Dick Cheney. After Mr. Jeffords’s defection, the Democrats, with their slim advantage, made Mr. Jeffords chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works and replaced him on the health and education committee with Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The Democrats’ plurality in the Senate lasted only 18 months, however — until the midterm elections of 2002, when Republicans took back control. Mr. Jeffords, voting mostly with the Democrats from then on, retired in 2007. He was succeeded by an even more left-leaning independent, Bernie Sanders.
“Jim was one of the most popular elected officials in the modern history of the state,” Senator Sanders said in statement on his website Monday, adding, “He was an effective champion of education, disability rights, the environment and the arts — and millions of Americans have benefited from his efforts.”
President Obama said in a statement: “Whatever the issue — whether it was protecting the environment, supporting Americans with disabilities or whether to authorize the war in Iraq — Jim voted his principles, even if it sometimes meant taking a lonely or unpopular stance.”
James Merrill Jeffords was born on May 11, 1934, in Rutland, Vt., where he attended public schools. His family was prominent in Republican circles. His father, Olin M. Jeffords, was chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.
James graduated from Yale and served as a gunnery officer on the Navy destroyer McNair, participating in the reopening of the Suez Canal in 1957. He earned a law degree from Harvard and worked in private practice before entering politics in the 1960s.
Mr. Jeffords was elected to the State Senate in 1967 and served as Vermont’s attorney general from 1969 to 1973. He is the author of two memoirs: “My Declaration of Independence” (2001), focused on his leaving the Republican Party, and “An Independent Man: Adventures of a Public Servant” (2003).
Mr. Jeffords married Elizabeth Daley twice, first in 1961 and, after their divorce in 1978, again in 1986. She died in 2007. In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Laura, and two grandchildren.
Though Mr. Jeffords clashed with fellow Republicans on many policy issues, he found harmony with them in another endeavor. In the 1990s, along with Trent Lott of Mississippi, Larry Craig of Idaho and John Ashcroft of Missouri, later the United States attorney general, he was a member of The Singing Senators, a barbershop quartet.
“He thought he could sing, but he was horrible,” Leonard Jeffords recalled. “The dogs would start howling. Lott could really belt it out; Larry Craig had a nice voice. John Ashcroft was pretty good. My dad, I think, was just there.”