Obituary: James Jeffords / Vermont Republican who became independent

May 11, 1934 - Aug. 18, 2014

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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 Monday at a retirement residence in Washington. He was 80.

Diane Derby, a former aide, confirmed his death and said she did not know the immediate cause. Mr. 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 representative-at-large, who also is an independent.

A former Vermont state senator and attorney general, Mr. Jeffords served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives 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.

On May 24, 2001, Mr. Jeffords announced that he would become an independent and caucus with Democrats. Before his move, the Senate was 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.

During the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, Mr. Jeffords broke with his party by backing the president’s health care plan and voting against the articles of impeachment brought against him in connection with the Monica Lewinsky affair. Mr. Clinton called Mr. Jeffords his “favorite Republican.”

Mr. Jeffords’s disaffection with his party — as well as his party’s disaffection with him — intensified after George W. Bush’s election in 2000. In Mr. Bush’s early days in the White House, Mr. Jeffords argued for a reduction in the proposed $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, a signature White House initiative, and strenuously pushed for billions of dollars in special education funding.

At one point, according to an account in the book “Days of Fire” by journalist Peter Baker, Mr. Jeffords told Mr. Bush that he would be “a one-term president if he didn’t go beyond the conservative Republican base” on matters such as education.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Jeffords announced his party change.

As a Republican, Mr.Jeffords had chaired the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where he frequently worked with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking Democrat, but supported Republicans and opposed unions by backing worker-management consultation in labor disputes. In the Democratic majority, Mr. Jeffords became chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

James Merrill Jeffords was born May 11, 1934, in Rutland, Vt., to a prominent Republican family. His father, Olin Jeffords, was chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.

Jim Jeffords received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1956 and a law degree from Harvard University in 1962. He was a Navy veteran and retired from the Navy Reserve as a captain.

United States - North America - United States government - Bill Clinton - United States Congress - U.S. Republican Party - George W. Bush - United States Senate - Edward Kennedy - U.S. Democratic Party - George H. Bush - George H.W. Bush - Richard Cheney - United States House of Representatives - Clarence Thomas - Bernie Sanders - Monica Lewinsky - Peter Baker - Vermont - Tom Daschle - Jim Jeffords - Trent Lott - James Merrill - Robert Frost - Vermont State General Assembly - Vermont state government


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