WASHINGTON — In the late afternoon of May 22, 2001, an apocalyptic-looking set of thunderstorms rolled across the National Mall, with bolts of lightning striking just outside the Capitol dome. Inside the Senate chamber, a bigger storm was brewing: James Jeffords, the venerable patrician senator from Vermont, had informed Democratic and Republican party leaders that he would probably cross the aisle.
Two days later Senator Jeffords left the Republican Party that he had served in for the previous 26 years, first in the House and then the Senate, and began to caucus with Democrats. The move ended a historic five-month run in which the Senate sat deadlocked at 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney giving Republicans control as the tie-breaking vote. Senator Jeffords handed Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, the title of majority leader and put the brakes on the domestic agenda of the George W. Bush White House.
‘‘Lord,’’ Don Nickles, Republican of Oklahoma, then the Senate majority whip, shouted as he walked off the floor that Tuesday afternoon, looking out at the crackling skies as if to find a metaphor for the storm inside the Capitol. The next night, in an unplanned coincidence, the entire Senate gathered for a bipartisan huddle for one of the now-extinct ‘‘Leader’s Lecture’’ series. (The event was one of Gerald Ford’s last big speeches in the Capitol.)
‘‘A few mistake the clash of ideas for a holy war,’’ the former president, vice president, and House minority leader told senators, in words that Senator Jeffords would echo the next morning although he was not on hand for the Ford speech; he had been en route to Burlington, Vt., to publicly drop his bombshell.
It was one of those rare singular moments when one lawmaker, with one vote, truly bent the arc of politics in a different direction. It also served to highlight the feud between the still-dominant conservative wing and the increasingly marginalized moderate faction of the Republican Party.
‘‘Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party,’’ Senator Jeffords said in Burlington. ‘‘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.’’
Senator Jeffords, who served the Green Mountain state for 32 years in Washington, died Monday in Washington. He was 80.
He had been in declining health, said Diane Derby, a former aide to Senator Jeffords.
In a statement, President Obama said Senator Jeffords devoted his life to public service.
‘‘Jim never lost the fiercely independent spirit that made Vermonters, and people across America, trust and respect him,’’ Obama said.
Senator Jeffords retired in 2006, declining to seek a fourth term because of his and his wife’s health problems.
He won election to the House in 1974 as a Republican. The post-Watergate year was a strong one for Democrats nationally, but he was running as Vermont was beginning its shift from a century of solid Republicanism to its current status as among the most liberal states.
The Rutland native, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, won statewide office as attorney general and was from a well-known Vermont Republican family. His father, Olin, had been chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.
Senator Jeffords had a black belt in tae kwon do and until his departure from the Republican Party was a member of the Singing Senators, with GOP colleagues Trent Lott, John Ashcroft, and Larry Craig.
During his time in Washington, Senator Jeffords stood out as a moderate to liberal Republican as the party was moving to the right. He was a strong backer of education, the environment, job training, and help for people with disabilities.
He was the only Republican in the House to vote against President Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981. After election to the Senate in 1988, replacing moderate Republican Robert Stafford, Senator Jeffords opposed George H.W. Bush’s appointment of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court.
Many congressmen had switched parties before Senator Jeffords, and some would switch parties afterward, but no one in Senate history had tipped the balance of power by walking across the aisle. The switch was months, if not years, in the making, given the moderate style of GOP politics in New England, where the Bush family had its original roots, versus the Texas-style conservatism adopted by the latest generation of Bushes.
On Election Day 2000, Republicans entered with a 54-46 edge in the Senate, but faced a terrible map — incumbents up for reelection in a number of states that Vice President Al Gore would defeat Bush in: Minnesota, Washington, Delaware, and Michigan. All four lost, and after the shakeout in a few other states, including an epic Missouri race in which a dead governor, Mel Carnahan, defeated Ashcroft and was replaced by his widow, Jean, Daschle had reached 50 seats in his caucus and entered into negotiations with Lott.
After days of talks, the two leaders emerged with a plan that would leave the chairmen’s gavels in the hands of Republicans, including Senator Jeffords, who was chairman of what is now called the Health, Education, Labor, Pension Committee.
Almost immediately Democrats began maneuvering to find a Republican who would switch sides and give them full control, with Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and then the minority whip, playing a key role. Senator Jeffords was one of three senators targeted, along with Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who would later follow Senator Jeffords’s lead, first becoming an independent and winning his state’s governorship. Another target was Senator John McCain of Arizona, who despite his conservative voting record exited the 2000 presidential primary with a strong grudge against Bush.
For Senator Jeffords, the last straw was Bush’s opposition to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. When he declared he would leave the Republicans, his former party mates were apoplectic. Lott, of Mississippi, dubbed Senator Jeffords’s action a ‘‘coup of one’’ and described it as ‘‘the impetuous decision of one man to undermine our democracy.’’
‘‘In 2001, he displayed enormous courage by leaving a party that, he often said, had left him because of its dramatic move to the right,’’ Senator Bernie Sanders, a left-leaning independent who won Senator Jeffords’s seat in 2006, said Monday.
The Democrats’ control of the Senate was brief. Republicans took it back 18 months later, and added to their gains in the 2004 elections. But Democrats regained Senate control in 2006.
Senator Jeffords’s wife, Liz, died in 2007 after battling cancer. He leaves a daughter, Laura, and a son, Leonard, and several grandchildren.
‘‘We didn’t always philosophically agree, but we managed on many occasions to get things done,’’ Lott said Monday. “And that’s what’s wrong now.’’
Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.