By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - James Jeffords, a soft-spoken Vermonter whose defection from the Republican Party in 2001 created an unprecedented power shift in the U.S. Senate and gave Democrats control of the chamber for 18 months, died on Monday at age 80, his former aide said.
Jeffords had been in declining health and died at a military retirement home in Washington, the aide, Diane Derby, said. A funeral is being planned in his hometown of Rutland, Vermont, she added.
Jeffords was a New England moderate who found himself out of step with his increasingly conservative colleagues when he rocked American politics on May 24, 2001, by announcing he was leaving President George W. Bush's Republican Party, tipping the divided Senate.
He declared himself independent, but his decision to caucus with Democrats gave them 51 votes in the chamber that had been split 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote putting Republicans in charge.
With his single-handed tipping of the balance of power on Capitol Hill, Jeffords drew the wrath of Republicans and the embrace of Democrats, who were then able to block much of Bush's conservative agenda - from bigger tax cuts to a long list of anti-abortion judicial nominees.
"None whatsoever," Jeffords told Reuters a year later when asked if he had any regrets about his decision. "I'm now working with people I agree with rather than trying to compromise with people I disagree with," he said. "It is a lot easier."
Jeffords, regarded as one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, said his disaffection with the party had grown over the years. A feud with the White House over Bush's plan for massive tax cuts was the last straw.
Jeffords said he would vote for the full $1.6 trillion of tax cuts Bush sought only if the White House agreed to spend more on public education for children with disabilities, a program the senator championed.
He and the White House did not come to terms, leaving Republicans one vote short to pass the full tax cut. The Senate eventually passed a $1.3 trillion tax cut.
Jeffords' shift marked the first time control of the Senate changed as a result of a defection rather than an election. Then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi angrily called his action "a coup of one."
Vermont's current senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy and independent Bernie Sanders, praised Jeffords' efforts on behalf of the rural New England state and his willingness to switch political parties.
President Barack Obama said in a statement: "Jim never lost the fiercely independent spirit that made Vermonters, and people across America, trust and respect him."
Many former fellow Republicans barely spoke to Jeffords after his defection. But the Vermont lawmaker shrugged off their bitterness, saying his decision allowed him to sleep better and to enjoy his work again in Congress.
Republicans won back control of the Senate in the November 2002 elections. In early 2005, citing his wife's fight against cancer, Jeffords announced he would not run for a third Senate term in 2006. His wife, Elizabeth, died in 2007. They had two children.
Jeffords, the son of a state chief justice, went to Yale, served in the Navy and graduated from Harvard Law School.
He served as Vermont attorney general and in the state Legislature before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974. He was elected to the Senate 14 years later.
During the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, Jeffords backed gun control, an increase in the minimum wage and the president's failed comprehensive health plan.
In Clinton's 1999 impeachment trial in the Senate, Jeffords was among the first of a handful of moderate Republicans who announced they would vote against convicting the president of charges stemming from his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The not-guilty verdict allowed Clinton to finish his second term.
After Jeffords' famous defection in the Senate, a Vermont brewery named an ale for him called Jeezum Jim, which it said was "a celebration of conviction, courage, and the difference one man can make."
"Jeezum" was variously described as a polite Vermont cussword and as a description of Jeffords' halting, modest speaking manner, "Aw jeez, um."
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Editing by Eric Beech and Peter Cooney)