Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), whose abrupt defection from the Republican Party in May 2001 handed control of the Senate to the Democrats for the next 19 months, announced yesterday that he would not seek a fourth term in 2006 due to his and his wife's health problems.
Jeffords, 70, in a surprise announcement in South Burlington, Vt., cited his own health, as well as the fact that his wife, Elizabeth, is battling cancer and will soon have to undergo another round of chemotherapy. He added that "my memory fails me on occasion, but [Elizabeth] would probably argue this has been going on for the last 50 years."
"I have had an enormously satisfying career, one that I would not have traded for any other," Jeffords said, his wife and two adult children at his side.
During a 30-year career in the House and Senate, Jeffords has sided with Democrats on such issues as health care, gun control, the environment and family and medical leave. He supported Vermont's law allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
The senator's spokesman had said recently that Jeffords was in good health. He had hired campaign staff and begun raising money for the 2006 race and was favored to win reelection.
A strong contender for the seat is Rep. Bernard Sanders, an Independent who is Vermont's sole representative in the House and a household name throughout the state. Sanders, a man of rumpled appearance, has made clear he would run if Jeffords steps down.
A spokesperson for former Vermont governor Howard Dean, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the ex-presidential candidate will not run.
Jeffords's decision to quit the Republican Party in 2001 set off a dramatic political upheaval in the then-evenly divided Senate and resulted in the election of Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) as majority leader, replacing Trent Lott (D-Miss.).
The defection illuminated the political schism in the GOP between the increasingly conservative wing, centered in the South and West, and a handful of moderates mainly from New England, representing an older, centrist Republican heritage.
For GOP conservatives, the Jeffords defection was a bitter moment that still rankles today. At the time, Lott dubbed it a "coup of one."
"It was a hard time and a difficult time for Republicans," said a former Senate GOP leadership aide. "There was revenge in the air, but we realized we needed to think maturely. We didn't want to lose more Republicans. The best revenge was to get the majority back."
A taciturn, unassuming man sometimes described as "absent-minded," "mumbly," or "a quirky New Englander," Jeffords showed a steelier side in the incident. In his book, "My Declaration of Independence," Jeffords said he reached a "point of no return" where he could no longer tolerate the GOP's fiscal policies favoring huge tax cuts despite deficits.
"I had to be true to what I thought was right, and leave the consequences to sort themselves out," he wrote.
Senate Democrats rewarded him with the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, where he pressed for environmental causes popular in his state, such as scaling back of toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants.
One moderate, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), said yesterday she was "saddened" by the departure of Jeffords. His leaving, she said, is a reminder that "we're losing the center at an alarming rate."
His latest announcement is likely to have little impact on which party controls the chamber after the 2006 election, sources said.
Republicans have a comfortable 55 to 45 Senate edge. That margin would make it difficult for Democrats to regain a majority even if Jeffords stayed, according to several political observers.
Any GOP candidate will face an uphill fight in Vermont. Political trends in the state favor the Democrats. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) defeated President Bush by 20 percentage points in last year's presidential election.
Nonetheless, observers said a strong GOP candidate with home-state identification could be competitive. Two names mentioned yesterday were Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and Richard Tarrant, chief executive of a Vermont software company.
Although raised in Brooklyn -- where he attended the same Flatbush public school as Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) -- Sanders has proved an effective vote-getter in Vermont since winning his House seat in 1990, often appealing to working-class conservatives by stressing trade protection, jobs and higher wages. He has been treated as a Democrat in the House and likely would face only GOP opposition.
Yesterday, Sanders praised Jeffords for "showing enormous courage and a willingness to stand up against the extreme right wing that now controls Congress."
News researcher Carmen Chapin contributed to this article.