Jeffords is the son of Olin Jeffords, who was formerly Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. Jim Jeffords holds an undergraduate degree from Yale University (1956), and a law degree from Harvard Law School (1962). After three years of active duty in the United States Navy (1956 to 1959), Jeffords served in the Naval Reserves until he retired as a Captain in 1990. He is married to Elizabeth Daley and has two children, Leonard and Laura. Jeffords' residence is in Shrewsbury, Vermont.
Jeffords entered politics in 1966, winning a seat in the Vermont State Senate. He followed that success in 1968 with a victory in the race for Vermont Attorney General. In 1974, he won Vermont's sole seat in the House of Representatives, where he served until 1988 and was the ranking Republican member of the House Education and Labor Committee . In 1988, Jeffords left the House for the Senate, where he remains today.
Jeffords' work in Congress has focused on legislation involving education, job training, and individuals with disabilities. In recent years, his emphasis has shifted somewhat, as Jeffords has pushed several important pieces of environmental legislation through Congress.
He was one of the founders of the Congressional Solar Coalition and the Congressional Arts Caucus. Jeffords has been frequently recognized for his skills as a legislator, receiving Parenting Magazine's "Legislator of the Year" award in 1999, and the Sierra Club's highest commendation in 2002.
In spite of his long history of involvement in various causes, Jeffords is known by most Americans for one event in his career. In 2001, Jeffords quit the Republican Party (with which he had always been affiliated) and announced his new status as an Independent. This occurred after he was intensely criticized by the Republican leadership for voting against President Bush's tax cut package. This changed the Senate composition from 50-50 from each party to 49 Republicans and 50 Democrats, thus handing control of that chamber to the Democratic Party. He thus lost his chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (which he had held since 1997) but was given Harry Reid's position as the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (which he held until the Democrats lost control of the chamber in 2002).
Jeffords made a deal with the Democrats according to which he votes with them on all procedural matters (except with permission of the Whip, which would be rarely asked and rarely granted) in exchange for the committee seats that would have been available to Jeffords had he been a Democrat during his entire Senate tenure. Jeffords is free to vote as he pleases on substantive matters. (It is essentially the same deal that Libertarian Ron Paul has with the Republicans.)
If Jeffords chooses to run for re-election in 2006, it is not yet known whether he will remain unaffiliated, or if (as some observers suspect) he will seek to be nominated by another national party.