Sen. Jim Jeffords, who single-handedly upset the balance of power on Capitol Hill four years ago when he quit the Republican Party to become...

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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — Sen. Jim Jeffords, who single-handedly upset the balance of power on Capitol Hill four years ago when he quit the Republican Party to become an independent, announced yesterday he will retire at the end of his term next year, citing his own health problems and those of his wife.

The surprise announcement immediately triggered a scramble for Jeffords’ seat, one of several that will be up for grabs in next year’s midterm elections.

In recent months, Jeffords’ family and his staff questioned whether the 70-year-old senator was physically and mentally up to a campaign for a fourth term. He stumbled in a recent radio interview, and was confused about some of his votes. His wife, Liz, is battling cancer.

“It is time to begin a new chapter, both for me personally and for the people of Vermont,” said Jeffords, who has suffered from a bad back and neck. “There have been questions about my health, and that is a factor as well. I am feeling the aches and pains when you reach 70.”

Jeffords’ retirement will bring an end to a three-decade career in Washington. He won election to the House in 1974 as a Republican, and moved to the Senate in 1988.

In 2001, he abandoned the GOP and aligned himself with the Democrats, putting them in control of the evenly divided Senate. The switch made him a hero among Democrats and a traitor among Republicans.

The Senate Republican leader at the time, Mississippi’s Trent Lott, dubbed Jeffords’ action a “coup of one,” and described it as “the impetuous decision of one man to undermine our democracy.”

At the heart of Jeffords’ decision was a belief that the GOP in general and President Bush in particular had become too conservative and that he could not remain in a party that favored tax breaks for the wealthy over full funding of education programs for the disabled.

He complained at the time that the Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress “were set out on an agenda that did not fit into what the average American wanted to see.”

The Democrats’ control of the Senate was brief. Republicans took it back 18 months later, and added to their gains in last fall’s election. They now hold 55 seats out of 100.

Still, Jeffords has become a hero to Democrats in the four years since. He has been one of the party’s biggest fund-raisers, attracting huge crowds as he traveled the country helping to bring in millions in 2002 and 2004 for Democratic candidates.