- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rep. David R. Obey, the author of last year’s $862 billion economic stimulus law, said Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election this year - and on the way out he took shots at the Senate, the press, the country’s mood and even former President George W. Bush, whose remarks at a 2001 meeting he considered so arrogant that it caused him to want to stay in Congress eight extra years.

The combative, gravel-voiced Wisconsin Democrat amassed a four-decade career, including two stints as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, during which he fought for historic expansions of government aid on everything from education to veterans’ health care, and with it came record-shattering spending.

But Mr. Obey, 71, faced the prospect of a tough re-election fight at home this year and a rough redistricting process next year, and the advocate for more infrastructure spending and higher taxes said the battles in Washington have taken their toll.

“I am, frankly, weary of having to beg on a daily basis that both parties recognize we do no favor for the country if we neglect to make the long-term investments in education, science, health and energy that are necessary to modernize our economy and at the same time decline to raise the revenue needed to pay for those,” he said at a news conference called to make the surprise announcement.

Mr. Obey was first elected in a special election in 1969 at age 30. He is the third most senior member of the House, behind only Reps. John D. Dingell, who came to Congress in 1955, and John Conyers Jr., who arrived in 1965. Both are Michigan Democrats.

His departure, along with the death earlier this year of longtime friend Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, who ran the defense spending subcommittee, and the demotion of Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, who lost his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, also signals the changing leadership of Washington Democrats.

The GOP took a victory lap, with House Republicans’ campaign committee sending out a fundraising e-mail saying the 21-term incumbent’s departure is a victory.

“This is more than a symbolic retirement,” National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Guy Harrison wrote. “The architect of the stimulus has decided he cannot justify his votes in Congress to a district that has elected him for over 40 years.”

Those on both sides of the aisle acknowledged, though, that Mr. Obey was a fighter for his causes and could be powerful no matter what side of an issue he was advocating.

“He was the best ally to have if he was on your side, and he was a frightening opponent if he was on the other,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat.

The spending committee chairmanship is among the most powerful positions in Congress, and Mr. Obey has twice held the post - first, briefly, in 1994, and then again beginning in 2007, when Democrats recaptured control of the House after 12 years in the minority.

Mr. Obey said he expects Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat, to succeed him as the top Democrat on the panel, though that decision is up to the whole Democratic caucus, and there likely will be other challengers.

Reporters, staffers and some of Mr. Obey’s Democratic colleagues packed the Appropriations Committee hearing room to hear the announcement, and the staff and fellow members of Congress gave him several standing ovations.

“He was happier last night than I’ve seen him in a long time,” one of Mr. Obey’s longtime aides told those around him.

Mr. Obey said he would have retired eight years ago but for an encounter with Mr. Bush at the White House that so infuriated him that he vowed to outlast the president.

The congressman said the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate appropriations committees met with White House officials after Sept. 11, 2001, to present a list of areas that needed more funding. The president dropped in on the meeting and, according to Mr. Obey, rejected the list, saying he’d already figured out how much the country would spend.

“If I hadn’t experienced that meeting and experienced the absolute stubbornness of the Bush administration on that occasion, I would have left this place a long time ago,” he said.

Mr. Obey said now that health care reform legislation has passed, he’s accomplished all of the big issues he’s likely to get done during his time in Congress.

He also took shots at the parts of the political process that irk him most.

He said reporters have “become increasingly focused on trivia,” lamented the need to fight time-consuming battles over redistricting, and said he’s tired of running up against a Senate whose rules and protections for the political minority are frustrating.

“There has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability-destroying rules of the United States Senate to confused, angry and frustrated constituents,” he said.

Political handicappers had put Mr. Obey’s re-election race on their watch list, though they still rated him as likely to win.

Still, Mr. Obey singled out the leading Republican candidate in the district, Sean Duffy, a former MTV reality-show star, for special criticism. Mr. Obey said Mr. Duffy is a worse version of Mr. Bush.

“I won 25 elections. Does anybody really think I don’t know how to win another one?” Mr. Obey said.

In a statement, Mr. Duffy said they “have major differences on the issues,” but said Mr. Obey has “served honorably” and has earned respect for his decades in Congress.

Mr. Obey said he’s leaving early enough for other Democrats to enter the race, noting there are a half-dozen potential candidates and adding he’s confident his district will elect a Democrat in November.

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