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.