In a setback for his party’s fight to retain its House majority in November’s election, the Wisconsin lawmaker said yesterday he would step down after 41 years in office because he is “bone tired.”
“There is a time to stay and a time to go and this is my time to go,” Obey, 71, said at a news conference in Washington. “Frankly, I hate to do it. There is so much that needs to be done. But even more frankly, I am bone tired.”
Obey, the third longest-serving member in the House, was facing a potentially tough re-election battle against likely Republican nominee Sean Duffy, 38, a Wisconsin district attorney who once had a role in MTV’s television show “The Real World.”
Obey, whose district comprises much of northwestern Wisconsin, rejected suggestions Duffy had prompted his retirement.
“There isn’t a chance of a snowball in Hades of that progressive congressional district electing someone who is a poor imitation of George Bush’s policies on a bad day,” he said yesterday, referring to former Republican President George W. Bush. “I’ve been thinking of retiring for a good long time.”
Obey, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, is the most prominent among the 17 House Democrats who have announced they are retiring or running this year for another office. Twenty House Republicans are stepping down or seeking another position. Democrats control the House, 254-177, with four seats currently vacant.
Obey “sees around corners; he’s a visionary,” Pelosi told reporters today. She said he “feels very confident that his district is a Democratic district” and that she doesn’t see his decision to retire “as a blow to us politically.”
His retirement marks the second major change this year on the appropriations committee, which is charged with doling out $1 trillion in annual government spending. Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha, chairman of the panel’s defense subcommittee, died in February. DemocratNorm Dicks, 69, of Washington state is next in line to head the panel. Obey said he saw “no reason” why Dicks wouldn’t succeed him.
Obey noted he is only a few years younger than either Murtha, who was 77, or former Representative Charlie Wilson, a Texas Democrat and onetime appropriations panel member who died at age 76 in February.
‘Time I Have Left’
“Given that fact, I have to ask myself how I want to spend the time I have left,” said Obey. “Frankly, I don’t know what I will do next.”
Obey, who of late has chafed at other lawmakers’ focus on reducing the federal budget deficit, said he is “weary of having to beg on a daily basis that both parties recognize that we do no favor to the country if we neglect to make the long- term investments in education, science, health and energy that are necessary to modernize our economy.”
Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Obey’s decision was “understandable” because he was “facing the race of his life.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which before Obey’s announcement had classified the race as a “likely Democratic” victory, yesterday rated it a tossup.
Obey easily won re-election in almost all of his races; in 2008 he garnered 61% of the vote.
Two other Democrats heading House committees -- Budget Panel Chief John Spratt of South Carolina and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri -- are facing serious challenges this year as part of the Republican bid to gain the majority in the chamber.
In Congress, Obey became known for his acerbic and often short-tempered debating style. Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who served in the House with Obey, said the lawmaker “was the best ally you ever had if he was on your side and a frightening opponent,” and that “having been on both sides of an argument with Dave Obey, I much preferred him as an ally.”
Obey yesterday thanked colleagues for forgiving his “excessive passion,” saying “it has been said that in life our strength can also be our weakness, as I have demonstrated on more than one occasion.”
He’s been a sharp critic of the Iraq war, which he dubbed “a long-term babysitting service for Iraqi politicians.”
While supporting President Barack Obama on a range of domestic issues, he’s said he has “little faith” in the administration’s troop buildup in Afghanistan, calling the war a “mess.”
Obey used his appropriations chairmanship to support federal programs for the poor, and last year he was an architect of Obama’s $862 billion economic stimulus package.
He’s been a staunch defender of Congress’s earmarking process, in which lawmakers set aside money in the annual appropriations bills to fund pet projects. He also pushed to make the process more transparent, while lamenting that many of his colleagues care more about their parochial interests than the broader issues at stake in the bills.