Parties Urge Aging Lawmakers to Hang On for One More Term
Sunday, December 24, 2006
The Republicans' stinging losses last month could be magnified in 2008 if veteran GOP Senate and House members decide to retire, including numerous lawmakers who will be 70 or older on that Election Day.
Sen. Tim Johnson's sudden illness was a reminder to both parties that the balance of power in Congress is fragile indeed. But Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, is a youthful 59. Republican and Democratic leaders are scrambling to persuade colleagues who qualified for Medicare back during the administration of President Bush's father to hold on for at least one more term.
GOP leaders are particularly fearful that the Democrats will be able to expand their narrow House and Senate majorities if some of Congress's biggest Republican names call it quits. Party leaders dread retirements because they create open seats, which tend to generate costly and highly competitive primaries and general-election races. "The next election cycle could be very challenging," conceded Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the incoming chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. By losing the majority, he said, "we've lost one of the most powerful reasons for members to stay."
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), born Nov. 18, 1923, is the oldest member of "Club 21," the unusually large class of 21 Republican senators who face reelection in 2008. Seven of those Republicans were born before World War II, including at least four who represent states that could flip Democratic.
In the House, as many as 30 Republicans may retire, according to operatives from both parties, with senior lawmakers including Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio), 82, and C.W. Bill Young of Florida, who turned 76 on Dec. 16, leading the list. Democrats are nervous, too. Days after the Nov. 7 election, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) called the 12 Democratic senators whose terms are up in 2008 -- including Sens. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), 82, and John D. Rockefeller IV, who turns 70 next year -- to encourage them to stay put.
For now, at least, Republican leaders are reasonably optimistic that they can keep retirements to a trickle. In a recent Washington Post interview, incoming Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) predicted that every member of Club 21 would seek reelection. A few members have already announced their candidacies.
"While the recent election did not go my party's way, I come out of the campaign more determined than ever to fight for Alaska's interests in Washington, D.C.," Stevens, a longtime appropriator and outgoing chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a statement on Nov. 16.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who turns 80 on Feb. 18, has indicated that he may seek a sixth term, if he remains in good health. "I've heard people as old or older than me talking about reelection," marveled Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), 73, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
"I have my track shoes on," joked Club 21 member Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, still feisty at 70, who said he intends to seek another term. Roberts chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee.
For some lawmakers, 2008 is a touchy subject. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who turns 65 on Dec. 11, 2008, is pondering his options, which include seeking a fifth Senate term and/or running for president a second time. He bristled last week when asked about his plans as he walked off the Senate floor. "You're going to ask me that right here?" he responded testily, darting off without answering.
Some political operatives view what happened in 1996 -- two years after the Republicans won control of the House and Senate -- as instructive on what might happen in the 2008 election cycle. Eight Democrats and six Republicans retired from the Senate that year. In the House, 30 Democrats and 23 Republicans retired or left to run for higher office.
The 1996 retirees included such prominent figures as Democratic Sens. Sam Nunn (Ga.), Bill Bradley (N.J.) and Howell Heflin (Ala.), and GOP Sens. Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.) and William S. Cohen (Maine). But in the House, Democrats were able to persuade some of their veterans to seek reelection. Reps. John D. Dingell (Mich.), now 80, and Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), who turns 77 in June, survived 12 years in the minority and will become committee chairmen in January. Rangel will head the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and Dingell will reclaim the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
"We tend to think the most likely to go are the folks who are older, or see the writing on the wall, in states or districts that are trending against them," said Amy Walter, who monitors House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's a lot more random."
One Republican who has been the subject of considerable speculation is Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, who is 63. He promised to serve only two terms when he was elected in 1996. Colorado just elected a Democratic governor, and the state is considered fertile ground for the Democrats' Western expansion efforts. Republicans are worried enough about their hold on the Allard seat that even some GOP politicians with ambitions to succeed him are hoping he breaks his term-limit pledge.
"Run, Senator, run," said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who is rumored to covet the Senate seat. "An open seat fight we just don't need."
Pat Toomey, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and president of the Club for Growth, said his group, which backs fiscally conservative Republican candidates, is bracing to compete in as many as 40 House races in the next cycle. "It's a big challenge, figuring out how we step up to play in that many races," Toomey said.
What remains to be seen is how well House Republicans adjust to minority status, given that many have never experienced it and may find it very frustrating. On the other hand, Walter said: "Whether they are in the minority or the majority, they are still a member of Congress. And when you retire, you can never get that stature back."