Republican Domenici Is Set to Retire From Senate

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), facing health concerns, is not expected to seek a seventh term. (By Dennis Brack -- Bloomberg News)
By Shailagh Murray and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Senate Republicans are bracing for another potentially costly 2008 retirement, with veteran Sen. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) expected to announce today that he will not seek a seventh term.

The former Budget Committee chairman, second among Republicans in seniority, has battled health problems in recent years, but GOP leaders had hoped that Domenici would follow through on plans to seek reelection to protect a seat that looks ripe for a Democratic takeover. But Republican officials close to Domenici said the health concerns ultimately took precedence.

Until this week, Domenici appeared to be on a solid campaign track, dismissing retirement rumors as misguided while raising money at a brisk pace. In July, he challenged President Bush's war strategy -- an unusual break for the loyal Republican that was interpreted as a political pivot. Although Domenici called for moving U.S. troops out of a combat role, he continued to vote against Democratic efforts to force an end to the conflict.

The six-term senator, one of the last of the "old bulls," joins Republican Sens. John W. Warner (Va.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Wayne Allard (Colo.) on the sidelines for 2008. Nine House Republicans also have announced their retirement.

The most likely Republican candidates to seek Domenici's post are Reps. Heather A. Wilson and Steve Pearce. Potential Democratic candidates include Rep. Tom Udall, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and former state attorney general Patricia Madrid.

The Democrats' dream candidate is Gov. Bill Richardson, but his advisers insist he is not interested and remains focused on the 2008 presidential race. Wealthy businessman Don Wiviott is already in the race and has put several hundred thousand dollars of his own money into the bid.

Although New Mexico has tilted Democratic in recent years, Domenici was easily reelected in 2002, winning with 65 percent of the vote. But his fortunes next year appeared less certain. In addition to health concerns, Domenici's legal and political fortunes soured last winter when the senator -- known as "St. Pete" back home -- was caught up in the controversy involving the sudden firings of U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration.

One of the nine fired prosecutors, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, accused him of applying inappropriate pressure to bring indictments against local Democrats on the eve of the 2006 elections.

Iglesias testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that his onetime patron, who had helped him to secure the federal post, angrily called him in late October asking about his corruption investigation of Albuquerque Democrats. When Domenici learned that no indictments were pending, he hung up on the prosecutor, Iglesias said. A week or so later, Iglesias's name was added to a dismissal list compiled by top staff at the Justice Department.

Domenici acknowledged making the call, apologized for it, but has angrily denied that he specifically pressured Iglesias. Over the spring and summer, a host of former Justice Department aides, as well as Alberto R. Gonzales while he was attorney general, told the House and Senate Judiciary committees that Iglesias was ousted largely because of Domenici's diminished political support for him.

The incident prompted the Senate ethics committee seven months ago to investigate Domenici's actions. The probe remains ongoing. Domenici was forced to hire a high-priced criminal defense lawyer to handle the ethics case.

In an e-mail last night, Iglesias attributed Domenici's retirement to the lingering questions about his pre-election phone call.

"He was very good to me early in my career, and for that I will always be grateful, but it is equally true that his attempt to interfere with an ongoing federal criminal investigation last fall was wrong and beneath the dignity of his office," Iglesias said.

Staff writer Dan Eggen and staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company