Obey announces retirement; members express shock at news

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) announced he will not seek reelection, much to the shock of his colleagues.

Obey, a 20-term incumbent who is nearly 72, said he is "bone-tired."

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"There's a time to stay and there's a time to go. And this is my time to go," he said at a press conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon. "Frankly, I'd hate to do it; there is a lot that has yet to be done. But, more frankly, I am bone-tired."

His retirement could be a blow to Democrats, who are expected to lose seats this fall. Obey faced his toughest election challenge in years, particularly from Sean Duffy, a top GOP recruit. His district leans Democratic. President Barack Obama won it with 56 percent of the vote in 2008.

Obey said his district is "ready for somebody new to make a fresh start" but suggested that person is not Duffy, warning that he does not want "someone whose idea of a fresh idea is 'Let the markets do it.' "

Duffy will have an early fundraising advantage since he's been running since mid-2009. Democrats will likely have a competitive primary. Wisconsin has a late primary election -- Sept. 14th. Filing deadline is July 13th.

Obey cited the deaths of two of his former colleagues, ex-Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), in saying that he wants to step aside. He said his wife Joan is "the happiest woman in Wisconsin at this point."

He also decried the lack of civility he says has appeared to take hold of Washington in recent years.

Talking about both journalists and politicians, Obey said "both of our professions have been coarsened in recent years and the public [suffers] for it."

Still, the Appropriations chairman touted several successes, mentioning the "great privilege" of presiding over the House as the chamber passed the healthcare bill in March.

He said he contemplated retirement in 2000, but President George W. Bush's policies angered him so much he decided to remain in office.

Obey said he hasn't tackled all of the major initiatives he wanted to, "but I've done all of the big things I'm likely to do."

Democratic lawmakers expressed shock at the news. The members held a caucus meeting Wednesday afternoon, and several of them told reporters they didn't know about Obey's plans. Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) said Obey was not in the caucus meeting.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said Obey is "probably one of the most consequential members ever to chair Appropriations." He added, "People of Dave's character and personality are irreplaceable."

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said "it was not entirely unexpected by me. I understand it. The process is getting very frustrating. I am highly disappointed."

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, expressed shock at the news.

“I was surprised and dismayed to learn of his decision not to run for reelection.  His strong presence in the halls of Congress will be sadly missed by many.  I thank Dave Obey for his friendship and I will always remember the gracious nature of our working relationship over the many years we have served together," he said in a statement.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised Obey's service.

“Dave Obey was my Chairman when I served on the Appropriations Committee; I saw firsthand how he wielded the power of the purse for the common good.  When it came to foreign affairs, Chairman Obey promoted a principled foreign policy rooted in the values of the Midwest.  He was my Chairman; he will always be my dear friend," she said in a statement.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) is the favorite to replace Obey as Appropriations chairman. 

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said Obey's retirement shows that the Democratic majority is in danger.

"It's the end of an era, and it will also set in a certain amount of panic on the House floor," said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). "He's one of the lead generals, and to have him fall shows that a change election is coming."

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Wis.) said Obey may be "the first of many dominoes to fall."

"I don't think the chairman of the full committee walks away after 42 years if he's not feeling well, the election isn't going well and/or he's worried about the majority," LaTourette said. "It will be a big loss. He's a smart man."

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) immediately went on the attack, noting Obey's outspoken and combative manner.

"There is no question that David Obey was facing the race of his life, and that is why it is understandable that the architect of President Obama's failed stimulus plan has decided to call it quits," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. "It is ironic that a congressman who became infamously known for his short temper and angry tirades on the House floor is going out with such a whimper."

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) expressed confidence the Democrats would keep his seat.

"Chairman Obey would have won reelection again had he run. We are confident that a Democrat who shares Chairman Obey's commitment to making progress for Wisconsin's middle-class families will succeed him as the next representative of Wisconsin's 7th congressional district," he said in a statement.

— Lauren Burke, Walter Alarkon and Russell Berman contributed to this article.

— This article was originally posted at 11:53 a.m. and updated at 12:15 p.m., 1:55 p.m., and 2:30 p.m.

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