updated 12/15/2003 3:40:22 PM ET 2003-12-15T20:40:22

Sen. John Breaux, a leading Democratic centrist and dealmaker during three terms in office, announced Monday he will not run for re-election next year.

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Breaux, 59, becomes the fifth Southern Democrat in the Senate to step down in 2004, further compounding the party’s difficulties in its struggle to retake control of the chamber.

“There comes a time in every career when it is time to step aside and let others step up. For my family and me, that time has arrived,” a tearful Breaux said at a news conference.

Breaux frequently crossed the aisle to work with Republicans, sometimes angering fellow Democrats and earning a reputation as one of the GOP’s favorite Democrats.

The latest example was the Medicare reform bill, where he was one of only a few Democrats to be involved in crafting the legislation, which creates a new prescription drug benefit for millions of senior citizens. Other examples include his work on health care and tax issues.

In fact, some Republicans wanted Breaux to run again, saying they did not want Louisiana to lose the clout of a longtime senator.

Tearful announcement
Often halting to hold back tears, Breaux on Monday thanked his wife, children, parents and his Louisiana and Washington staff. He stopped short of making his remarks a farewell address, saying work remains to be done during his final year in office, including passage of an energy bill and health insurance for millions of uninsured.

“I’m not leaving today,” he said. “There’s still a lot to get done in this Congress.”

Republicans hold a 51-48 majority in the Senate, with one Democrat-leaning independent.

Four other Southern Democrats in the Senate have announced plans to retire in states where President Bush figures to run strongly next year: Bob Graham of Florida; John Edwards of North Carolina, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Zell Miller of Georgia.

Breaux had long encouraged speculation that his career in the Senate might be coming to a close — to the point that he announced recently that if he did choose to retire, he would finish out his present term.

Breaux was the youngest member of Congress when he was elected to the House in 1972 at the age of 28. He won his Senate seat in 1986.

Didn't want Cabinet post
Breaux was an early Democratic visitor to President-elect George W. Bush’s ranch in 2000, but took himself out of consideration for a Cabinet post in a Republican administration.

His departure is expected to prompt two members of the state’s House delegation to jump into the 2004 Senate race, Reps. Chris John, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican.

Republicans have never won a Louisiana Senate seat since Reconstruction.

The same is not true in the other Southern Senate seats being vacated by Democrats. The retirements in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina mean the Democrats must defend a seat without benefit of an incumbent, creating an opportunity for Republicans.

Two Senate Republicans have announced plans to retire at the end of the term, Sens. Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Don Nickles of Oklahoma.

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