Rep. David Obey, a leading liberal Democrat and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that he will retire at the end of his term this year, dealing Democrats defending their majority another blow in an election season of voter discontent.
"There is a time to stay and a time to go," the Wisconsin lawmaker told reporters. "And this is my time to go."
Obey won the first of 21 terms in 1969 — when a special election was held after President Richard Nixon tapped Melvin Laird to be his defense secretary. He faced a potentially bruising re-election campaign this fall, and his retirement is likely to make it easier for Republicans to pick up his seat.
Obey, 71, among a handful of veteran House Democrats who had been bracing for competitive races this fall, has routinely won re-election. In 2008 he did so with 61 percent of the vote. But voters this year are souring on Washington.
"I believe the job of a good politician was to be used up fighting on behalf of causes you believed in, and when you are used up, to step aside and let someone else carry on the battle. Well, today I feel used up," he said.
Democrats, who hold a comfortable majority in the House, expect to lose seats in November, a typical trend for the president's party in the first round of midterm elections. But complicating Democratic prospects are a slide in support for Congress and President Barack Obama as well as the party's agenda.
Sean Duffy, 38, a Republican district attorney, is seen as the favored candidate in the GOP primary, and his candidacy has attracted the backing of Republicans in Washington as well as the party's 2008 vice president nominee, Sarah Palin, and tea party activists.
Obey came to the House during the tumult of the Vietnam War, when it was dominated by Southern conservative Democrats. He is a longtime ally and confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
He earned a reputation as a reformer over the years, chairing a task force that wrote rules requiring lawmakers to disclose their personal finances to limit the potential for conflicts of interest. More recently, he has been an architect of reforms of the earmarking process, requiring greater transparency and blocking House members from directing earmarks to for-profit-companies whose executives often return the favor with campaign cash.
He also can have a gruff, sometimes prickly demeanor and doesn't suffer fools gladly. In a 2007 incident, he was captured on camera by an anti-war group telling activists who confronted him outside his Capitol Hill office that "idiot liberals" don't understand Democrats' strategy for leaving Iraq.
"I didn't come here to win any charm-school award," he said at the time.
Once a Republican, Obey was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1963. He is a protege of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, an iconic Wisconsin progressive who was the founder of Earth Day.
He first became chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 1994, and was a top architect of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill. He also has been a reluctant backer of the administration's efforts in Afghanistan, giving the president the benefit of the doubt a year ago when fashioning a war funding bill while saying he would revisit the decision this year.
As chairman of Appropriations, Obey has been an ardent defender of domestic programs such as education and community health centers, as well as less popular causes such as foreign aid.
"For more than 40 years, Chairman Dave Obey has been a tireless voice for progress on behalf of his constituents in Wisconsin and middle-class families across America," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of the House committee trying to get Democrats elected.
Republicans took a measure of credit for forcing Obey's retirement.
"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," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the Republican campaign committee.
In Wisconsin, Obey's retirement came as a surprise to Mark W. Conway, 59, of Rothschild, eating at the 2510 Restaurant in Wausau.
"I thought he'd be there until the day he would collapse on the job," Conway said. "He just does what he thinks is right and every two years the people in the 7th District seem to agree with him."
But Kevin Hermening, 50, of Mosinee, a former Iranian hostage who twice ran against Obey as a Republican in the 1980s, says Obey saw the handwriting on the wall.
"I think it's a sign of the times. People are not reacting well to overreaching government," Hermening said. "Obey was the architect of the stimulus bill. He pounded the gavel down when health care was passed. I think he's reading the polls."