TOPICS > Politics

Wave of GOP Retirements Poised to Shake up House

August 8, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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Dozens of Republican House members have announced they will not run for reelection in the coming year, marking a 50-year high. Kwame Holman reports on who's retiring and what it may mean for Congress and the next president.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a Republican exodus from the U.S. House of Representatives. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), Ohio, House minority leader: … for this and we will not stay for this. And I would ask my House Republican colleagues and those who believe that we should be here protecting the American people not vote on this bill. Let’s just get up and leave.

KWAME HOLMAN: The point was one they’ve made often, that Democrats, who won control of the House 18 months ago, are making it impossible for Republicans to promote their legislative agenda. Louisiana Republican Jim McCrery fondly remembers the 12 years of Republican rule that ended in 2006.

REP. JIM MCCRERY (R), La.: But in the House, the party that’s in power, the party that’s in majority rules this place lock, stock and barrel. They can do whatever they want.

KWAME HOLMAN: Life in the minority has been frustrating for McCrery. But what helped convince him to retire from the House next year after 10 terms over 21 years was his belief it’s very unlikely Republicans can re-take the House in the fall election.

REP. JIM MCCRERY: To say that there’s no hope I think would be an exaggeration. There is some hope. Clearly, the overall political landscape appears to be tilting Democratic right now.

KWAME HOLMAN: He is not alone.

There’s an election coming up in November that could put your party back into power, could it not?

A good year for Democrats

REP. RAY LAHOOD (R), Ill.: I think there's very little chance Republicans will be in the majority after the November election. I think the chances of that happening are about as good as you and I being struck by lightning in this room. I don't think that's going to happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Illinois' Ray LaHood also is retiring after seven terms, another of a whopping 23 House Republican retirements announced this year, the most from one party since 1958. LaHood says the retirements themselves make chances of winning back the House more remote.

REP. RAY LAHOOD: We have a lot of members retiring, and it will be hard to win all of these seats of the Republicans, let alone knock off a few Democrats, in order to get back in the majority.

This is going to be a pretty good Democratic year. People are weary of the war. They're very upset about the economy, the subset of which is high gasoline prices. And they're very weary of the occupant of the White House, who happens to be a Republican.

KWAME HOLMAN: LaHood sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Three other Republican appropriators also are retiring: senior members David Hobson and Ralph Regula, both of Ohio, and Jim Walsh of New York.

The 23 House Republican retirements also include members tainted by scandal: New York's Vito Fossella announced he won't run again after drunken driving charges and an extramarital affair became public; and Arizona's Rick Renzi retires facing a trial on federal corruption charges.

LaHood said none of that has helped his party.

Scandals and controversy

REP. RAY LAHOOD: The one thing that people don't like are corrupt politicians. When people lose their way, and forget why they're here, and think more of themselves than they do of the position they're in, they get in a lot of trouble with their constituents.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans also expect the unpopular Iraq war to be a burden on them come Election Day, especially it's cost, says Ray LaHood.

REP. RAY LAHOOD: I wish we would have found a way to persuade President Bush -- and we tried from time to time, and we'd have meetings with him. "Mr. President, let's find a way to pay for this. Let's just don't pile it -- continue to pile it on for our kids and grandkids, $600 billion piled on the debt, not one penny paid for."

During Vietnam, President Johnson was able to persuade Congress to pass a war tax, which went off after the Vietnam War ended and was paid for. We should have done the same thing. I'm sorry -- I regret very much that we've -- not about the war, but how we didn't pay for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: The top Republican on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Jim McCrery, says Republican support of the president's tax breaks for wealthy individuals was a mistake and that the GOP hurt itself by failing to hold down federal spending during its reign in the House.

But he reserves his strongest criticism for a stain on his party's reputation that was close to home, in Louisiana.

REP. JIM MCCRERY: Katrina, I would throw in Katrina and the federal response to Katrina that, in the eyes of most people, was woefully insufficient. And I happen to agree.

I think, you know, all of those things came together in '06. Second term, midterm election for the second term of a president, historically has seen the party in power defined as the party in the White House.

KWAME HOLMAN: It's still summer, but political handicappers say Democrats could capture up to half the seats being vacated by Republicans. The Democrats' overall 36-vote majority could grow to 50 or more, they say. Some Democrats have said they're on the cusp of an extended era of congressional control.

Challenges to governing

KWAME HOLMAN: But departing House Republicans doubt that.

REP. JIM MCCRERY: It won't swing that way forever. It will come back. Will it come back in '08? Probably not. Will it come back in '10? Maybe.

If Obama is elected president and he really tries to take that pendulum way to the left in a hurry, kind of like Bill Clinton did in his first two years in office, I think the pendulum will start swinging back to the right sooner than it otherwise would.

KWAME HOLMAN: Another retiree isn't giving up on this year.

REP. DEBORAH PRYCE (R), Ohio: We have a lot of time between now and November, and things can could change rapidly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Deborah Pryce was elected from Columbus, Ohio, after the last great round of House retirements in 1992, which helped result in a record 110 new House members being elected.

REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: By sheer force of our numbers, we have terrific potential to do great things.

KWAME HOLMAN: She rose to become the highest-ranking woman in the House Republican leadership. Now, Pryce is retiring to devote time to raising her adopted daughter. She argues Republican fortunes before Election Day could be reignited by the energy issue.

REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: It's very possible that the cost of gasoline and heating our homes come November will have a huge impact on the election. And people just need to realize that this is a Democratically run Congress. They promised an energy -- comprehensive energy package. We haven't seen anything like that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Pryce was known as a moderate during her 16-year House career. She says the recent attrition of moderates, including several among this year's GOP retirees, has made it difficult for either party to govern effectively.

REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: The thoughtful middle of both parties is being run out of town by our own devices, you know, the Club for Growth on the Republican side, MoveOn.org on the Democrat side.

They hold members' feet to the conservative or liberal fire. And if you don't pass muster, they try to find somebody who will and replace you.

And so when you don't have those middle-ground folks that are willing to reach across the aisle, willing to work with the other side, you're going to have a lot harder time governing.

I think that every decision made here now is made to determine where the politics comes in and who has what to gain and who has what to lose. And that's a sad way.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the uncertain world of politics, one thing is clear: for two dozen House Republican retirees, this departure for the traditional August recess will be their last.