Michigan Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, the central player in a grueling abortion debate underlying the health care law, announced Friday he will retire from Congress at the end of this term, because "it's time to begin a new and exciting chapter."
Flanked by his wife and other supporters, Stupak said he made the decision within the last 36 hours not to seek a 10th term and he is choosing to step down because he thinks he has achieved his goal of universal health care.
"When I first ran for Congress in 1992, I campaigned on a pledge to make affordable, quality health care a right, not a privilege, for all Americans. I promised the people of the First District that I would not accept the insurance that Members of Congress receive -- the Federal Employees Health Benefit Package -- until all Americans could have access to that same quality of care. For the last 18 years, I have kept that promise, he said at a press conference in Marquette, Mich.
"Last month, we finally accomplished what I set out to do 18 years ago -- we passed comprehensive national health care reform," Stupak said.
Calling himself a "rare breed" -- a pro-life Democrat -- Stupak insisted that attacks on him for his role in the abortion debate did not influence his decision to retire and he could win re-election if he tried.
"It wasn't one thing. It was a number of things," he said. "It came to the point where I said, 'I've accomplished all I want to do. Either I run again and I'll be there forever or time to make the break. It's time for me to move on.'"
Stupak was a lightning rod in the debate over abortion provisions contained in the health care feud. Abortion language in the House bill was deemed the Stupak amendment because it provided clear rules that federal funding could not be used by insurance companies to pay for abortions.
But the bill that became law adopted language found in the Senate bill and President Obama signed an executive order to accompany it stating administration policy is to not use public funds for abortion coverage.
In the final analysis, the left accused Stupak of attempting to make abortion access more difficult while the right said he caved at the last minute by agreeing to weaker Senate provisions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised Stupak's service and said nowhere did Americans "witness his tenacity and steadfast commitment more than in the successful effort to provide quality, affordable health care to all Americans."
"Throughout the battle for reform -- from his crucial role on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to his leadership on the floor of the House -- Bart Stupak was a forceful advocate for providing health care to all Americans," she said in a written statement.
Obama called Stupak on Wednesday to talk him out of retiring, Fox News learned.
As much as Stupak claimed he was a good candidate for re-election, he may be among the first casualties of the law, which has not gained traction among Americans who roundly disapproved of it throughout debate, in part because of its massive price tag.
The Tea Party Express, a group who opposed the federal spending, has been calling for Stupak's defeat at rallies in his sprawling northern Michigan district this week. It has also issued several television and radio ads in his district.
On Friday, the Tea Party Express credited its influence for "defeating" Stupak.
"The surprising announcement that Congressman Bart Stupak is abandoning his campaign for reelection shows the power of the tea party movement," the group's political director, Bryan Shroyer, said in a statement.
"Stupak was no longer able to hide his betrayal of conservative principles because the tea party movement was determined to educate the voters in the district," he said.
Republican doctor Dan Benishek has announced he would challenge Stupak in the election. Now, Democratic leaders may look to Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall to take Stupak's place as the Democratic nominee.
Before the announcement, some Democratic officials suggested they feared Stupak would announce his resignation rather than a retirement plan, setting up another special election this year.
A special election for the U.S. Senate held by thoroughly blue Massachusetts went to Republican Scott Brown in January while Democrats are also working on mid-season races to save seats formerly held by resigning Reps. Robert Wexler, Neil Abercrombie and Eric Massa and the late Rep. John Murtha.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has now moved Stupak's seat from "Solid Democratic" to "Toss Up."
The National Republican Campaign Committee issued a statement saying that Stupak decided to drop out "after selling his soul to Nancy Pelosi" and more lawmakers are likely to pay the price of passing the health insurance overhaul.
"The political fallout over the Democrats' government takeover of health care has put the political careers of many Democrats in jeopardy thanks in-part to Stupak's decision to abandon his alleged pro-life principles. Unfortunately for Pelosi, she was unable to strong-arm Stupak one last time as she becomes increasingly aware of the fact that her hold on the speaker's gavel is loosening by the day," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said in a statement.
Late last month, Stupak told the Catholic News Agency that had it not been for his fight for restrictions, "the speaker could have passed this bill without us, and then you would have a bill laden with federal government funding for abortion, especially federally funded health centers."
He added that pro-life groups who objected to his decision to support the bill weren't interested in preventing abortion as much as preventing the bill from passing.
"National Right to Life ... I think they were more interested in defeating the health care bill, no matter what it costs," he told CNA in an interview published March 26.
Fox News' Chad Pergram and Dominique Pastre and The Associated Press contributed to this report.