A jolt hit Capitol Hill late Wednesday morning. Word came that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) was retiring after 41 years in Congress. At first, no one could believe it was true.
Obey is arguably the fourth-most powerful figure on Capitol Hill. He heads the committee that determines how the government spends its money. A Congressional icon, only 18 other lawmakers have served longer in the House than Obey.
Stunned lawmakers shuffled into a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the basement of the Capitol Wednesday. Few knew if the initial retirement report was true. One senior House source mentioned of hearing discussions about Obey’s re-election strategy as recently as Tuesday night.
“I don’t think he’s spoken to anybody,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA).
“I’m shocked and surprised,” said Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).
But then House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) strolled by.
“It was not entirely unexpected,” said Clyburn.
Reporters grew interested.
So you’ve talked to him about this?
Clyburn is the Democrats’ top vote counter, full-time tea-leaf reader and part-time political psychologist. He didn’t have to.
“He’s not discussed it with me. He hasn’t told me,” said Clyburn, assuming the role of political shaman. “But I’m old enough and been around enough to read demeanor and listen to conversations. And this doesn’t surprise me. It may surprise him to know I’m not surprised.”
An hour later, Obey gave his Congressional valedictory at a Capitol Hill press conference. He conceded he was “bone-tired” and “weary.” He felt “used up.” The Wisconsin Democrat noted he would have retired years ago. But instead, he found it important to stay in Congress and fight what he termed the “misguided” policies of the Bush Administration, including the war in Iraq.
Prickly. Irrascable. Gruff. Dave Obey rarely declined a good scrap. Such was the case when anti-war activist Tina Richards and a guerilla video blogger confronted Obey outside his office in 2007 as he prepared a spending bill to draw down troops in Iraq.
“That bill ends the war. And if that bill isn’t good enough for you, you’re smoking something that ain’t legal!” Obey thundered after several minutes of hectoring.
An unidentified man continued to browbeat Obey about why they just didn’t just craft legislation that cut off all funding.
“We don’t have the votes! Do you see a magic wand in my pocket?” Obey asked, opening his suit jacket.
Obey didn’t have a magic wand then. But he may have needed one now. Republicans placed the chairman in their crosshairs. And as an anti-incumbent mood swept the country, Obey faced a competitive re-reelection bid for the first time in years. I asked the chairman to dispel suggestions that he was getting out because of the political climate.
“I’ve won 25 elections. Does anybody really think I don’t know how to win another one?” Obey said. “Or, for that matter, has anybody ever seen me walk away from a fight in my life?”
But University of Virginia political handicapper Larry Sabato says that walking away from political fisticuffs is different from simply walking away.
“Part of the trick in politics is in knowing when to exit the stage. This was probably a good moment for Obey to exit the stage,” Sabato said.
“There is a time to stay and a time to go. But this is my time to go,” Obey said.
Obey faced tough poll numbers back home. GOP Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wanted to portray Obey as part of the old guard and contrast him with the Republican candidate, 38-year-old Sean Duffy.
“Obey was elected to the House before man walked on the moon,” McCarthy said.
But it’s unknown if Duffy could have toppled the cantankerous Obey. In fact the Wisconsin Democrat said there was wasn’t “a chance of a snowball in Hades” that his district would elect someone like Duffy.
Regardless, Obey’s decision to step aside roiled House Democrats. That’s a seat they need to keep if they want to remain in the majority. And if a powerful committee chairman like Obey had even a whiff of possible defeat, other senior Democrats might shudder about their own re-election prospects.
It’s like this. House Democrats entered this election year knowing that the president’s party usually suffers substantial losses in his first midterm election. So Democrats braced to lose 25 to 30 seats. Certainly Republicans will score success against a number of freshmen and second-term moderate Democrats from swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and Indiana. But if the GOP is to seize control of the House, it needs a game-changer. And that’s where big fish like Dave Obey came in.
In 1994, Republicans won the House because they knocked off top-line, senior Democrats. Many never saw the GOP tidal wave coming. They toppled House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-TX) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL). Foley was the first speaker to be dethroned in 132 years. Brooks served 42 years in the House and became the most-senior American lawmaker to lose an election. And Rostenkowski went to jail.
Republicans know that they’ll likely score big gains this cycle. But the difference between gains and winning the House is predicated on defeating Democratic titans.
Republicans will turn their attention elsewhere now that Obey’s sidelined. The GOP is gunning for House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-SC), Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO), Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), to name a few. All are senior members who either chair key committees or subcommittees. Most haven’t faced serious primary or general election competitors in years. And most represent districts that are inclined to vote Republican, but return these moderate Democratic lawmakers to the House every two years because they’re familiar with them.
Republicans know there’s a fine line between picking up seats and capturing the majority. And if they want to win the House, they must bounce these veterans in November.
Dave Obey often regaled reporters with a tale about New York Giants’ second baseman Eddie Stanky. During spring training one year, Stanky repeatedly muffed ground balls during infield practice. Finally, a frustrated Giants’ manager Leo Durocher grabbed a glove and told Stanky he was going to show him “how it was done.” Naturally Durocher booted the first ball hit his way.
“Blast it, kid” Durocher bellowed. “You’ve got second base so screwed up nobody can play it.”
Republicans are peaking. Obey’s retirement does Democrats no favors. The death of the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) creates the opportunity for a Republican pickup of his seat. And the resignation of Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) has created a very-real scenario for the GOP in what had been a very safe Democratic seat.
The question is whether Democrats can salvage some of these seats. Or does Obey’s departure indicate that second base is so screwed up, no Democrat can play it in 2010.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.
- The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.