Rep. David Obey, a leading liberal Democrat and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, intends to retire at the end of his term this year, Democratic sources said Wednesday. It is another blow to Democrats defending their majority in an election season of voter discontent.
Obey, 71, won the first of 21 terms in 1969 from Wisconsin — 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.
His office issued a statement saying he would make a major announcement in early afternoon, but disclosed no details. The Democratic sources spoke on condition of anonymity to speak frankly about Obey's decision before the announcement.
Obey, among a handful of veteran House Democrats who had been bracing for competitive races this fall, has routinely won re-election easily despite representing a competitive district. He won in 2008 with 61 percent of the vote. But he has never faced the level of competition as he does this year as voters sour on Washington.
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 earned a reputation as a reformer over the years and is a longtime ally and confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
He also can have a gruff, sometimes prickly demeanor and doesn't suffer fools gladly.
He first became chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 1994, and was a top architect of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill.
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.
Democratic officials declined to respond, saying they would wait for Obey's formal announcement.
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