Why Phil Gramm's Retirement Worries the GOP

  • Share
  • Read Later

US Senator Phil Gramm speaks to members of the press beside his wife Wendy Lee

Should we read more into Phil Gramm's decision to retire from the Senate? The Texas Republican announced Tuesday that he'll call it quits in 2002 after spending 18 years in the Senate and six years in the House. He's the third senior Republican senator who's decided not to seek re-election. Ninety-eight-year-old Strom Thurmond of South Carolina won't run again and North Carolina's Jesse Helms, who's in poor health, announced last month that this would be his last term. Gramm, who's 59, came to his decision after "a long and difficult period of soul searching," he says. The congressional apostle of Ronald Reagan's tax and spending cuts claims he decided to retire because "the things I came to Washington to do are done." The budget is balanced, taxes have been cut, and "we did reform welfare," he says.

But Gramm may have decided to retire not just because he's done everything he wanted to do in Washington, but also because he won't be able to do much more. With Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection last spring, Democrats now have a one-seat majority in the Senate. Republican leaders adamantly deny it, but GOP senators I talk to tell me that the feeling is running strong in their ranks that Democrats will control that chamber for a while. The place won't be fun for a lot of Republicans who liked being in control.

Some grim numbers for the GOP

In 2002, Republicans have 21 seats up for grabs while the Democrats have only 14. The Republican leadership claims those numbers aren't as bad as they look because they believe that more Democratic incumbents will face serious challenges. Gramm's seat, for example, will likely stay in the GOP column, as will Helms' and Thurmond's. Even so, Republicans are making very private predictions that their party could suffer a net loss of four more Senate seats. "We may not be returning to the majority for a long time," says one seasoned GOP senator.

A new psychology may be taking hold in the Senate's GOP caucus, some of its members tell me. They worry that some Republican senators who have been toying with the idea of retiring may decide to do so now, with the chance of their party retaking the chamber in 2002 looking bleaker. Senators who are good friends with Gramm say he was becoming increasingly bored and frustrated with being in the minority. Gramm, who had chaired the Senate Banking Committee, has had frosty relations with its new Democratic chairman, Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Gramm has been mentioned as a successor to the departing president at Texas A&M University, where the senator once taught economics, or as a Bush pick for the Federal Reserve chairman. Gramm won't say what his future plans are.

Others could follow

Republican sources tell me that two other Senators — Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Pete Domenici of New Mexico — are also considering retiring when their terms are up in 2002. Same story there: both are fed up with the chamber and realize their party won't recapture it for a while. Domenici, who wielded considerable clout as Budget Committee chairman, now has to sit back and grit his teeth while Democrat Kent Conrad runs the show. Thompson has only $544,000 in his campaign bank and hasn't yet announced whether he'll seek reelection.

Domenici adamantly insists he's not bowing out. He's raised $1.9 million for the next campaign and just had George W. Bush in his state for a fundraiser. But then again, Gramm, who has $4.4 million in his campaign war chest, adamantly insisted last month that he'd run for reelection.