WASHINGTON — Just when it looked like things couldn't get worse for the Republicans, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, a 35-year Senate veteran, is expected to announce today that he plans to retire at the end of his term -- boosting Democrats' hopes of expanding their control of the chamber in next year's elections.
Domenici, 75, a leading voice on budget and energy policy, would become the fifth GOP senator to announce his retirement. The lawmaker, who was entangled in the scandal about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, scheduled a news conference for today in Albuquerque. Two Senate Republican sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the decision, said Domenici would not seek a seventh term.
"So, yet another seat that Republicans have to defend that's going to be tough," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the independent Cook Political Report.
The Senate's 49 Democrats, who usually are joined by its two independents, control the chamber, but often are blocked from advancing their agenda by Republican-led filibusters, which take 60 votes to overcome.
Also retiring at the end of this term are Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Wayne Allard of Colorado, all states where Democrats believe their party can be elected.
Republicans also are dealing with Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig's guilty plea to disorderly conduct in a men's restroom. Craig has said he plans to retire if he loses his effort to withdraw the plea and clear his name. But with Idaho a reliably red state, the seat would be expected to remain in GOP hands.
Next year, Republicans must defend 22 of their 49 Senate seats, compared with 12 for Democrats, in an election where the war in Iraq is likely to weigh heavily on GOP incumbents. Political handicappers already have declared the New Hampshire Senate race a tossup. Republican incumbent John E. Sununu faces a challenge from Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor.
In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson is a Democrat, as is the state's other senator, Jeff Bingaman. President Bush barely won the state in 2004.
"As our longest-serving senator in the history of New Mexico, Pete Domenici has earned a position of great respect in our state and Washington," Bingaman said. "I consider him a good friend and greatly admire his public service to the people of New Mexico."
Richardson is running for his party's presidential nomination but is considered a long hot who might opt to go after Domenici's seat instead. The state's three House members -- Democrat Tom Udall and Republicans Heather A. Wilson and Steve Pearce -- are considered possible candidates as well.
Domenici, the son of Italian immigrants who ran a grocery in Albuquerque, was a minor league pitcher for the Albuquerque Dukes. He is second only to Alaska's Ted Stevens as the most senior Republican in the Senate.
He spent two decades leading the Budget Committee, which put him in the center of major battles over spending. More recently, he has been the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he has been among the leading champions of nuclear power and helped write the 2005 energy bill.
This year, Domenici got caught in the controversy surrounding the U.S. attorneys' firing. One of the dismissed prosecutors, David C. Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in Albuquerque, said Domenici expressed disgust that there would be no indictments in the investigation into alleged Democratic corruption before the November 2006 election. The senator also contacted top Justice Department officials to complain about Iglesias' performance.
Domenici denied attempting to pressure the prosecutor. Iglesias was fired in December.