WASHINGTON — This is crunchtime for members of Congress who must decide whether to seek reelection next year or leave office, and so far Republicans seem to be lunging for the exits. While 16 GOP lawmakers have decided to throw in the towel on their Capitol Hill careers, only two Democrats so far have called it quits -- and they both are seeking higher office.
The disparity underscores the sharply different moods in the two parties: Democrats, still heady from winning control of Congress last year, are enjoying the fruits of power. Republicans, their party in disarray and reduced to minority status in the House and Senate, see more allure in retirement or private life.
"I don't like being in the minority," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who was first elected in the 1994 GOP landslide and will retire after this term. "It's not that much fun, and the pros- pects for the future don't look that good."
The wave of retirements compounds the challenge facing the GOP in the 2008 congressional election, because the party is significantly trailing Democrats in fundraising. That means Republicans will apparently be defending more House and Senate seats with less money, and they will be fighting battles in places that otherwise might have been secure.
What is more, many of the Republicans choosing to retire are older, more pragmatic lawmakers, such as Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio; moderates like Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia; and mavericks like Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. These departures reflect the generational and ideological changes that have pushed the Republican contingent in Congress steadily to the right over the last decade.
Eddie Mahe, a former GOP official, says it is no surprise that many Republicans are thinking about quitting politics at a time when President Bush's popularity is low, Iraq is in turmoil and the U.S. economy may be going soft.
"If I was talking to my favorite brother-in-law and he was thinking about running for Congress, I would say, 'Why would you want to do that now?' " Mahe said. "If anybody's not smart enough to figure that out, I don't want them around anyway."
Democrats have their own political vulnerabilities: Despite disillusionment with the GOP, many voters are not satisfied with Democratic control of Congress. A recent poll conducted for National Public Radio found that Congress' approval rating has slipped to 25%, down from 36% in April.
Still, against that backdrop, more Republicans than Democrats are abandoning the institution. So far in the GOP, five senators and 12 House members have announced they will retire. Among Democrats, no one in the Senate is retiring, and two have said they will leave the House -- to run for the Senate.
Retirements are crucial to congressional election strategy because, in most cases, it is easier for a party to hold on to a seat when its incumbent runs for reelection than to retain a seat opened by retirement.
That is why Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has been laboring to persuade his party's incumbents to run for reelection. He is urging at least one -- Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota -- to reconsider his decision to retire.
Cole says it is always difficult to dissuade lawmakers who leave for personal reasons. Pryce, for example, said she was retiring from the Ohio seat that she nearly lost in 2006 to spend more time with her daughter, who is entering kindergarten.
"It's hard to say no to that," Cole said. "But that was one that hurts, because we fully expected her to run."
The fact that at this early stage, 11 House Republicans have announced retirement -- and one is leaving the chamber to run for Senate -- is not out of line with past years. What is more unusual is that almost all Democrats are staying put.
Cole takes heart in the fact that several of the GOP retirees, such as Rep. David L. Hobson of Ohio, are from districts that Republicans will probably be able to hold with little trouble. But others will give the GOP a fight it might otherwise not have had to wage. Of the 12 seats opening, eight are ranked as potentially competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report -- including five it identifies as tossups.
Republicans will probably be fighting on that turf with less money: As of the end of August, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $22.1 million on hand, compared with $1.6 million held by the GOP House committee.
There is a similar imbalance in fundraising for Senate races: As of the end of August, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had $20.6 million in the bank; its Republican counterpart had $7.1 million.
That financial disadvantage is especially problematic for Republicans because next year the party must defend 22 of its 49 Senate seats, compared with 12 Senate seats to be defended by Democrats.