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Warner's retirement adds to GOP's woes

The Virginia senator's seat could be just what the Democrats need to increase their majority. He said age was a factor.

September 01, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), one of the most respected voices in Congress on military affairs, announced his retirement on Friday, delivering another blow to a GOP shaken by a spate of troubles and boosting Democratic hopes of increasing their slim Senate majority.

"My work and service to Virginia as a senator will conclude on the 6th of January, 2009," the 80-year-old senator said at a news conference at the University of Virginia, with his wife, Jeanne, at his side.

Warner's decision to retire comes as Senate Republicans have been hit by a series of political calamities, including Idaho Sen. Larry Craig's guilty plea to disorderly conduct in a men's restroom; a search by federal agents of the Alaska home of Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator; and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter's apology for a "very serious sin" after his phone number turned up in the records of an alleged Washington madam.

Warner, a former Armed Services Committee chairman who recently called on President Bush to begin withdrawing some troops from Iraq before Christmas, said he would continue to play a central role in the war debate. The debate is expected to heat up this month when lawmakers receive a progress report on the troop increase.

But the courtly, silver-haired former Navy secretary, veteran of World War II and the Korean War, and ex-husband of actress Elizabeth Taylor said that age was a consideration.

"The Senate is a very active organization," he said. "Much is required of you."

On a recent trip to Iraq, Warner said that he spent "day and night, jumping on and off helicopters, cargo planes, shaking hands, quickly eating and moving on. I withstood it fine, just as well as when I was in boot camp in the Marines. No problem at all.

"But you've got to face, I'm now 80," he said, pointing out that he would be nearly 88 at the end of another six-year term.

Warner drew praise from members of both parties.

"At a time when our political climate is as partisan and divisive as ever, John Warner embodies bipartisanship, courtesy and generosity," said his junior colleague, Jim Webb (D-Va.). "He is the quintessential Virginia gentleman."

Webb, who has pressed to limit the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq, said, "The president would do well to listen to John Warner during his last year in office."

President Bush, in a statement, said that Warner's retirement meant that "the Senate will lose one of its most independent and widely respected voices, and the Commonwealth of Virginia will lose one of its fiercest advocates."

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, called Warner a "prime example of the centrism that used to be the norm in the U.S. Senate but now is limited to a relative handful of senators in both parties."

"Few senators have ever known more about military and defense matters," he said. "He's got 16 months to serve, and he's going to be heard from again on Iraq. . . . Warner is a senator the White House should fear in upcoming months."

Warner has been a leading critic of the president's decision to send additional troops to Iraq, at one point introducing a resolution to oppose the increase.

Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian, recalled Warner's devotion to the job in 1979, when the senator was scheduled to read George Washington's farewell address for Washington's birthday only to find the city snowed under.

"At the time, there was a farmers' protest happening in Washington. The senator spotted a farmer on a tractor headed for the Mall, and hitched a ride," Ritchie recalled. "The entire federal government was shut down that day, except for the U.S. Senate, with a skeleton crew of staff keeping the place operating while Sen. Warner read Washington's farewell address. It suggests that persistence and resourcefulness are some of his strongest attributes."

Senate Democrats see Warner's retirement as an opportunity to increase their 51-49 majority because Virginia elected Webb last year, a year after Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's convincing win in the gubernatorial race. In Colorado, another state that is beginning to lean toward the Democrats, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard also is retiring.

Republicans must defend 22 Senate seats next year, compared with 12 for Democrats, in an election where the war is likely to weigh heavily on GOP incumbents.

Among those who may run for Warner's seat next year are another Warner, Democrat Mark R. Warner, a former governor who is no relation to the senator, as well as Republicans Thomas M. Davis III, a House member, and Jim Gilmore, also a former governor.

Rebecca Fisher of the Senate Republican campaign committee said that despite the series of troubles, the election is still a year off. "A lot can happen that can turn the current political climate around," she said. "Don't count us out yet."

Elected to the Senate in 1978, Warner has shown an independent streak.

Warner angered GOP officials after opposing Oliver L. North's 1994 Senate campaign. Warner argued that even though North's 1989 conviction in the Iran-Contra scandal was overturned, it made him unfit to serve in the Senate.

In 1987, Warner was one of only six GOP senators to oppose Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Also Friday, Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, announced that he would run for reelection next year. Lewis has come under scrutiny for his ties to lobbyists whose clients have received millions of dollars in earmarks from the appropriations committee that he once chaired.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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