WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and, as Congress' only Holocaust survivor, a leading advocate for human rights, said Wednesday that he had been diagnosed with cancer and would not seek reelection in November.
Another California Democrat, Howard L. Berman, could succeed him as the committee's chairman.
Lantos, who turns 80 next month, is the latest in a wave of veteran lawmakers who have announced their departures from Congress. A number of them have been Republicans frustrated by their new role in the minority, but the Budapest, Hungary-born Lantos, a Capitol Hill fixture since 1981, said he was stepping down because of esophageal cancer.
"Routine medical tests have revealed that I have cancer of the esophagus," he said in a statement. "In view of this development and the treatment it will require, I will not seek reelection."
His spokeswoman, Lynne Weil, added: "He fully expects to complete his congressional term." Lantos, who was unavailable for comment Wednesday, has yet to begin treatment.
His retirement could set up a heated race in the heavily Democratic 12th Congressional District, which stretches from southwest San Francisco down the peninsula to take in much of San Mateo County. Among possible candidates for the Democratic nomination are former state Sen. Jackie Speier and state Sen. Leland Yee.
In a statement, Yee said he would take a "hard look at the challenges this district faces in filling the shoes of Congressman Lantos," but noted that the day of Lantos' announcement was "not the day to be thinking about future political office."
Speier said in a statement that she was saddened by the news, adding: "Congressman Lantos has overcome many hurdles in his life, and I hope and pray he'll overcome this one."
Berman, of Valley Village, is next in line in seniority to Lantos on the foreign affairs panel and is likely to become chairman if the Nov. 4 elections keep Democrats in control of the House.
He called Lantos "an important figure in the foreign policy debates, not only in Congress but as an international voice." Lantos' background and knowledge, Berman said, have "made his participation in any debate a unique one, and we're going to have that for another year, and that's good."
The panel's top Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, described Lantos as "a man of enormous integrity, energy and substance, whose deepest convictions were born in epic struggles against tyranny, fascism and genocide."
Lantos, who came to the United States from Hungary in 1947, refers to himself as "an American by choice."
In his statement Wednesday, he said: "It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress."
Lantos, who holds a doctorate in economics from UC Berkeley and taught the subject at San Francisco State University, is highly regarded by members of both major parties for his knowledge of international affairs and his interest in human rights.
He faced a possibly tough challenge this year from antiwar Democrats angry over his 2002 vote for the resolution authorizing U.S. military force in Iraq. After Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 election, Lantos took an early leadership role in challenging President Bush's plan to send additional troops to Iraq, and his staff noted that his position as chairman of the foreign affairs committee had enabled him to step up oversight of the war.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called Lantos, a founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, "one of America's leading experts on foreign affairs and most effective advocates for human rights."
During a hearing in November, for example, Lantos publicly scolded executives of Yahoo Inc., the Internet company, telling them that "morally, you are pygmies" for submitting to the Chinese government's demands to identify the owner of a Yahoo e-mail account used to forward a government memo to international human rights groups. The account holder, a journalist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In 2006, Lantos was arrested outside the Sudanese embassy during a protest to call attention to the violence in Darfur.