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Democrats Fret About New Retirement Wave

As House Democratic leaders wrestle with the prospect of two more years in the minority, another worry sits in the back of their minds: How many of their Members will decide to retire if today’s election doesn’t put them in charge?

Party leaders always keep a close eye on the handful of lawmakers who have served for decades and are aging, and even those junior Members tired of serving in the minority. Knowledgeable Democratic aides and strategists say in this election, leaders are most concerned that if the party doesn’t pick up at least some seats, let alone fail to regain control, they could lose experienced incumbents frustrated with a decade in the minority.

While no names in particular are being floated as potential retirees, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) isn’t taking anyone for granted. House Democratic aides said leaders always fear losing key Members, and this upcoming Congress will be no exception. She is expected to make plain to her Caucus that, regardless of the margins for the next Congress, Members must continue to stick around and fight to win back the chamber.

That conversation, according to one well-placed aide, could take place as early as two weeks from now when Members convene for a lame duck session and to elect their leaders for the 109th Congress.

According to a key source, Pelosi is likely to tell lawmakers, “We’re going to win and take over the majority. You have to stay and we want you to be a part of the team, and if you are not going to be part of the team, you need to let us know.”

Democrats privately believe they will pick up a few seats this cycle, and that could prove enough of an incentive to keep their Members in the fold. The other factor in play is the outcome of the presidential election, but opinions vary as to whether a Bush re-election or a John Kerry victory makes more of a difference.

“If Bush is re-elected, I can’t think of anyone who would retire — not one,” insisted one Democratic strategist.

That is because many Democrats believe a Bush win will further energize the party to fight back and stick it out for the 2006 mid-term elections, where the opposition party traditionally makes gains. In this case, if Democrats remain in the minority in 2004, they could be staged to pick up seats in two years, sources said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if those same Members who have been speculated about [retiring] will stay for another two years to see if history is on our side in a midterm election,” said another Democratic leadership aide.

While Democrats say nothing is certain, a Kerry victory may prompt more retirements than a Bush win. That’s because Kerry will face difficult decisions heading into office, and House Democrats would have to share that burden, sources said.

But several leadership aides say a Kerry win could also persuade potential retirees to stay.

“People will be energized and it would encourage them to stay,” said one senior staffer. “We’ll have a platform to talk about the issues. It’s a huge boost for us even if he has to battle with a narrow majority of Republicans in Congress.”

This Congress, after House Democrats lost six seats, six Democrats are retiring outright, while another four are running for the Senate, one resigned midterm, and four others lost their re-election primary attempts or lost bids for other office.

Many House Democrats say that the time to retire was after 2002, given that Republicans won back control of all three chambers and the party lost seats for the first time since 1994.

The current 205-member Democratic Caucus, while diverse, has its share of lawmakers who have never served in the majority as well as a number of older Members. Many of those senior lawmakers once served in the majority and have been holding out for the party to retake the House — turnover that for many of them would translate into powerful committee positions and chairmanships.

“Clearly, there are a lot of Members who have spoken out about their frustration in the minority,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Those are veteran Members as well as junior Members who have never experienced the majority. There are a lot of Members who are sick and tired of their status in the minority.”

There are currently 15 House Democrats who are at least 70 years old, including Reps. Ike Skelton (Mo.), ranking member on Armed Services; John Dingell (Mich.), ranking on Energy and Commerce; Tom Lantos (Calif.), ranking on International Relations; John Conyers (Mich.), ranking on Judiciary; James Oberstar (Minn.), ranking on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), ranking on Ways and Means.

Those Members are often mentioned among the potential retirees but are the first to insist they are going nowhere. And as one senior Democratic staffer noted, those career House Democrats have stuck it out this long, and are most likely to stick it out for another two years.

“These guys have a lot of staying power,” said the aide. “It doesn’t matter if they are 70 or 80, they are patient. They are tired of minority status, but they are patient because they know the impact and the power of the majority.”

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