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House retirements shrink the political center

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WASHINGTON — Retirements are shrinking the political center in Congress as the fall elections force an answer to the question, "Should I stay or should I go?"

Democratic moderates from North Carolina, Utah and New York as well as Republicans from Pennsylvania and Iowa who were willing to work on bipartisan legislation stand among the recent spate of planned exits in the House.

Twenty-nine members have made it clear this will be their last year in the House, departures driven by ambition, age, health and a desire to do something outside politics. Eleven House members are running for the Senate, two are pursuing governorships and 16 simply have decided not to run again.

Republicans hold a 233-200 advantage in the House with two vacancies and are expected to retain their majority in November. Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats to capture control.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced his retirement Thursday at an emotional news conference.

"For me, it's time to walk away," said the 75-year-old California Republican who has served in the House since 1993.

Noteworthy among the retirements are the centrists who have been willing to buck their party, displaying both pragmatism and an understanding of the political leanings of their congressional district. That approach helped Democrats Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina survive the Republican onslaught in 2010 in which the GOP seized control of the House, and the redistricted election of 2012 in which Republicans redrew more favorable boundaries.

Matheson and McIntyre say they are leaving. So is Democrat Bill Owens of New York. Republicans Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Tom Latham of Iowa, who have prevailed in competitive seats, are checking out, too.

"I think there's growing frustration by the rank and file with the partisanship that's plagued this body over the last three years," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., a co-chair of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition that counts McIntyre and Matheson as members.

The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate have agreed on little since January 2011, and they have a largely empty card to show for it: fewer than 60 laws last year and a 16-day government shutdown after a largely unproductive previous year. Sniping and rancor have stalled other legislation.

Last year's bipartisan budget deal and overwhelming House passage Wednesday of the $1.1 trillion spending bill for operating the government stand as anomalies rather than the norm.

"There's an audible sigh of relief that we were able to accomplish this," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., another co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition. "It's a minor miracle, stress the minor. Still, small miracles might lead to bigger miracles."

Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, who announced Wednesday that he would retire after 12 terms, suggested the budget deal might be the high-water mark in bipartisanship and difficult to repeat in the next few years, including the last two of President Barack Obama's second term.

"I think, from a personal and professional standpoint, things are as good as they're going to get," Moran said. "Now is the time to leave head first rather than feet first."

The Blue Dog Coalition, which once counted 54 members, now stands at 19 and includes some of the more vulnerable Democrats facing re-election in a tough midterm climate. Schrader was encouraged by the recent addition of four new members — Ron Barber and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Nick Rahall of West Virginia.

Only a few Southern Democrats who don't represent predominantly African-American districts remain in the House as the once Democratic South has transitioned to a Republican bastion. The number of Northeast Republicans has dwindled, another reflection of the changing political demographic.

"Moderates are the dealmakers, moderates are the solution, but this is a polarized country and a polarized Congress," Cooper said.

An observer from the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Johnny Isakson, said when he was first elected in 1976, he was the 19th Republican elected to the Georgia House, ready to deal with 161 Democrats.

"Custer had better odds," Isakson joked. "Now the Legislature is a constitutional-guaranteed majority, over 120 Republicans. And just about the time you get to the point where you have absolute power, you can find yourself losing it because you take it for granted."

The go-to moderate in the Senate, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said she was saddened by the retirements of moderates in the House, a counterpoint to the increase in pragmatists in the Senate. While the last election saw the departure of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, it also marked the arrival of Democrats from Republican-leaning states — Indiana's Joe Donnelly and North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp — as well as independent Angus King of Maine.

"Some members in the center have become discouraged," Collins said of the House. "I see a growing number in the Senate who are willing to come together and work in a bipartisan fashion."

Cooper wondered why common ground was so elusive, then described an obvious division at a hearing in the Oversight Committee earlier in the day. Not only were Democrats and Republicans sitting on opposite sides, but Democrats were given blue folders and Republicans red.