Sen. Gramm announces retirement plans

By David Espo AP Special Correspondent
Wednesday September 05, 2001

WASHINGTON — Texas Republican Phil Gramm said Tuesday he will leave the Senate at the end of his third term next year, following fellow conservatives Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond into retirement and closing out a career as an unflinching advocate of lower taxes and less government. 

“I have always been happy with the tax cuts I’ve supported,” Gramm said at a news conference where he sometimes grew emotional. He quickly added, “I still believe that government is too big, too powerful and too expensive and too intrusive,” and he urged a capital gains tax cut this fall. 

Gramm, 59, said he has made no plans for life after politics. A former economics professor at Texas A&M, he sidestepped questions about the school’s presidency, which is vacant. 

Gramm is the third Republican senator to disclose plans to retire in 2002. Helms, 79, of North Carolina, announced last month that his fifth term would be his last. Thurmond, of South Carolina, is 98 and near the end of a remarkable career in politics that spans more than seven decades. 

A fourth Republican, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, has yet to declare his intentions, raising the possibility that Republicans may have to defend four open seats next year, at a time when they are trying to regain the majority. In all, there are 21 Republican seats on the ballot in 2002, compared to 14 for the Democrats, all of whose incumbents are expected to seek new terms. 

Democrats currently control the Senate, 50-49, with one independent, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, who caucuses with them. 

“It’s really the end of an era with Thurmond and Helms and Gramm leaving,” said Charles Black, a Republican political consultant close to the Texan. 

Together, the three men have nearly a century of service in the Senate, and Black added, “They all played a key role in the Reagan revolution and what Reagan was able to accomplish.” 

Gramm was elected to the House in 1978 as a Democrat. Appointed to the House Budget Committee by fellow Democrats in 1981, he worked secretly with Republicans to pass then-President Reagan’s budget, with tax and spending cuts and a big increase in the Pentagon’s budget. The landmark spending-cut legislation carries his name. 

Later stripped of his committee assignment, he resigned his House seat following re-election. He promptly won it back as a Republican in a special election in 1983, then used it as a springboard to the Senate in 1984. He has been easily elected ever since, and was a safe bet for re-election next year. 

But his brand of politics proved unsuccessful outside the state. A run for the GOP presidential nomination collapsed in 1996 when he finished fifth in the leadoff Iowa caucuses. 

At the same time, Gramm steadily gathered influence inside the Senate GOP. As chairman of the Senate campaign committee, he helped usher in the GOP majority in the 1994 elections. A few months later, he helped Sen. Trent Lott — now the GOP leader, but then a back bencher — challenge successfully for a leadership post. He and Lott have been close allies since. 

Gramm has been a relentless foe of big government, willing to clash with Democrats and Republicans alike on the subject. Last year, he roiled Republican waters by insisting on additional spending cuts before signing on to a GOP budget blueprint. 

Chairman of the Banking Committee until Democrats gained a Senate majority this year, he also played important roles in passing comprehensive banking legislation, which President Clinton signed into law, as well as a bankruptcy bill still pending. 

At his news conference, Gramm made use of his trademark folksy rhetoric and biting partisanship. He said he had called Dicky Flatt — a Mexia, Texas, printer whom he frequently cites as an example of the voters who “do the work, pay the taxes and pull the wagon” in Texas. 

As for the Democrats, he dismissed their criticism that President Bush’s tax cut was eroding federal surpluses. “I mean, these are the same people that for the next three months are going to be screaming for more spending. I don’t understand how politically they can possibly gain from what they’re doing,” he said. 

He also allowed another side of his personality to show, pausing repeatedly, his eyes red-rimmed, as he reflected on the toll a quarter-century in public life had taken on his family. 

Gramm said he was leaving because he had helped accomplish all that he had set out to do. He mentioned balancing the budget, cutting taxes, reforming welfare, rolling back Communism. “I am proud to be able to say today that not only did I fight for these things, not only did I play a leadership role in each and every one, but that in a very real sense, 25 years later these goals have been achieved.” 

Gramm said he was completely confident his successor would be a Republican, but Democrats hastened to dispute that. “The Texas Senate race, until this morning considered to be a seat safely in Republican hands, has now become a battleground state,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, head of the Democratic campaign committee. 

Several names surfaced as potential candidates. 

Among Republicans, they included Rep. Henry Bonilla and three statewide elected officials, John Cornyn, the attorney general; Tony Garza, railroad commissioner, and David Dewhurst, land commissioner. Potential Democratic contenders included Rep. Ken Bentsen; former Rep. John Bryant; Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and former state Attorney General Dan Morales.