SENATOR Phil Gramm of Texas announces he will not seek re-election next year

Tuesday, September 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sen. Phil Gramm announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election next year. The Texas Republican said his decision followed ``a long and difficult period of soul searching.''

Gramm's retirement, announced in a statement ahead of a news conference, will conclude a career that spanned two political parties and a quarter-century of unflinching conservatism.

``After a long and difficult period of soul searching, I am announcing today that I will not seek re-election to the United States Senate. At the end of this term, I will end my career in public service,'' Gramm's statement said.

``Of equal importance to me is that I can leave the Senate at the end of this term knowing that the country is in good hands and knowing that a Republican will win my seat in the Senate.''

Gramm is the third senior Senate Republican to announce he will not seek re-election. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina announced last month he would retire and 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina said when he was re-elected in 1996 that this term would be his last.

Gramm, whose re-election was assured in a heavily Republican state, made up his mind over the weekend to retire but didn't begin telling associates until Tuesday morning, these officials said. Gramm informed the White House of his plan, an administration official said.

He also told longtime friend and campaign everyman Dicky Flatt, a Mexia, Texas, printer. ``All good things got to come to an end,'' Flatt said. ``I hate to see him go.''

Republican political consultant Charles Black in Washington also heard from Gramm, who said he decided not to seek re-election because he believes he has accomplished what he set out to do when he first ran for Congress 23 years ago _ balance the budget, get spending under control and rebuild the military to defeat communism. Gramm also considered his age, 59, and how a career switch might be more difficult if he waited another six years, Black said.

``It's really the end of an era with Thurmond and Helms and Gramm leaving. They all played a key role in the Reagan revolution and what Reagan was able to accomplish,'' said Black.

Gramm told colleagues he will serve out the remainder of the term, which expires in January 2003. As for his future, officials said Gramm would say he was looking forward to a third career, but would not disclose definitive plans for life after politics. He was an economics professor before entering politics. He has long been mentioned as a successor to the departing president at Texas A&M University.

Gramm's retirement is unlikely to cost Republicans a seat in a state that has become strongly Republican in recent years. Overall, Democrats hold a 50-49 majority, with one independent, and Republicans must defend 21 Senate seats next year. Democrats are defending 14, none of them open.

Gramm was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1978 but helped Republicans pass President Reagan's budget and tax cuts in 1981. After his 1982 re-election, Gramm left the Democratic Party and quit his seat, then won it back in a special election in 1983. He won his Senate seat the following year, and has set a conservative's course ever since.

He is a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and an influential voice within the Senate's Republican leadership.

In three Senate terms, Gramm rarely found a tax cut he didn't like. Last winter, he introduced a tax cut patterned on President Bush's campaign proposals even before the new chief executive could send his own blueprint to Congress.

At the same time, he has been a critic of government spending. Last year, he and a few fellow conservatives held up work on a GOP budget blueprint, saying it overspent.

Gramm's aides would not comment Tuesday on their boss' intentions. He has been denying rumors for more than a year that he won't seek a fourth term. He reportedly has been considered to succeed Ray Bowen as Texas A&M University president.

When Bowen in June announced his retirement, Gramm said he planned to run again. ``So as far as re-election is concerned, count me in,'' he said then. ``I enjoy beating Democrats, even if I have to do it one at a time.''

Republicans say they are confident of retaining Gramm's seat in the 2002 midterm election. The seat had formerly been held by Republican John Tower, and Bush, the former Texas governor, won the state handily in 2000.

A leading Republican conservative, Gramm unsuccessfully sought the GOP's presidential nomination in 1996. When Vermont Sen. James Jeffords switched from Republican to independent earlier this year and turned control of the Senate over to Democrats, Gramm had to give up his chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee.