WASHINGTON -- Rep. Patricia Schroeder, for 24 years an outspoken voice for liberal causes who became a lightning rod for conservative critics, announced yesterday that she would retire next year.
A Colorado Democrat, Mrs. Schreoder gave no single reason for announcing her retirement, and she indicated no specific plans. She said it was simply time to move on.
"I always said I wasn't going to be here for life, and life was ticking by," she told reporters yesterday. "I'm 55 years old. I wanted to go out at the top of my game.
"As of this year, I got into the national women's history museum, Ollie North is terrified of me and I'm on his 25 most dangerous list," she added, with a characteristic tweak at the former Iran-contra figure, now a conservative talk-show host. "That means if I'm not going to be a lifer, this is the time I probably have to go. But it's very hard. It's been a great place and a lot of fun."
Mrs. Schroeder's departure was good news for conservative Republicans, many of whom have been targets of her biting wit and have opposed her efforts to expand abortion rights and to scale back defense spending. Although her House seat is considered safe for the Democrats, her party will lose one of its leading members.
Mrs. Schroeder joins 14 other House members who are voluntarily seeking life beyond Congress next year -- 10 of them fellow Democrats.
But she said she was not affected by the depression and sense of malaise that seem to have overtaken some Democrats since they lost their majority status last year.
"Minority status for me played absolutely no role," she said. "I was in the minority even when we were in the majority. I was very frustrating even to the Democratic leadership. Western Democrats are a little different, and I was hard to paper-train."
Republican leaders were gleeful yesterday at Mrs. Schroeder's announcement, calling it further evidence that the Democratic Party is eroding.
"Pat Schroeder knows she couldn't win re-election on a platform of obstruction and negativism," said Rep. Bill Paxon, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "She, like so many other Democrats, decided to take the lifeboat of retirement rather than go down with the sinking Democratic ship."
There is a bookend quality to the beginning and end of Mrs. Schroeder's two dozen years on Capitol Hill. When she first arrived in 1973 with a ponytail and two small children, Richard M. Nixon was president, abortion was illegal in many states, and there were only 14 women among 435 members of the House. There are now 48.
No woman had ever served on the House Armed Service Committee, and that committee's chairman, Edward Hebert, meant to keep it that way -- even though Mrs. Schroeder had won such an assignment from House leaders.
"There was a whole term in which Ron Dellums and I had to share a chair," Mrs. Schroeder recalled, referring to the California Democrat with whom she also shared anti-war views. "We were each considered half a member."
Chairman Hebert was soon dumped from his post, Mr. Dellums rose to be chairman himself, and Mrs. Schroeder became a champion of women in the military, military families and a stingy approach to Pentagon spending.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, Mrs. Schroeder also served on the Judiciary Committee, where she became a leader of the movement to steadily expand women's rights, civil rights and abortion rights.
A longtime chairman of the Congressional Women's Caucus, she also led a successful drive to improve health care for women, particularly in expanding research on women's issues at the National Institutes for Health. She was a key sponsor of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which became law in 1993 and allows employees to take unpaid leaves of absence to care for newborn children or sick relatives.
As dean of the 56 women in the House and Senate and perhaps best-known of the lot, Mrs. Schroeder toyed briefly with a 1988 run for the White House, which ended with a tearful news conference that drew scorn from her critics.
"She is colorful and she raises eyebrows, but I think she's been an inspiration to whole generation of women," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who has worked closely with her.
Quick with a catchy phrase, Mrs. Schroeder is known for coining the term "Teflon president" to describe the way criticism never seemed to stick to Ronald W. Reagan.
"That was very intentional," she said. "I always try to do word pictures to pierce through the clutter and noise."
Just as Mrs. Schroeder was moving into the senior ranks of power, the Republican takeover of Congress last year cast her once again into the role of outside dissenter.
For the past year, she has been catcalling from the sidelines of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution, which she has said would dismantle some of the rights and freedoms for women that she fought to establish, in particular the guaranteed right to abortion.
She says she "takes a certain amount of delight, being the mother of two children, married for 33 years, belonging to the marriage hall of fame" and taunting Republicans whose personal lives bear less resemblance to their party's vision of "family values."
But the Republicans, particularly conservative men, don't much care for her.
"She's seen as the figurehead for women's issues," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican who has worked with Mrs. Schroeder and has heard sniping directed at her. "When you're seen as a symbol of something, there's a stereotype that is rarely accurate."
But the congresswoman, who won re-election last year with 60 percent of the vote, said she was confident that her Denver district, which has become the liberal heart of Colorado, would remain in Democratic hands.
"The opponents I've had have run against me on the basis that they weren't Pat Schroeder," she said. "So, they're going to have get some kind of a new line now. Of course, now they're going to have to say they're not Newt Gingrich."