WASHINGTON - Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, a hard-charging conservative and veteran legislative broker in the Republican-led Congress, said yesterday that he will not seek a fifth term, boosting Democratic hopes of capturing his seat and the Senate next year.
Nickles, who rode into the Senate on Ronald Reagan's coattails at age 31 in 1980, made his announcement beside a bronze statue of the 40th president at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Although he probably would have been a shoo-in for re-election, Nickles, 54, said he did not want to be a Senate "lifer."
He said he will "return to the private sector" after his term ends in January 2005, but he declined to specify his plans.
Nickles came to the Senate from an executive position at Nickles Machine Corp., a family business in Oklahoma. He and Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who also is pondering retirement, have joked about opening a lobbying shop together.
Nickles made his name in Congress as a tenacious advocate of lowering taxes, shrinking government and backing conservative social causes. President Bush praised him yesterday for his "efforts to keep government spending in check and to keep more money in the pockets of American taxpayers. He has left his mark on virtually every major issue that has moved through the Senate."
Nickles rose to become the second-ranking Senate Republican, preferring the term "assistant majority leader" to the more traditional "majority whip," a reflection of his ambition to lead the Senate.
But he never broke through to the top. In December, Nickles became the first Senate Republican to urge his colleagues to reconsider Trent Lott as majority leader after the Mississippi senator sparked a racial furor with comments made at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.
His colleagues took his advice but passed over Nickles as a replacement for Lott in favor of Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Nickles then became chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. This year, he shepherded a budget bill through Congress that cleared the way for enactment of a $350 billion, 10-year tax cut, the second-largest in Bush's presidency.
For business leaders, Nickles has been a stalwart. In 2001, he led a successful effort to kill ergonomics rules that the Clinton administration wrote to force companies to take detailed steps to prevent workplace injuries.
Nickles has championed a market-driven approach to health care and is a key negotiator on Medicare and patients' rights legislation.
Nickles' retirement gives Democrats an opening in a state where they scored a surprising gubernatorial victory last year. Rep. Brad Carson and state Attorney General Drew Edmondson are considered possible contenders for the party's nomination.
On the Republican side, Rep. Ernest Istook and Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys are likely to seek the nomination.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.