WASHINGTON - Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, a rare centrist Democrat in an increasingly polarized Congress, announced yesterday that he would not seek re-election next year.
That makes Breaux the fifth Southern Democrat to step down in 2004 rather than run again in a region that has been increasingly inhospitable to his party.
Breaux would have been a shoo-in for re-election, and his decision to forgo a fourth term complicates Democrats' efforts to capture control of the Senate. Republicans now hold a 51-48 majority, with one Democrat-leaning independent.
Breaux's departure will take from Congress one of its most skilled legislative middlemen. At a time when lawmakers are more prone than ever to split along party lines over major issues, Breaux is one of a vanishing breed that thrives on working across party lines.
To the dismay of some liberal Democrats, Breaux was central to building bipartisan coalitions to pass two of President Bush's biggest domestic-policy accomplishments - his big 2001 tax cut, and the recent bill to expand and overhaul Medicare.
It had long been rumored that Breaux, 59, would step down. He has joked with Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican who is also retiring next year, about joining together in a lobbying partnership.
At one point while Breaux and Nickles were embroiled in the long, often tedious negotiations over the Medicare legislation, Nickles slipped him a note asking: "Do you really want to do this for seven more years?"
Breaux is secure enough in his seat that he could probably have spent the rest of his career in the Senate, but he was attracted to the idea of pursuing another career while he was still young enough.
"I can either try to beat Strom Thurmond's record [for Senate seniority], or I can play tennis in Bermuda on weekends," Breaux joked with one confidant while he was making his decision.
He pondered that choice until a self-imposed deadline yesterday to make up his mind. "There comes a time in every career when it is time to step aside and let others step up and serve," Breaux said at his news conference in Baton Rouge, La. "And for my family and me, that time has arrived."
The four other Southern Democrats who have already announced their retirement are Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. All four leave behind competitive seats that Democrats will have to fight to keep.
Democrats are in a stronger position in Louisiana. They have won two major statewide offices in the past two years - the other Senate seat went to Mary L. Landrieu in 2002 and the governorship went to Democrat Kathleen Blanco this fall.
Breaux was the youngest member of Congress when he was first elected to the House in 1972. He was first elected to the Senate in 1986.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.