ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — As U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman shook hands of those congratulating him on his years of service, he turned to the crowd and said: “Sure seems like a wake in here, doesn’t it?”
The 67-year-old Democrat announced Friday that he would retire after the end of his current term, which ends in two years. The decision was the latest in a string of departures to hit congressional Democrats as they head to the 2012 elections.
The party holds a 53-47 majority, including two independents who side with them. But they must defend 21 of the 33 seats on the ballot next year, and face a struggle to retain control.
President Barack Obama praised Bingaman after the announcement, saying in a statement that he “has been a tireless advocate for preserving America’s natural resources and promoting a clean energy future.”
“Jeff has gained the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, in New Mexico and in Washington, and his voice on the floor of the Senate will be missed,” Obama added.
While Bingaman’s decision to retire will end a 30-year career in the Senate, work remains. He said he would focus on the economy, energy and education — and keeping the seat in Democratic hands.
The decision to retire as one of New Mexico’s longest-serving U.S. senators wasn’t easy, but he said that he was confident the state’s congressional delegation can carry on without him.
“At some point in any one of these jobs, you come to a point where you think you’ve made your best effort and it’s time to move on and allow someone else to serve,” he said. “And that’s the point I’ve arrived at.”
He is the third Democrat and sixth member of the Senate to decide to step aside at the end of their current terms. The others are Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jim Webb of Virginia; Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona; and independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
Bingaman was first elected to his seat in 1982.
For years, he has flummoxed New Mexico’s Republican leaders, who have criticized him for keeping a low-profile. He was popular with the voters, and his quiet, serious-minded style helped him carve out a reputation on Capitol Hill as a no-frills legislator who eschews the limelight.
He once said not tooting your own horn can be very effective. In typical style, he didn’t elaborate on what he said were “various achievements” and credited his staff with any success he’s had.
“I would like to get further in the Congress, see what we’re able to do and give you a final accounting at that point,” he told reporters.
New Mexico’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Tom Udall, said Bingaman’s accomplishments are too great to list. Bingaman was touted as a national leader in energy policy, an expert in the health care arena and a champion of the environment.
He has been a steadfast supporter of the state’s federal laboratories and military bases that bring countless, high-paying jobs. He serves as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, an important post to energy-rich New Mexico.
Bingaman became New Mexico’s senior senator after Republican Pete Domenici decided not to seek re-election. All three of the state’s then-U.S. House members ran for Domenici’s seat that year instead of seeking re-election.
Spokesmen for two of the state’s current House members, Democrat Ben Ray Lujan and Republican Steve Pearce, said their focus was their constituents. A spokeswoman for the third, Democrat Martin Heinrich, said it’s premature to talk about seeking Bingaman’s seat.
Republicans would not speculate on who might seek that seat in 2012, but state Republican Party Chairman Monty Newman said, “our bench is going to be broad and deep.”
State Democrats said they will have an “incredibly strong bench of candidates to draw from,” and Bingaman said he was certain the Democrats would hand on to his seat.
“I’m going to do everything I can to ensure this remains a Democratic seat,” Bingaman said.
Among Democrats not ruling out a run are former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, former attorney General Patricia Madrid and Attorney General Gary King.
Bingaman won his first election to the Senate with 54 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Harrison Schmitt, a former Apollo astronaut. In winning a fifth term in 2006, Bingaman garnered nearly 71 percent of the vote against a Republican newcomer.
A lawyer, Bingaman was New Mexico’s attorney general from 1978 to 1982 before being elected to the Senate.
He was born in El Paso, Texas, but grew up in the southwestern New Mexico community of Silver City, the son of educators. He earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University in 1965 and a law degree from Stanford University in 1968.
Bingaman said he and his wife, Anne, would return to the home they’ve owned in Santa Fe since 1977 after his work in the Senate is complete. What then?
“I expect to find some other things to do,” he said. “I just don’t know what they are.”
Associated Press writers David Espo in Washington, D.C., Barry Massey in Santa Fe and Sue Major Holmes in Albuquerque contributed to this report.