WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat Jeff Bingaman, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1982, said on Friday he will not seek re-election next year, becoming the fourth member of the Senate Democratic caucus to announce retirement plans.
Bingaman’s decision may make it tougher for President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats to retain control of the Senate in the 2012 elections, when a third of the 100-member chamber is up for grabs.
Bingaman, 67, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had been seen as a heavy favorite to win a sixth six-year term. By bowing out of the race, he immediately improved Republican prospects of capturing his seat. Democrats now control the Senate, 53-47.
U.S. President Barack Obama praised Bingaman, who he called a “tireless advocate” for protecting natural resources and promoting clean energy.
“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 said.
Bingaman is the fourth member of the Senate Democratic caucus to announce he will not seek re-election, following fellow Democrats Jim Webb of Virginia and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Two Senate Republicans — Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas — have said they will not seek another term.
While Congress often is mired in partisan bickering, Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on Bingaman’s energy committee, saluted the retiring Democrat and said he will be missed.
“He has been an honest partner in developing legislation, and under his leadership there’s been a real effort to broker bipartisan agreement on policies that advance the nation’s energy security,” Murkowski said.
Bingaman went home to New Mexico to announce his decision.
“At the end of this Congress (in 2012), I will have been in public service for thirty-four years — four as New Mexico’s attorney general, and 30 in the United States Senate,” he said in a statement issued by his office.
“The end of this Congress is the right time for me to step aside and allow someone else to serve,” Bingaman said.
Democratic leaders suffered another blow this week in their bid to retain the Senate when U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told them she had decided not to run for Kyl’s seat and would instead stay in Obama’s Cabinet.
Napolitano is a former Arizona governor and had been considered a potentially strong Senate contender.
“She cares deeply about Arizona but the secretary intends to continue doing the job that the president asked her to do — protecting the American people from terrorism and other threats to our country,” her spokesman Sean Smith said on Friday.
Additional reporting by Jim Vicini and Tom Doggett; Editing by Bill Trott