WASHINGTON—Republican Phil Gramm of Texas said yesterday that he will leave the Senate next year at the end of his third term, following fellow conservatives Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond into retirement and closing out a career as an unflinching advocate of lower taxes and less government.
"I have always been happy with the tax cuts I've supported," Gramm said at a news conference. "I still believe that government is too big, too powerful and too expensive, and too intrusive," and he urged a capital gains tax cut this fall.
Gramm, 59, said he has made no plans for life after politics. A former economics professor at Texas A&M, he sidestepped questions about the school's presidency, which is vacant.
Gramm is the third Republican senator to disclose plans to retire next year. Helms, 79, of North Carolina, announced last month that his fifth term would be his last. Thurmond, of South Carolina, is 98 and near the end of a career in politics that spans more than seven decades.
A fourth Republican, Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, has yet to declare his intentions, raising the possibility that Republicans may have to defend four open seats next year, at a time when they are trying to regain the majority. There will be 21 Republican seats on the ballot next year, compared with 14 for the Democrats, all of whose incumbents are expected to seek new terms.
"It's really the end of an era with Thurmond and Helms and Gramm leaving," said Charles Black, a Republican political consultant close to the Texan.
Together, the three men have nearly a century of service in the Senate. "They all played a key role in the Reagan revolution and what Reagan was able to accomplish," Black said.
Gramm was elected to the House in 1978 as a Democrat. Appointed to the House Budget Committee by fellow Democrats in 1981, he worked secretly with Republicans to pass Reagan's budget, with tax and spending cuts and a big increase in the Pentagon's budget. The landmark legislation carries his name.
Later stripped of his committee assignment, he resigned his House seat after being reelected. He promptly won it back as a Republican in a special election in 1983, then used it as a springboard to the Senate in 1984. He has been easily elected ever since, and was a safe bet for reelection next year.
But his brand of politics proved unsuccessful outside the state. A run for the GOP presidential nomination collapsed in 1996 when he finished fifth in the Iowa caucuses.
At the same time, Gramm steadily gathered influence inside the Senate GOP. As chairman of the Senate campaign committee, he helped usher in the GOP majority in the 1994 elections. A few months later, he helped Senator Trent Lott - now the GOP leader - challenge successfully for a leadership post.
As chairman of the Banking Committee until Democrats gained a Senate majority this year, he also played important roles in passing comprehensive banking legislation.
Gramm said he was confident his successor would be a Republican, but Democrats disagreed. "The Texas Senate race, until this morning considered to be a seat safely in Republican hands, has now become a battleground state," said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, head of the Democratic campaign committee.
Several names surfaced as potential candidates.
Among Republicans, they included Representative Henry Bonilla and three statewide elected officials, John Cornyn, the attorney general; Tony Garza, railroad commissioner; and David Dewhurst, land commissioner.
Potential Democratic contenders included Representative Ken Bentsen; former Representative John Bryant; Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk; and former state attorney general Dan Morales.