Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif. announced plans Thursday to retire later this year and give up his influential post as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
"I am not a candidate for Congress this year," a tearful McKeon, 75, said at a news conference in the HASC hearing room of the Rayburn House Office Building.
McKeon's departure set up a potential battle within the GOP to succeed him in the chairmanship of the committee that has major input on weapons programs, troop pay and benefits, as well as hundreds of billions in contracting for the defense industry.
Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Tex., the current committee vice chairman and a favorite of McKeon's, was considered the frontrunner. Other potential candidates were Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the panel's Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, and Randy Forbes, R-Va., who chairs the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
In stepping down, McKeon, who lobbied to ease the burden of the sequester budget cuts on the military, singled out the Tea Party budget hawks of his own party for muddling the Republican message, and refusing to take direction from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"If they can't support the leadership, let them run for leadership," McKeon.
In his 11 terms in Congress, and as HASC chairman, McKeon was a reliable GOP critic of the Obama administration on defense policy and spending. Earlier this week, McKeon and Thornberry charged that Obama was shortchanging the troops by failing to explain their ongoing mission in Afghanistan.
Both McKeon and Thornberry also called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to release to the committee the names of 72 detainees that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered to be released. The Defense Department has yet to disclose the names but a committee spokesman said the names were expected to be turned over to McKeon eventually.
At his news conference, McKeon renewed his criticism of Obama, saying that blame for the gridlock in Congress rested "down the street" at the White House. He also charged that Obama gives "very little direction," and was critical of what he said was the President's unwillingness to explain "why we're in Afghanistan."
Despite his differences with McKeon, Hagel said in a statement that "as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck has fought hard to provide our troops serving around the world, and their families, the resources and support they need to accomplish their mission."
Hagel said that McKeon, who did not serve in the military, "is a true patriot, and thanks to his leadership on defense issues and his passion for our troops, he has made our military stronger, and our country more secure."
McKeon is the latest veteran lawmaker to exit Congress frustrated with the increasing partisanship. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., similarly announced his retirement after 12 terms on Wednesday. McKeon's counterpart, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., is retiring at the end of his term.
"Unlike many other recent retirements in the U.S. House, McKeon's does not come as a surprise: His exit had been rumored for months, to the point where two prominent Republicans back in California had essentially already announced their campaigns in advance of McKeon's actual announcement," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"The exit of McKeon -- and the death of Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla. -- further thins the ranks of old-school defense appropriators from the House GOP. "This is notable in a party that, with the rise of the Tea Party and more dovish leaders like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is not quite as uniformly supportive of lavish defense spending as it has been historically," Kondik said.