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Retiring senators endanger Democrat majority and Obama reform

Two key Democrats, Byron Dorgan and Christopher Dodd, have announced they will not seek re-election in the forthcoming US midterms, risking the small Democrat majority in the house and potentially thereby delaying President Obama's reform agenda.

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AFP - US President Barack Obama's Democratic allies were off to a rocky election-year start Wednesday, with high-profile retirements endangering their fragile Senate majority -- and his agenda.

Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, chairman of the powerful Senate Banking Committee, announced he would not seek re-election in November, depriving Obama of a steadfast, powerful ally and 35-year veteran of Washington.

"This is my moment to step aside," Dodd told reporters outside his Connecticut home, acknowledging a series of troubles had left him in "the toughest political shape of my career."

Democrats, their Senate and House of Representatives majorities up for grabs in the November vote, hoped the embattled lawmaker's departure would help them keep his seat in a state where Obama won easily in 2008.

The announcement came a day after Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota announced he would not seek another term, boosting Republican chances of seizing his spot, which would strengthen their ability to block Obama's agenda.

Today the Senate's 58 Democrats, when joined by two independents who are often their allies, have the bare minimum 60-vote majority needed in the 100-seat Senate to overrun any Republican delaying tactics.

Dodd, hurt by a controversial home loan and a failed 2008 White House bid, has been a key author of legislation to enact Obama's top domestic priority -- remaking US health care -- and a central player in efforts to revamp rules for Wall Street, battle climate change, and pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

Dorgan and Dodd's departures leave Democrats defending four open Senate seats and three highly vulnerable ones, including the spot held by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Republicans will defend six open Senate seats, and Democrats hope to wage competitive races in five of those.

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has already said his party will not retake the House even though mid-term elections usually result in losses for the president's camp.

Democrats praised Dodd, starting with Obama, who said the senator "worked tirelessly to improve the lives of our children and families, support good jobs for hard-working Americans, and keep our nation strong and prosperous.

"While his work in the Senate is not yet finished, his leadership in that institution will be missed," the president said in a statement.

Some Senate observers said Democrats, who were on the cusp of passing a historic health care overhaul within weeks, would redouble their efforts to pass key parts of Obama's agenda while they still have their 60-vote majority.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sidestepped questions about the impact of Democratic departures on Obama's legislative priorities, saying "it is hard to look into the crystal ball 11 months from election day."

Dodd, whose term ends in January 2011, refused to speculate on the impact of his move: "One year from this week, our state will have a new senator. In the meantime, we have important work to do," he said. "My service is not over."

Democratic Representative Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, praised Dodd and said they would be "working closely for the rest of this year" on rewriting tougher rules for Wall Street.

But delighted Republicans pounced on the news, which they described as evidence of Democratic pessimism about the coming election after squandering the opportunities wrought by Obama's ascent.

"These should serve as a major wakeup call to Democrat leadership that members of their own caucus don’t want to be held accountable to the voters they have ignored for the past year," said Steele.

The Senate retirements came as Democratic Governor Bill Ritter of the once solidly Republican state of Colorado -- and a one-time rising star in the party -- also said he would not seek reelection.

Dodd saw his political stock fall beginning in late 2008 with his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and drew heavy fire over receiving discounts from troubled lender Countrywide Financial.

Dodd faced deep disapproval from voters in his home state and the prospects of a tough re-election fight against wealthy businesswoman Linda McMahon.
 

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