(CNSNews.com) - U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas announced on Monday that he would retire from Congress at the end of his current term, raising questions as to who will succeed the California Republican as head of the influential committee.
"I'm not walking away into the sunset; I'm going to work," said the 64-year-old representative of the state's 22nd District. "Just because I won't be in office doesn't mean I won't have any influence."
In fact, "over the next nine months, I intend to continue to work hard and finish my congressional term with the same vigor as the first," Thomas said during the news conference in Bakersfield, Calif.
"Challenges lie ahead, and I intend to work hard to tackle the problems caused by our outdated entitlement programs and our currently flawed income tax structure," he added.
Looking back over his 15 terms in the House, Thomas noted that "we passed over $2 trillion in tax relief for hardworking American families, we provided the president with trade promotion authority so that he could seek freer and fairer trade markets, and we approved a long-overdue voluntary prescription drug benefit in Medicare for the first time in the program's history."
With his wife, Sharon, by his side, the Congressman said he was inspired to retire by the example of former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, whom Thomas said retired at the top of his game.
"Although I hate to admit it, 65 and 35 does give you a slightly different look at jumping into an airplane and going cross-country and doing some of the things that we've done for almost 30 years," he said, adding that he is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren.
Monday's development was widely expected because, under House Republicans' self-imposed term limits for committee chairmen, Thomas cannot continue as head of the committee that writes tax laws after this year.
Response to Thomas' announcement came in quickly.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan honored Thomas on Monday for his leadership.
"Chairman Thomas is someone we've worked very closely with to advance important priorities for the American people," McClellan said from the White House. "We appreciate all that he's done."
In a press release, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called Thomas "one of America's finest servants and one of the most thoughtful, determined members of the House of Representatives. I'm sorry to see him go."
Praising the California Congressman's efforts in promoting tax relief, reforming health care and opening international markets, Hastert concluded: "America has benefited from his leadership, and I congratulate him on his years of service."
However, not everyone expressed sorrow at Monday's announcement.
Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, told reporters she considers Thomas the "poster child for everything that has gone wrong with the Republican revolution."
"He has literally been the ideological godfather of the privatization of health care and fiscal irresponsibility with regards to the budget deficit," Court added. "Bill Thomas to me as a Republican is an embarrassment."
The seat held by Thomas, who was first elected to Congress in 1978, is expected to remain in GOP hands, since Republicans make up 52 percent of registered voters in the district, compared to 30 percent for Democrats.
It is less certain who will take over the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee after Thomas leaves, though it appears there will be no shortage of candidates. Within minutes of Thomas' announcement, Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) issued a statement stating he is running for that post.
Also expected to make a run for the chairmanship is Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who chairs the subcommittee on Social Security and has worked closely with Thomas, who has declined to endorse a successor.
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