Ray LaHood Bids Congress Goodbye

As dozens of freshman lawmakers scramble into Washington, a few longtime lawmakers are leaving Capitol Hill by choice. Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, who arrived with the revolutionary GOP class of 1994, is one of them.

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You know, it's hard to believe, but sometimes, a member of Congress voluntarily decides to leave the glamorous life on Capitol Hill. He or she isn't forced out, doesn't lose an election, isn't lured to higher office. Some two dozen lawmakers this year are leaving, all of their own accord. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on one departing member of Congress, an Illinois Republican.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Ray Lahood stands in his soon-to-be-former office in the Longworth Building across Independence Avenue from the Capitol. There are scenes like this every two years in Washington, departing members packing up their photos and papers, staffers on the phone looking for new jobs. But Ray Lahood is anything but melancholy as he prepares to return to his hometown of Peoria.

Representative RAY LAHOOD (Republican, Illinois): I'm not being carried out. I'm not being prosecuted out. I'm not being voted out. I'm going out on top, and I'm very proud of that. I mean, it's an accomplishment around here after 14 years, to walk out with a sense of accomplishment and pride in knowing that we did what the people wanted, and we're going out on our own terms.

NAYLOR: Lahood was first elected to Congress in 1994, succeeding the man he had served as chief of staff, former Republican Leader Bob Michael. Lahood was part of the freshman GOP class that won control of the House for the first time in a generation.

But he was not the revolutionary some of his colleagues were. He never signed the Contract with America and was not afraid to buck party leaders on occasion. He says the GOP has to broaden its appeal if Republicans hope to regain a congressional majority.

Representative LAHOOD: Our party has to come to grips with the idea that we are a very diverse country, and our party is very diverse. And we're not just one theology. We're just not one philosophy. And I think, once we come to grips with that, that is the starting block from which build a party.

NAYLOR: Lahood has been a tireless advocate of civility in Congress and bipartisanship, concepts that seldom prevailed during his time in Washington. But he has high hopes for the new Congress and President-elect Obama.

Representative LAHOOD: He will set a new tone, and it will be genuine. This is not made up. He believes this, and I believe he will get people to work together, and we will begin to turn the economy around. And it won't just be with Democrats. If Republicans are smart in the House and Senate, they'll see that this guy has a vision. This President Obama has a vision, but it could only be done in a bipartisan way.

NAYLOR: Lahood was a familiar figure who often presided over the House Chamber as the acting Speaker, holding the gavel during some contentious debates. He was known for his even-handed treatment of Republicans and Democrats and his knowledge of House rules. Lahood says his most memorable moments in Washington weren't so much what he did as what he saw.

Representative LAHOOD: And I am going to be able to say, when the history books are written, I can tell my grandchildren I was in Washington on 9/11. I was sitting in the chair when the House attempted to impeach a president, and so many of these things that'll be in the history books I watched before my very eyes.

NAYLOR: Lahood says he will miss the people he worked with in Congress but not the weekly trips back and forth from Peoria. His seat was held by Republicans on November 4th. Lahood's replacement will be Aaron Schock, who, at age 27, will be the youngest member of the new Congress. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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