By  on March 7, 2006

WASHINGTON — Rep. Bill Thomas, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who has played a pivotal role in shaping trade and tax policy for President Bush, said Monday he will retire at the end of the year.

Known for his mercurial demeanor and hard-ball negotiating tactics, Thomas (R., Calif.), has used his chairmanship as a bully pulpit at times, carrying out the President's free-trade agenda and pushing through six agreements, including one of the most debated deals in a decade, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Thomas, 64, became committee chairman in 2001 and has served more than a quarter-century in the House. In addition to steering Bush's tax cuts through Congress, he has crafted legislation on Social Security, Medicare and pensions. Thomas said at a news conference in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., that he will not seek reelection.

"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," Thomas said in a statement.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and Thomas' counterpart in the Senate, said he expects to get at least one major tax bill done before Thomas retires. "He's not a lame-duck type," Grassley said in a statement.

The ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who has battled with Thomas, said in an interview, "His approach and legislative objective was a cause of irritation. He succeeded in doing what he wanted to do at the expense of the legislative process ... Democrats were excluded from the process."

Thomas, advocate of opening markets to U.S. exports, particularly for his cotton-growing constituents, has gained the support of retailers and importers, but generated anxiety among textile executives wary of the adverse impact of trade deals and imports on textile employment.

"If he opposed you, you were [up against] a formidable opponent, but if he was with you, he was a powerful ally," said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. "In most cases, he was opposed to the textile industry's trade agenda."Johnson said Thomas sided with the industry on a few occasions, including making a commitment to change pocketing and fabric requirements in CAFTA to help preserve existing U.S. business.

Thomas has an interest in textile and apparel trade issues because cotton farms are abundant in his district and growers' livelihoods are tied to the U.S. textile industry. He was instrumental in helping push through a vote to give the President the power to negotiate trade deals that cannot be amended by Congress, as well as squeezing CAFTA through the House on a two-vote margin last July.

Many trade experts maintain Thomas' departure could have an impact on Congressional approval of a global trade deal to lower tariffs.

"It is a very powerful post and he has wielded the gavel very effectively, but not without some cost," said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation.

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