WASHINGTON (AP) -- Joining an exodus from Congress by both Democrats and Republicans, veteran Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon tearfully announced Thursday that he's retiring after 21 years, stepping down as House Armed Services Committee chairman.
"I'm leaving this job in a year, but I will not leave the fight," McKeon told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference, with his wife, Patricia, and current and former aides in attendance. McKeon pledged to continue working for men and women in the military.
The California Republican, who has led the panel for three years, is term-limited as chairman and McKeon said that was a factor in his decision to step down. He endorsed Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the panel's vice chairman, to succeed him if the GOP maintains control of the House in November's elections.
The 75-year-old McKeon said he didn't want to be a second-guessing presence next year.
McKeon spoke proudly of his committee's bipartisan work and its ability to pass a sweeping defense authorization bill last year, the 52nd straight time. With a granddaughter in the Army, he spoke of the panel's work to combat sexual assault in the ranks. A close confidante of House Speaker John Boehner, McKeon said the House leader had eased budget restrictions on congressional travel and panel members would be traveling to Afghanistan and visiting U.S. allies.
McKeon said he still gets a thrill when he sees the lights of the U.S. Capitol, but there were other feelings that signaled it was time to leave.
"For me, it's time to walk away," he said.
The soft-spoken McKeon campaigned for Republican candidates in 2010 and, thanks to the GOP wave that year, took over the chairmanship of the committee that oversees military policy, war operations and authorizes budgets for the Pentagon. During his time in charge, McKeon has fought congressional efforts to slash spending as defense hawks increasingly were outnumbered, even in the Republican Party.
The end of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing deficits served as the impetus for budget reductions.
McKeon has represented a California district north of Los Angeles that counts a number of defense contractors and the famed Skunk Works, the Lockheed Martin operation dedicated to creating new technology.
McKeon's decision to retire after 11 terms was expected and Republican candidates had already taken steps to seek the seat.
In a statement, Boehner, R-Ohio, praised McKeon as "a tireless advocate for our military and Department of Defense civilian personnel, as well as their families. No one has worked harder to provide them the resources they need to successfully complete the missions their nation has asked them to perform."
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the committee's top Democrat, hailed McKeon's unwavering commitment to the troops and his efforts to work with Democrats in a bitterly divided Congress.
"Buck set a tone on this committee that the rest of Congress should seek to emulate," Smith said. "As political tension continued to rise in Congress, Buck stayed committed to bipartisanship."
Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees will have new leadership next year. McKeon's Armed Services counterpart in the Senate, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, also plans to retire after this year.