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Michigan's Dingell, longest-serving U.S. lawmaker, to retire

By Richard Cowan and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Michigan Democrat John Dingell, a gruff legislator who has served longer in the U.S. Congress than any other person in history, announced on Monday that he will retire from the House of Representatives after this year.

Speaking to a Michigan business group, the 87-year-old Dingell said he would not seek re-election in November because he no longer could "live up to my own personal standard" for serving in Congress.

Earlier in the day, the increasingly frail Dingell referred to his advancing age when he told the Detroit News, "I'm not going to be carried out feet first."

With that, Dingell entered the final chapter of a career that was highlighted by legislation he pushed to expand government healthcare and improve environmental standards, even as he worked to protect the automotive industry so important to his state.

In characteristic fashion, Dingell used his retirement announcement to deliver sharp words to some of his fellow lawmakers, whom he criticized for contributing to the partisan gridlock that has made this Congress one of the least productive in decades.

"This Congress has been a great disappointment to everyone," Dingell said.

While not singling out any of his fellow lawmakers, Dingell's words appeared to be aimed at Tea Party-backed Republicans who have forced one government shutdown and a near credit default.

"Compromise is an honorable word, as are cooperation, conciliation, and coordination," he said.

Once a tall, imposing figure who came to Congress in 1955, Dingell in recent years has had to navigate Capitol Hill in a motorized scooter with a vanity plate that reads "THE DEAN."

He became the longest-serving U.S. legislator last year, when he surpassed former West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

Before earning the title of "dean," Dingell was sometimes known as "the truck" as he used his Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship spanning 16 years to push major legislation ranging from the breakup of AT&T and cable deregulation to the Endangered Species Act and Clean Air Act.

Healthcare was another signature issue for Dingell, playing a role in the 1965 passage of Medicare and enactment of President Barack Obama's 2010 landmark Affordable Care Act, now known as "Obamacare."

He sometimes found himself on the losing end of legislative fights, notably the 1993 approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Detroit News reported that Dingell's wife, Debbie, a Democratic Party activist with deep ties to the General Motors Company, might run for the congressional seat in November's elections.

If she were to run and win, Michigan voters would continue an unbroken line of Dingells serving in Congress that began in 1933 when John Dingell Sr., was first elected to the House and was replaced by his son 58 years ago.

Debbie Dingell was not immediately available for comment.

Democrats believe they will easily hold onto this seat in November's election. The racially-mixed congressional district, which includes the auto manufacturing center of Dearborn outside of Detroit, voted overwhelmingly for Obama in his successful 2012 re-election.

Dingell is the latest in a string of senior Democrats to leave Congress this year, including Senator John Rockefeller of West Virginia and Representative Henry Waxman of California.

"I find serving in the House to be obnoxious," he told the Detroit News. "It's become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets."

That sour note caps a nearly life-long career that began in 1938, at age 12, when Dingell became a House page running errands for lawmakers.

(Editing by Susan Heavey, Will Dunham and Andrew Hay)

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