CHARLESTON (AP) - After nearly three decades in the Senate, Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said Friday his unrelenting fight to protect coal miners is one of his proudest achievements.
But in the waning days of his political career, the industry has grown hostile, with coal companies and their allies accusing the five-term senator of being out of touch for defending federal environmental regulations and other policies they say imperil the future of mining.
Rockefeller was also lambasted for support of President Barack Obama's highly controversial health care overhaul as the president became ever more unpopular in West Virginia.
The peak of his career, he said, may have come in 1992, when he threatened to keep the Senate in session over Christmas break if they didn't pass legislation preserving retirement benefits for miners and their families. It passed, he said, and a nationwide strike was averted.
"In that fight, and so many others, I've been proud to stand with the working men and women of America," he said.
"I know the coal companies are going after me," Rockefeller added. "I can live with that, because I know that I am fighting every day for coal miners."
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, called Rockefeller "a constant and untiring friend to coal miners and all working people."
Yet Rockefeller's positions in recent years have irritated some people trying to protect the 65,000 mining jobs in one of the country's poorest states.
In a speech on the Senate floor last summer, he chastised coal operators for using divisive scare tactics he said wrongly blame the federal government - and particularly the administration of President Barack Obama - for the challenges they now face.
Rockefeller's retirement puts the seat held by Democrats since 1958 in jeopardy for the party.
Democrats, who hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate, will be defending 20 seats in next year's election while Republicans have 13 seats on the ballot.
No clear Democrat front-runners have emerged for Rockefeller's seat, but the announcement was made earlier enough for the party to find a candidate.
Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters 640,000 to 358,000, according to the Secretary of State's Office. But more than 222,000 people registered with no party affiliation.
Rockefeller, who was hailed for his role in shaping the Children's Health Insurance Program, later took heat from constituents for supporting the Affordable Care Act, Obama's overhaul of the nation's health care system.
He was a top backer of a so-called "public option" allowing the government to sell health insurance in competition with private industry, and pushed the Senate Finance Committee to a showdown vote on such a measure in 2009 - only to see it fail when fellow Democrats opposed it.