"In recent months, both my wife, Patty, and I have been in hospitals with different health scares," Shuster said in a letter to colleagues, declining to elaborate. "While I remain optimistic, these experiences have caused me to reevaluate my priorities and responsibilities."
Shuster's announcement came just one day after he was sworn in to a 15th term representing central Pennsylvania's Ninth District. His office did not return several calls yesterday seeking comment.
Because he won reelection and then chose to retire - rather than deciding not to run this term - a special election will be held to replace him, probably in April or May.
Such an election, with relatively little advance notice and with nominees to be chosen by party officials and not voters, could benefit one candidate in particular: Shuster's son Bill, who is mulling a run in the district that spans 11 counties in rural central Pennsylvania.
Shuster's announcement surprised colleagues who had expected him to stay on as an influential member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, even though his term as chairman was slated to end this week. Rep. Don Young of Alaska succeeds him as chairman.
"This was unexpected," said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.). He said Shuster's retirement was likely to be a setback for both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, which had benefited enormously from Shuster's aggressive efforts to obtain highway and mass-transit funds.
Some lawmakers speculated that Shuster's decision may have been influenced by the failure of an effort among some Republicans in December to repeal a six-year term limit for committee chairmen.
Yet it was clear that a lengthy federal probe that ended in the guilty plea of his former chief of staff, Ann Eppard, on misdemeanor ethics charges related to her work representing clients before Shuster's committee and a House ethics investigation of Shuster himself had been a burden.
In his letter, Shuster said that the "scars of a hundred battles had taken their toll on my family and me."
"All things considered, we decided now was the time to smell the roses while we still can," he said.
Shuster was first elected to the House in 1972 but rose to real prominence only after Republicans took control in 1994 and he was named transportation chairman.
In that role, Shuster aggressively pushed for ever greater amounts of highway funding, battling not only with the White House to get his way but also with his own party's leadership. His 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which authorized $218 billion in bridge and road construction over five years, was the biggest infusion of federal money for road building ever.
In winning passage of the bill, Shuster not only realized an enormous boost in highway and mass-transit funding, but he also achieved a goal long sought by the transportation industry: allocating every penny of federal highway taxes for road and bridge building.
Yet Shuster also made enemies. Fiscal conservatives sharply criticized highway spending, calling it a huge pork barrel designed largely to aid lawmakers in their reelection bids. Shuster was widely criticized as Washington's "King of Pork."
Public interest groups also attacked Shuster for his close relationship with Eppard, who formed a lobbying firm to represent transportation interests before Shuster's committee shortly after stepping down as his chief of staff.
In October, the House ethics committee issued a letter of reproval criticizing Shuster for "serious official misconduct" and for bringing "discredit to the House" but declined to impose a penalty.
It criticized his relationship with Eppard as well as his acceptance of a corporate-paid trip to Puerto Rico and his use of campaign funds for chartered planes and meals at posh restaurants. Shuster had spent millions - much of it on travel, hotels, meals and liquor - over the years despite having faced no serious election challenges.
Critics of Shuster called the ethics committee's lack of a punishment inadequate and outrageous. Shuster remained unrepentant and said he agreed to the negotiated settlement only to spare his family and the House "the ordeal" of further proceedings.
Meanwhile, Shuster's daughter Debbie Shuster said yesterday that Bill Shuster was seriously considering running for his father's seat. "He's trying to call everyone who's in the district as well as family and friends to see what support is out there," she said of her brother.
Bill Shuster, who manages a Chrysler dealership in New Freedom, Pa., would be a favorite to become the Republican nominee. The GOP candidate will be chosen by party officials from the district's 11 counties, many of whom are beholden to Shuster's father.
The Republican nomination is tantamount to election in the Ninth District, where Democrats have not come close to winning in decades.
Several other possible candidates were mentioned yesterday, including longtime State Rep. Richard Geist of Altoona and John Eichelberger, a Shuster political nemesis who is a Blair County commissioner and the county Republican chairman.
Eichelberger said yesterday there was "speculation" that Shuster designed his exit to benefit his son, that there was a "strategy . . . that a special election would be an easier thing to control politically."
Such elections also have the effect of surprising possible challengers and giving them little time to mount a campaign.
Shuster's younger son, Bob, ran for a congressional seat in an adjacent district in 1998 but lost in the Republican primary.
The date of the special election will be decided by Gov. Ridge. He must act within 10 days of Shuster's Jan. 31 retirement and can choose a date no earlier than 60 days away.
The earliest date then would be early April, but Tim Reeves, the governor's press secretary, said he might pick May 15 to coincide with the regularly scheduled primary to save taxpayer money.
Chris Mondics' e-mail address is cmondics