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Harkin Is Ready to Fill Big Shoes

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin says he will “succeed” but not replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy atop the panel.

Hatch teamed up with Kennedy on many major health care initiatives over the years including the creation of the children’s health insurance program. He said that like Kennedy, Harkin will be able to broker similar deals with Members on the HELP Committee once he overcomes the “growth factor” of his new role. “Kennedy was flamboyant, and he had the support of all the liberals in the country. He could speak for all the liberals. Now Tom can do that, too, but it’ll take time,” Hatch said.

“He is relentless and passionate in pursuit of his ideals. His biggest test will be assembling a strong coalition to join him in that pursuit — but I believe he’s up to the task,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

But Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who also serves on HELP and who worked with Kennedy to craft the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, said it’s simply too soon to know how Harkin will lead. “I think it’s premature. Obviously Tom’s going to have his own purpose and tempo, but nobody’s going to know.”

Still, Gregg said, “Don’t underestimate Tom’s ability to reach a deal.”

Harkin may get his first shot to prove his negotiating power on the Employee Free Choice Act, the union-organizing bill otherwise known as “card check.” While he hasn’t been successful yet, Harkin has been quietly working with a group of moderate Democrats to forge an agreement to advance the controversial legislation.

“We’re very close to having an agreement,” Harkin said.

Even so, any agreement is likely to be with Democrats; Republicans are staunchly opposed to the idea. But Harkin will have opportunities to work across the aisle next year when the HELP Committee delves into education reform.

“He’s new to the chairmanship, so I don’t know how it’s going to be yet, but I look forward to working with him,” HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said.

“Look, we all have different styles and we all have ways to get to different goals,” Harkin said. “Certainly I’m not Sen. Kennedy. ... But we’re all doing our part.”

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