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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.

As he settles into his chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is certain to keep one thing in mind: “I’m not replacing Ted Kennedy. I’m succeeding him.”

“I love this committee, I’ve been on it 22 years and I plan to aggressively pursue the same kind of agenda that Sen. Kennedy pursued,” Harkin said in an interview this week. “I don’t intend to let this committee go idle.”

Harkin took over the HELP panel in September after Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) died of brain cancer. Harkin had been the chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee but opted to swap gavels after Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who is more senior than him on HELP, decided to stay put as the chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

Harkin opted to keep much of the late Massachusetts Senator’s top-flight committee staff. And he is committed to pursuing the same priorities Kennedy did.

But when it comes to Kennedy’s top priority — an overhaul of the nation’s health care system — Harkin is very much on the outside looking in. The final Senate health care bill is being put together by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), White House officials, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Dodd, who oversaw the HELP panel’s consideration of the health care package when Kennedy was still chairman but unable to participate.

Asked if the move undermines Harkin’s leadership of HELP and his imprint on the historic legislation, Harkin replied: “No. Look, I just want to get the bill done, OK? [Dodd] shepherded this bill, did an excellent job, and I thought, in consultation with others, it would be best to keep him on.”

Harkin, now in his fifth term, is widely viewed as a more partisan Senator than Kennedy or even Dodd. Democratic and Republican aides have suggested that Reid may have an easier job getting a final health care bill without Harkin in the room.

Harkin is a fierce and vocal supporter of the public insurance option and has maintained that it will be in the final Senate bill, even though a handful of his Democratic colleagues see it as a non-starter. And while he may not be at the table with Reid, Dodd and Baucus, Harkin is meeting with Members separately to rally support for the public insurance option.

“Are you telling me there are three, maybe four Democrats who want to go down in history as one of three people to keep health care from going through? How could they live within the Democratic Party on that?” Harkin asked.

“There will be a public option. That’s like saying the sun won’t come up tomorrow,” Harkin insisted.

Harkin’s bullish predictions aren’t surprising, particularly for Senators who know the Iowa Democrat — and the HELP Committee — well.

“The committee is very liberal, so it’s tailor-made for Sen. Harkin,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a HELP Committee member and one of Kennedy’s closest Senate friends.

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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