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Harkin Retirement Leaves Social Policy Hole in Senate

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Harkin’s retirement means changes for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

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For example, as chairman, both Kennedy and Harkin worked on the long battle to expand access to health insurance for most Americans, ultimately achieved in the 2010 health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

Even though the law has been enacted — and largely upheld by the Supreme Court — that doesn’t mean health care is done for the next leader, McDonough said.

“Now that we’re kind of over the health reform’s near-death experience ... the role of the committee as a place where people from both parties come together to address problems, shortcomings and areas of the ACA in need of modification and change, is all the more important,” said McDonough, referring to the law, which is known as the Affordable Care Act.

Harkin has made clear that he will spend the next two years working to implement his agenda and leave more achievements for his successor to oversee. Indeed, in his statement announcing his retirement, he set forth his priorities for the committee over the next two years.

Among those goals is working to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities — part of fulfilling the Americans with Disabilities Act (PL 101-336) Harkin shepherded through Congress in 1990. Harkin also said he wanted to continue working on several education measures, finding a new type of pension plan and implementing the health care law.

As when other longtime lawmakers have retired, several members are likely to step up to take on Harkin’s priorities.

Democratic committee members Franken and Michael Bennet of Colorado have shown an interest in mental-health legislation. Bennet signed on to a bill (S 153) to expand mental-health first-aid training programs, while Franken has introduced a bill (S 162) to expand mental-health services for people in the criminal-justice system.

Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, though not a committee member, is a progressive who has worked with Harkin on several labor issues. And Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is interested in public health issues, as well as employment and access for people with disabilities.

In addition, whoever takes on the Senate HELP leadership position will continue to oversee many of Harkin’s priorities, as well as supervise all areas under the committee’s jurisdiction.

“A different approach may be required, but there’s still plenty of pressing economic challenges facing this country that the committee’s going to have to deal with,” Manley said.

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