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The Chance of a Lifetime Arrives for Tom Harkin

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

September 9, 2009 -- At 69, and after a quarter-century of service in the U.S. Senate, Tom Harkin of Iowa has landed his dream job.

On Wednesday Harkin became the successor to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts at the helm of one of the two chief Senate panels steering health care policy. The son of an Iowa coal miner thus assumes the mantle of a son of America's most prominent political dynasty.

Harkin, a feisty fifth-term liberal Democrat who in 1992 ran unsuccessfully for president, had to give up his post as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee to take over the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

After Kennedy's death on Aug. 25, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd was next in line on HELP, but opted to stick with chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee.

It could seem on the surface a tough choice for Harkin, a senator from one of a leading farm state who's taken particular pride in promoting conservation, renewable energy (primarily ethanol, which is produced from Iowa's cornfields) and nutrition as he guided the committee through two farm bills.

But Harkin's most significant long-term accomplishments in the Senate have always been tied to health and education, and he is one of the most faithful friends of labor unions serving in Congress.

He was an author of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which revolutionized the treatment in America of people with disabilities and stemmed from his experiences with his late brother, Frank, who was deaf.

Harkin also has become over the years a major force in the legitimization of alternative medicine, an outspoken foe of tobacco and an advocate of federal funding of stem cell research, all of which brought him his share of criticism from opponents inside and outside Washington.

A top member of the Appropriations Committee, he is the chairman of its subcommittee on labor, health, human services and education—now giving him even more control over policy in those areas.

Dodd filled in for Kennedy on the health care overhaul while Kennedy was ill and will continue to lead committee negotiations on the bill.

But Harkin will have the opportunity to play an even more central role in the debate, along with the senior senator from Iowa—Republican Charles E. Grassley, the top member of the GOP on the Finance Committee. The value of Senate seniority to a small state is abundantly clear.

"To serve in this capacity is to carry on the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who dedicated his life to ensuring that our economy works for all Americans, guaranteeing every child the opportunity to pursue a quality education and, of course, the cause of his life: access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans," Harkin said in a statement.

"In this last endeavor, I expect to work closely with Sen. Dodd, who has guided the HELP Committee so capably in reporting the Affordable Health Choices Act, and who will continue to play a leading role as health care legislation moves to the Senate floor."

Harkin will remain on the Agriculture Committee, where he's been a member since he arrived in the Senate in 1985. He served on the House Agriculture Committee before then.

Harkin told reporters it was a difficult decision for Dodd to pass up the HELP chairmanship, but he didn't try to influence the outcome.

"These are one of those times when you don't give advice — you can respond, but you don't give advice," said Harkin.

"It's just one of those personal decisions that only he could make. And of course, I told him whatever he decided, I'd support."

Gregory Vadala contributed to this story.

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