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Sen. Tom Harkin, Force on Education Policy, Begins Retirement Farewells

Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who's set to retire after nearly four decades in Congress, gave what sounded like his closing oration late Tuesday afternoon on the Senate floor. Though I've been assured it wasn't his official swan song, it was some dress rehearsal.

The chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee spoke ahead of a vote to update the Child Care Development Block Grant program, and waxed nostalgic about his time in the world's greatest deliberative body. 

Harkin had especially kind words for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who will skipper the HELP Committee beginning in January, the start of the Republican-controlled 114th Congress.

"This likely will be the last bill originating in the HELP Committee to see the floor and thus coming out of the committee that I so proudly chair that will come before the Senate," Harkin began his address.

"So I want to take this opportunity to express not only my gratitude to Senator Alexander, but my respect and admiration for the senior Senator from Tennessee," he continued. "In the new Congress in January, he will assume the chairmanship of this HELP Committee, and this important committee I know will be in very able hands."

Harkin recounted the working relationships he's forged with his Republican counterparts while chairman of various committees, including Sen. Arlen Specter while on the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations subcommittee, Sens. Dick Lugar, Thad Cochran, and Saxby Chambliss while on the Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Michael Enzi, who was the top Republican on the HELP Committee before Alexander.

He emphasized the importance of working across the aisle to get results, perhaps a subtle plea to Republicans, many of whom are champing at the bit to push their conservative agenda come January.

"I'm proud to note that when this [child-care] bill is signed into law by the president, this will be the 21st HELP Committee bill enacted into law in this Congress," Harkin noted. "In a Congress that has been criticized, rightfully or wrongfully, for its lack of productivity, Senator Alexander and I have forged a partnership that has enabled us to chart a different course, a course of bipartisan productiveness."

More on the importance of working together:

Someone has said that our committee really represents probably one of the widest spectrums ideologically in the Senate, both from very conservative to very progressive on our committee. And yet, we've forged these relationships to get things done. Now, these relationships and getting these bills through doesn't mean that we've always agreed on everything. That fact is, our disagreements have been often and at times vigorous. After all, I'm a proud progressive. Senator Alexander is a proud conservative. But our disagreements have never been personal and they were never the last word. We've consistently sought areas of agreement and more often than not we found them. As a result, together we have forged a remarkable record of accomplishment in the HELP Committee: 21 bills in two years signed into law. And more important, we've accomplished big things for the American people.

Harkin also thanked his staff members for their years of dedication and hard work, including Mildred Otero, his top education aide.

"It has been a challenge, but it's also been a great honor and a privilege to chair this committee," he said in closing. "As I leave, I can say that we are fortunate to have someone of Senator Alexander's depth and breadth of experience."

"I want to thank all my committee members," Harkin added, "but especially Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee and to note on the record how much I've valued our collaboration and how much I've benefited from his counsel and wisdom."

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