Retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) bid farewell to the Senate today, describing his departure from the chamber as “the close of a fulfilling chapter in my own version of the American dream.— “I leave here with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunity to give back to the nation that I love,— said Martinez, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba as a young boy.Martinez announced last month that he would vacate his seat after less than one term. He had already decided against a re-election bid in 2010. The Florida Republican previously served as Housing and Urban Development secretary under former President George W. Bush and was the first Latino to lead the Republican National Committee in 2006. Senators pointed to Martinez’s compelling life story and work on immigration reform. Martinez played a key role in 2006 and 2007 in negotiating comprehensive immigration reform, although legislation never passed the Senate. “I really got to know Mel during the immigration debate. That’s a hell of a way to meet somebody,— Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) quipped, recalling the late nights of negotiations.“We’ll get that bill passed one day, and it will be a tribute to Mel and Sen. [Edward] Kennedy,— Graham vowed. Added Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.): “I have learned a lot about Florida, a lot about Cuba, a lot about the Hispanic community in this country. Those are insights and contributions that he has made that no one else could make.— Republican George LeMieux, the replacement appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist (R), will be sworn in Thursday and will serve out the remaining 15 months in Martinez’s term. Crist is running in 2010 for the seat.