Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was calm enough when he sat down for a cup of coffee with political reporter David Yepsen back in 1998. But the conversation soon turned passionate.
Yepsen, who then worked for the Des Moines Register, had brought up Democrat Tom Vilsack’s underdog bid for Iowa governor and the likelihood that he would lose to former Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot (R).
But that conventional wisdom didn’t sit right with Harkin, and soon, the veteran lawmaker was visibly agitated.
“He winds up sorta pounding on the table in this coffee shop and says, I guarantee you that son of a bitch won’t be governor,'” Yepsen recalled in a recent interview. In the following months, Harkin campaigned heavily for Vilsack, who narrowly won that race — and his race for re-election four years later.
“Tom Harkin doesn’t look at poll numbers,” said Yepsen, who is now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “He’s not afraid to take on a losing cause and try to turn it around.”
That dedication — and idealism — may suit Harkin well in his new seat at the head of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He faces a challenge that would be daunting to anyone: claim a chairmanship previously held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), pass health care reform and oversee some of the most prominent issues of the day.
But friends and former colleagues say he’s the best man for the job, a skilled legislator who is at turns amicable, shrewd, unyielding and passionate. “He’s a person of extraordinary passion and integrity,” said Ralph Neas, who heads the National Coalition on Health Care and worked with Harkin on the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1989. “If there was one word to describe him, it would be tenacity. He’s truly a legislative bulldog.”
In a recent interview, Harkin exuded a congenial confidence on the possibility of not only passing health care reform (“sometime in March,” he claimed) but also tackling a pension relief bill, a modified No Child Left Behind Act and legislation on clearer regulations for 401(k) fees.
But he also emphasized that he wasn’t out to become the new Ted Kennedy, who was a colleague and close friend for more than 20 years. No one can replace the legendary “liberal lion,” he said; moreover, Kennedy “had his way of doing things and I have mine.”
“Kennedy has sort of set certain standards, and I intend to meet those standards,” he said. “I’m not there to make a point. I’m there to get meaningful legislation.”
Harkin has achieved several legislative victories, but perhaps he is most well-known for being the lead sponsor on the Americans With Disabilities Act. He has also handled countless appropriations bills as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and now that he’s also chairman of the HELP Committee, he wields considerable power over health, education and labor issues — both as an authorizing entity and as an appropriating one.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) — who briefly ran against Harkin in the 1992 presidential primaries — said Harkin is the ideal person to take over the HELP Committee after Kennedy. Harkin, he said, is a “skilled legislator” who knows when to rely on staff and when to make key decisions.
“If I had to pick somebody who could actually get the job done, it would be Tom,” said Kerrey, who is now president of the New School in New York City. “He has the stature and he has the values.”
Like Kennedy, Harkin is also an unabashed liberal: He has spent years fighting for expanded health care, supports stem-cell research and has spoken out on abortion rights (once voting against a ban on controversial late-term abortions). His public statements can also be strongly partisan and harshly critical of Republicans: He made some minor waves in 2004 when he called then-Vice President Dick Cheney a “coward” for avoiding service in Vietnam.
Yepsen called such outbursts the “scrappy” side of Harkin, which he said can be beneficial for the passion it instills but also disadvantageous if it turns away some colleagues.
“Tom Harkin grew up poor, and he has never forgotten where he came from,” Yepsen said. “The populist thing in him is very real. His rhetoric in the past can get carried away — a little too hot, a little too partisan.”
But Harkin called such comments his “outside game” — a term he said he once used in a conversation with a Republican colleague. For most legislation, he said, Democratic and Republican Members alike have a few provisions on which they won’t budge. But, he said, a compromise can be made on the remaining 90 percent.
“What I’m trying to do on the outside is to convince the population — the public — that our approach is right,” he said. “On the inside, though, I realized a long time ago that I’m probably not going to convert any Republicans to my philosophy. So why waste my time?”
Indeed, Katy Beh Neas — who worked for Harkin in the 1980s (and later married Ralph Neas) — said Harkin “can be a very partisan guy. There’s no question about that.”
But she also remembered a “serious and thoughtful” legislator who was willing to compromise with his Republican colleagues. As a legislative aide for Harkin on the Labor and Human Relations Subcommittee on Disability Policy, Beh Neas said she was expected to work with Republican staffers as a team.
“The Sen. Harkin I’ve worked for and the one I’ve watched is someone who I think would always choose to work to get something done,” said Beh Neas, who is now vice president for government relations at the Easter Seals. “He’s a legislator who wants Congress to do its job. He would rather have a victory resulting in a law rather than a victory happening where Democrats score a political point.”
In that way, he should be able to negotiate well with HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who is also known by colleagues as a legislator who works hard to get deals made and laws passed. Harkin called Enzi “straightforward” in his dealings — a high compliment from a man who friends say values honesty.
“He’s a very pleasant individual, and I like him a lot,” Harkin said. “He’s one of those guys who’s straightforward and doesn’t have a hidden agenda.”
But the two are far apart ideologically, with Enzi claiming a staunchly conservative record. And their reputation for negotiation apparently hasn’t helped the cause for health care reform, which currently seems stuck in a stalemate.
Some health care reform advocates blame the gridlock on a growing partisanship in Congress — especially in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has often resorted to cloture votes in order to push through must-pass legislation. But Harkin contends that such bitter partisanship is more apparent when legislation gets to the floor; in committee, he said, not much has changed in his 25 years as a Senator.
“It’s the floor — that’s where the problem comes in. I still find working with Republicans in committee just fine,” he said. “I must be very honest with you. I don’t find it to be any more partisan in the committee work we do.”
Ralph Neas also pointed to Harkin’s work on the HHS Appropriations subcommittee as a shining example of bipartisanship, one he uses often when teaching classes on the legislative process.
“It didn’t matter who was the subcommittee chair. There was a total trust between staffers, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Neas said. “When it works like that it’s a beautiful thing to behold.”