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Harkin Retirement Leaves Social Policy Hole in Senate

The retirement of Chairman Tom Harkin in 2014 means the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is likely to wind up with a different kind of leader.

A populist stalwart, Harkin took the committee’s gavel — and its progressive social policy mantle — from the late Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 2009. The Iowa Democrat also held the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, making him the point man for many domestic social issues.

But after having two liberal powerhouses as chairman for more than a decade, the HELP Committee could change direction once Harkin retires in two years. Given the recent move toward less spending and a growing division between the parties, the congressional environment may call for a more centrist leader.

Many of the panel’s current Democratic members are cut from a different cloth than Kennedy and Harkin were, said Jim Manley, who served for 12 years as an aide for Kennedy and the HELP Committee.

“The fact is that the times have changed, the economy’s changed, and it may require a different type of a senator,” said Manley, now at QGA Public Affairs. “The question is whether anyone on the committee will want to step up and take the role that Sen. Kennedy or Sen. Harkin played.”

The successor’s identity is not obvious — and the chairman spot also depends on Democrats keeping their majority in 2014. The committee’s current second-ranking Democrat is Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, now chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. After her is Patty Murray of Washington, who leads the Budget Committee.

Assuming those senators want to keep their current gavels, the next senator in line for HELP’s top spot in 2014 is Vermont independent Bernard Sanders. Following him are two more-moderate Democrats — Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — and then the more liberal Al Franken of Minnesota.

Whoever takes the spot, however, is unlikely to wear Harkin’s second crown: that of the Appropriations chairman for the Labor-HHS-Education bill. By playing both roles, Harkin was able to align policy measures and funding for his priorities. His successor will be unlikely to wield that same power.

Still, the next top Democrat on HELP will rule over a broad jurisdiction of domestic and social policy issues, including overseeing several of Kennedy’s and Harkin’s achievements.

“It’s fascinating work, and it’s of vital immediate interest to a wide cross section of American society,” said John McDonough, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who was a senior health adviser to the committee from 2008 to 2010.

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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