CUMMING, Iowa (AP) — U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin said Saturday he will not seek a sixth term in 2014, a decision that eases some of the burden the national Republican Party faces in retaking the Senate.
Harkin, chairman of an influential Senate committee, announced his decision during an interview with The Associated Press, saying the move could surprise some.
The 73-year-old cited his age — he would be 81 at the end of a sixth term — as a factor in the decision, saying it was time to pass the torch he has held for nearly 30 years, freeing a new generation of Iowa Democrats to seek higher office.
"I just think it's time for me to step aside," Harkin told the AP.
Harkin, first elected in 1984, ranks seventh in seniority and fourth among majority Democrats. He is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and chairman of the largest appropriations subcommittee.
Harkin has long aligned with the Senate's more liberal members, and his signature legislative accomplishment is the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. He also served as a key salesman of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul to the wary left.
"I'm not saying that giving this up and walking away is easy. It's very tough," Harkin said at his rural Iowa home south of Des Moines. "But I'm not quitting today. I'm not passing the torch sitting down."
Harkin's news defied outward signals. Besides being beloved in his party, Harkin has $2.7 million in his campaign war chest, second most among members nearing the end of their terms, and was planning a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., next month featuring pop star Lady Gaga.
Obama released a statement saying Harkin will be missed and thanking the senator for his service. "During his tenure, he has fought passionately to improve quality of life for Americans with disabilities and their families, to reform our education system and ensure that every American has access to affordable health care," Obama said.
Although members of his family have been diagnosed with cancer, Harkin said his health is good — and reported a recent positive colonoscopy. But he said "you never know," and that he wanted to travel and spend his retirement with his wife, Ruth, "before it's too late."
He also nodded to his political longevity: "The effect of that cascades down and it opens a lot of doors of opportunity" for future candidates.
But by opening a door in Iowa, Harkin has created a potential headache for his party nationally.
Democrats likely would have had the edge in 2014 with the seat, considering Harkin's fundraising prowess and healthy approval. A poll by the Des Moines Register last fall showed a majority of Iowans approved of his job performance.
Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate, requiring Republicans to gain six seats to win back the chamber. But Democrats have more seats to defend in 2014 — 20 compared with only 13 for Republicans. Historically, the president's party loses seats in the midterm elections after his re-election.
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