A prominent liberal Democratic senator 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 regaining control of the Senate.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of an influential Senate committee, announced his decision during an interview with The Associated Press, and said the move could surprise some.
But 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.
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 to only 13 for Republicans.
Harkin, first elected in 1984, ranks 7th in seniority, and 4th among majority Democrats. He is chairman of the health, education, labour and pensions committee, and chairman of the largest appropriations subcommittee.
He 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 2010 health care bill 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. He has $2.7 million in his campaign war chest, second most among members nearing the end of their terms, and was planning a gala 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."