Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who leads the Senate panels that deal with both K-12 spending and policy, announced he will not seek reelection in 2014, ending a 40-year career in Congress.

Senator Harkin oversees the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), which is tasked with writing all major education-related legislation, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act. He also chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees education funding, giving him tremendous power to fund his education priorities. 

In his video statement announcing his retirement and future plans, Harkin stated that his top priorities include increasing access to quality education and investing in early childhood education, as well as providing healthier food for school meal programs. As HELP Committee Chairman, Harkin is well-positioned to work over the next two years to advance his priorities. However, his priorities to reauthorize ESEA may conflict with the Obama administration’s current state flexibility waivers, for which Harkin’s home state of Iowa was denied. Republicans on the Senate HELP Committee may also be unwilling to cooperate, knowing that different committee leadership will be in place in two years.

Harkin did move a bipartisan, comprehensive ESEA reauthorization bill through the HELP Committee late in 2011, but failed to bring this bill to a vote on the Senate floor. Some have questioned Harkin’s political prowess to move such a bill swiftly through the Senate, but things may change in the coming months, with his legacy as Iowa’s senior Senator on the line.

Lots of speculation is circulating about who could replace Sen. Harkin as HELP Committee Chairman, assuming Democrats maintain control of the Senate in 2014. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski is next in line in seniority, but isn’t likely to give up her new Appropriations chairmanship. Following Mikulski in seniority is Senator Patty Murray from Washington. The current Budget Committee Chair is a former preschool teacher and school board member and a great advocate for education. She could move to chair the HELP Committee, but if she passes on the opportunity and continues to oversee current budget deals, Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont is next in line. Following Sanders in seniority on the Democratic roster of the committee are Sen. Bob Casey (PA) and Sen. Kay Hagan (NC).