Harkin discusses bipartisanship, future of Iowa Democrats

By: - July 13, 2021 3:12 pm

Sen. Tom Harkin campaigns with former Rep. Bruce Braley in Des Moines in 2014. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin said Tuesday he does not believe the Americans with Disabilities Act could pass in today’s political climate and he held little hope for a compromise approach to the filibuster. 

Harkin, during an interview on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program, said he doesn’t think there’s enough bipartisanship in Congress today to pass similar legislation. 

“When I was working on the Americans with Disabilities Act, not only did I have some fellow Republicans in the Senate, but we had the president of the United States, a Republican, who put the power of the White House behind it,” he said. “… I just don’t think we could get the American with Disabilities Act passed today, I really don’t. So I’m grateful we got it done in 1990.”

Former President George H.W. Bush’s unwavering support helped the legislation pass, Harkin said, allowing the country to confront and overcome serious issues for people with disabilities. The act was one of the things Harkin is most proud of from his five terms in the Senate, he said. 

Harkin also discussed his recent op-ed in the Washington Post regarding the filibuster. In the piece, he wrote about his 1995 and 2009 approach to reforming the filibuster that would allow senators to end debate on a bill with less votes on each attempt. The first attempt to cut off debate would still need 60 votes, but every attempt after that would need three less votes. 

While still advocating for an approach similar the legislation he proposed with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., he said it wouldn’t work because people either want to get rid of the filibuster or keep it — with no in between.

“We’ve reached this point in our political system where people have just dug in their heels and they want absolutes,” he said. “ … Those are kind of the two silos that we have and somehow, we just have to break those down. We can’t go on, like we’re doing.” 

Jan. 6 and social media

Regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Harkin said he was initially concerned about someone being killed. He was scared for senators, representatives, their staff members, and former Vice President Mike Pence.

Now, he’s disappointed in some comments about the event.

“A few members of the House and maybe a couple members of the Senate, who were downplaying this and still calling these people patriots, that’s disappointing,” he said.

Harkin said social media is partially to blame for the divide in the U.S. currently.  

“Individuals, who are on social media, quite frankly just put on false information as though it is factual,” he said. “And so people have segmented themselves into these little groups. That was never true before and it’s very disturbing.”

Harkin has read some proposals on how to decrease the spread of false information on social media. He said he believes people should have to have a source for what they’re sharing so they don’t “just pull things out of thin air.” 

Democrats in Iowa

Since Harkin left Congress in 2015, Republicans have consistently held both U.S. Senate seats and the governor’s office, and have kept the majority in the Legislature since 2017. Harkin said he does not believe Iowa is permanently a red state, and if Democrats work hard, they can come back.

“We’re going to have to really address the bread and butter, kitchen table issues that Iowans care about,” he said. “We just can’t get hung up on esoteric issues or certain things that maybe are emotionally powerful, but which don’t really help people lead better lives.”

Harkin said he does not regret deciding against seeking reelection. He believes it would have been difficult for him to function in the Senate, where Democrats were in the minority, with former President Donald Trump in office. 

Looking forward, Harkin said there are plenty of Iowans who could run for higher office in the state and potentially win.

“We have state legislators in the Democratic Party that are quite capable, who are very good people, who could assume higher office,” he said. “And I think they will … Some Democrats that ran, came close. Well, if you come close, try again. I lost the first time I ran for office, but I came back again. So I think Democrats will be just fine.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.