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CUMMING, Iowa — 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, 73, chairman of an influential Senate committee, said the move could surprise some people.

He 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 said in an interview.

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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.

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 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.

Harkin’s news defied outward signals. Besides being beloved in his party, he 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.

Harkin said his health is good, but added: “you never know,” and said 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.

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.

In GOP-leaning West Virginia, five-term Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller recently said he would not seek re-election. And Friday, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, said he wouldn’t seek a third term.

Democratic incumbents also face tough re-election races in Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and Alaska, all carried by Republican Mitt Romney in November’s presidential election.

Harkin’s move means a rare open Senate seat in Iowa. Harkin, Iowa’s junior senator, is outranked by Sen. Charles Grassley, who has held the state’s other seat since 1980.

Attention will turn to U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a fourth-term Democrat from Waterloo who has long been mentioned as a possible Harkin successor.

U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, of Clive, is a seasoned Republican congressman, a veteran House Appropriations Committee member and a robust fundraiser who has won 10 consecutive terms. Aides to Latham declined to comment beyond a statement saying the congressman “respects Sen. Harkin’s decision (and) looks forward to continuing to work with him.”

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