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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At the end of this year, the president will lose a vital ally in the House. He's a member of the Watergate Class of 1974. After Republican President Richard Nixon resigned in that year, a huge number of Democrats won election to the House.

Some soon lost their seats again. Others went on to flashy careers. And then there's Henry Waxman. The California Democratic stayed and stayed. And for better or worse, Waxman put his name on one of the longest legislative legacies ever assembled. Now, he's retiring at the end the year. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, he's a politician who earned the description lawmaker.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Most people have never heard of Henry Waxman. He was never a fixture on the Sunday talk shows or Washington's social scene. Rather, during his 40 years in the House, he focused on passing legislation, lots of legislation. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Orphan Drug Act, nutrition labels, food safety, and the Affordable Care Act -- Waxman played a major role in all of them. Tom Mann, of the Brookings Institution, says Waxman will ultimately be remembered right up there with those who commanded much more of the spotlight.

TOM MANN: You probably have to go to the other chamber and talk about Ted Kennedy because Waxman is really one of the Ted Kennedys of the Congress. Remember, they're both liberals, but both had an uncanny ability to work with other members, when need be - on both sides of the aisle - to get things done.

ROVNER: Indeed, Waxman has never apologized for his liberalism. Here's how he described his philosophy in an interview yesterday.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: We need government. We appreciate it when there's an emergency. We need government when we want clean air and clean water, and food that's not going to kill us, and drugs that will save us and help us.

ROVNER: But what's made Waxman so effective over the years has been that willingness to work across the aisle. One of his frequent partners has been Utah conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. They first teamed up on major legislation in the early 1980s, on a bill that paved the way for the sale of generic copies of prescription drugs.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: It really is on its way to saving trillions of dollars for consumers. It's already saved about a trillion and a half dollars.

ROVNER: Hatch, who worked with Waxman on the Ryan White AIDS law, the Children's Health Insurance Program and other bills, also opposed him on many issues. But he says he appreciated having Waxman as an adversary as much as an ally.

HATCH: Oh, he's a formidable opponent because Henry is always prepared. He's very, very bright. But Henry was not only bright; he was articulate. He understood the legislative process. He's one of the best liberal congresspeople that I've known in my whole 37 years in the United States Senate.

ROVNER: And while Waxman made it a point to work across the aisle, he also made it a point to bring along the liberals who will carry on when he's gone, said Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Brown began his legislative career in the House, under Waxman's tutelage.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: He was a teacher. He was a mentor. He encouraged me. He patiently explained complicated things to me.

ROVNER: The list of Waxman's legislative accomplishments on the website of the House Energy and Commerce Committee - where he's been a leader since the 1970s - includes more than 25 major laws. And that doesn't count the dozens of budget amendments he used to nearly single-handedly expand the Medicaid program during the 1980s and early 1990s. But Waxman says that even at a relatively young 74, he feels Congress has reached a point where he can no longer get much done.

WAXMAN: It's very difficult when the party that's in control is dominated by a group of extremists from the Tea Party that think along the lines of compromise being a dirty word, and working with the other party - the Democrats - as complicity with the enemy.

ROVNER: Advocates off the Hill are already wondering what Congress will be like for their issues in a post-Waxman era. Ron Pollack heads the group Families USA, and has worked closed with Waxman since the early 1980s.

RON POLLACK: He's just a formidable foe for those people on the other side. And he's really a personal archive of policy and the history of health care. So it will be an enormous loss to see Henry leave the Congress.

ROVNER: As for Waxman himself, he hasn't decided what he'll do when he finishes his term. He says he loves both California and Washington, and would like to find something that will let him continue to split his time between the two.

WAXMAN: But not have to go back and forth every week.

ROVNER: Which he's now been doing for four decades. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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