Isakson Speech.jpg

Above: U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., retired after 45 years in public service. Below: Retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., gives his farewell speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, calling for bipartisanship.

ATLANTA — U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson issued a call for bipartisanship to his Senate colleagues Tuesday as he said farewell to Congress after 15 years in Washington.

“There’s something missing in this place,” Isakson, R-Ga., who is retiring at the end of this year due to health problems, said on the Senate floor. “I am a bipartisan person. I never saw people get things done by not agreeing with each other. … You have to find common ground.”

Isakson drew praise from his fellow senators during a luncheon Tuesday before his farewell speech not only for his spirit of bipartisanship — an increasingly rare attribute in Washington — but for his friendly nature.

“If the Senate were to hold a secret-ballot popularity contest, Johnny Isakson would win in a bipartisan landslide,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “He commands bipartisan respect and affection to a degree that is remarkable.”

Isakson announced in September he would be leaving the Senate halfway through his third term. Gov. Brian Kemp named Atlanta businesswoman Kelly Loeffler Wednesday as Isakson’s interim successor.

For his part, Isakson also singled out several federal elected officials for praise, including McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence, who presides over the Senate. But he saved his most glowing remarks for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, who was in the Senate chamber Tuesday along with other members of Georgia’s congressional delegation.

“John is one of my real heroes in life,” Isakson said of Lewis, who rose from poverty in rural Alabama to become a key civil rights leader in the 1960s and survive a brutal beating before his election to Congress. “I watched what he went through to make us see the light.”

Lewis paid tribute to Isakson last month on the House floor, and the two embraced after the speech in a rare display of congressional bipartisanship that was captured in a widely publicized photo.

In taking his leave of Congress, Isakson urged his colleagues to work together to overcome the partisan politics that has become a way of life in Washington. Otherwise, he said, nothing will get done.

“I see things happening that scare me,” he said. “We’re better than the hate and the vile statements some people make. … We’ve got to sit down, get it out in the open and talk about it.”

Isakson, 74, leaves office as the only Georgia politician ever elected to the U.S. House and Senate as well as both houses of the General Assembly. Before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, he served five years in the House representing a congressional district in the suburbs north of Atlanta.

Isakson was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1974 when there were only a handful of Republicans serving under the Gold Dome. He rose to House minority leader, then spent two terms in the state Senate during the 1990s.

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Dave Williams is bureau chief for Capitol Beat News Service.

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