ATLANTA — Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson made a plea for bipartisanship in a farewell speech Tuesday that took aim at the bitter division between the GOP and Democrats embroiled in a presidential impeachment investigation and nearing the start of a high-stakes election year.
Stating bluntly that "in America, we've got a problem," Isakson urged assembled lawmakers to work together and ignore the partisans eager to call them insults like Republican In Name Only — a term some conservatives are already using to criticize the Georgia businesswoman expected to take Isakson's place shortly.
"We may be called a liberal, we may be called a RINO, or we may be called whatever it is. Let's solve the problem and then see what happens," Isakson said from the Senate floor in Washington. "Most people who call people names and point fingers are people who don't have a solution themselves."
Isakson, 74, announced in August that he would step down before the end of the year because Parkinson's disease and other medical issues were taking a toll on his health. Though he won a third term in 2016 and would have faced reelection in 2022, Isakson entered the Senate chamber Tuesday using a walker for assistance.
He cited his long friendship with Democratic Rep. John Lewis, one of Georgia's civil rights heroes, as proof that lawmakers with political differences can find common ground.
Isakson's exit raises Georgia's status as a 2020 political battleground and gives Democrats an unexpected opening in a Southern state where the Republican grip on statewide elections has shown signs of slipping. The seat will go up for grabs next November in a special election for the last two years of Isakson's term. Republican Sen. David Perdue also will be on Georgia's 2020 ballot, seeking reelection.
The farewell speech calling for unity came as President Donald Trump's supporters have openly criticized Gov. Brian Kemp for his pick of wealthy business executive Kelly Loeffler to replace Isakson until the next election.
Kemp appointed Loeffler to the seat Wednesday. Trump supporters say she's too moderate and inexperienced for the role.
Senators from both parties took to the floor to praise Isakson after his farewell speech.
Perdue said he would miss Isakson's wisdom, patience and sage advice. He recalled Isakson advising him when Perdue first arrived in the Senate in 2015: "Keep your head down. Keep your mouth shut. And don't ever vote against a farm bill."
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware also cited Isakson as a mentor. The two lawmakers served as their parties' leaders on the Senate ethics committee, and had worked together on issues affecting Africa and even formed an informal "chicken caucus" to promote poultry farming in their states.
"The secret to Johnny's success is he doesn't focus on the two dimensional ways that you're different," Coons said. "He focuses on what you've got in common."
Isakson was diagnosed in 2013 with Parkinson's, a chronic and progressive nervous system disorder, and underwent surgery in 2017 to address spinal deterioration. Earlier this year Isakson fractured four ribs in a fall at his Washington apartment and also had surgery to remove a growth from one of his kidneys.
He said he was stepping down before illness hampered his ability to serve.
"I'm not hampered yet," Isakson said. "I'm pretty tough. But it's getting close."