WASHINGTON — Sen. Mel Martinez, the nation’s first Cuban-American senator, left office Wednesday with pride, a “heavy heart’’ and a lingering regret that Congress has been unable to reach agreement on revamping the nation’s immigration laws.
Martinez, the only immigrant in the upper chamber, said he was comfortable with his decision to leave the Senate with 16 months remaining in his first term.
But, in an interview off the Senate floor, he acknowledged that he might have remained in the job longer if he’d thought immigration reform would come up again soon.
“I hope Congress can one day reach consensus on the issue because fixing our nation’s broken immigration system remains a national imperative,” Martinez said in final remarks delivered to a nearly empty Senate chamber.
The Obama administra- tion has pledged to Hispanic groups that it is committed to revisiting immigration reform. But outside the Senate chamber, Martinez said he doubts Congress will take up the politically volatile issue until after the 2010 election.
“I’m not sure how soon it’s coming back,” said Martinez, who was hammered by some in his own Republican Party for championing a path to legalization for illegal immigrants. ‘‘If I had any sense it was impending, I might have made a different decision. But my sense is it’s not going to be anytime soon.”
Martinez, who announced in November that he wouldn’t run again, surprised observers last month by announcing immediate plans to resign, citing family obligations.
In his low-key speech Wednesday, he extolled public service, though his brief tenure suggests he was never comfortable in the Senate, where he arrived in 2005 after being recruited by former President George W. Bush.
“I am very grateful to the people of Florida for giving me the privilege of representing them in the United States Senate,” he said, calling the opportunity to serve in the Senate “the culmination of what has got to be an unlikely journey’’ for a child who came to the U.S. from Cuba aboard a Pedro Pan flight.
His temporary replacement, George LeMieux, who will be sworn into office Thursday, watched the speech from the gallery, along with Martinez’s family and staff members.
‘‘You can’t say enough about this great man, what he’s done for this great state and what he’s done for our country,” LeMieux said of Martinez. Senators — both Democratic and Republican — praised Martinez on the Senate floor as the embodiment of the American dream, true to faith and family.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, said he had spent the past three months trying to persuade Martinez to stay.
But Martinez told friends it was “all about (his) family,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who worked with Martinez on immigration.
“I want to tell him I salute him for that,” Durbin said. “It takes an extraordinary person to give up the adulation and the heady atmosphere of the Senate to remember what’s most important in their lives.”
Several senators credited Martinez — who often translated the GOP point of view for Spanish language newspapers and TV stations that cover the Hill — for helping them develop a better appreciation of immigration issues. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham noted the ‘‘hatred’’ unleashed on Martinez during the immigration debate and said the Senate would pass immigration legislation as a “tribute’’ to Martinez and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, whom Martinez worked with on immigration reform.
Martinez got off to a rocky start in the Senate and often seemed to have trouble finding his footing. During the pitched right-to-life battle over Terri Schiavo in 2005, he drew withering criticism for passing a memo to a fellow senator that suggested Republicans could benefit politically.
And he made an early exit as chairman of the Republican National Committee. But he declared “tremendous progress’’ Wednesday on a number of issues, including helping to modernize the military through increased shipbuilding and working to protect home buyers. He noted that the Senate was poised to pass legislation that he had championed to boost tourism to the United States.
And he cited the 2006 compromise that he and Nelson struck with pro-drilling forces to open up millions of acres in the western Gulf of Mexico for oil drilling, while keeping rigs at least 125 miles off the Florida coast. He cautioned Florida lawmakers against embracing a plan that would allow oil and gas exploration within 10 miles of the Florida coast.