Knoxville News Sentinel: Sen. Lamar Alexander wants to focus on getting things done

Posted on January 29, 2012

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander believes there's a misconception about why he gave up one of the GOP's most influential leadership jobs and pledged that he would try to bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats.

"Some people say I'm trying to be bipartisan," he said. "I'm not trying to be bipartisan. I'm just trying to get results."

Alexander formally stepped down this week as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference after holding the position for four years.

The job had made him the chamber's No. 3 Republican and put him in charge of crafting the GOP message on legislation and other matters. But Alexander felt the role was too confining and said it took time away from the issues he cares about most.

"I used to be governor, and I'm used to setting the agenda and persuading people I'm right and making things happen," he said during an interview in his office next to the U.S. Capitol.

"If I'm on a team, I'd like to be the quarterback. I can play wide receiver and let somebody else call the plays, and I did that for four years — and I hope I did a good job of it. But I just feel more comfortable being able to set my own agenda and not having to worry so much about whether I'm staying within the parameters of leadership."

Now that he's liberated, as he puts it, he can pay more attention to the issues he cares about and will have more freedom to reach out to Democrats who are interested in the same things.

"I'm tired, and I think most people are tired, of Congress and a president who can't get any results, such as finding a way to reduce the debt, finding a place to put nuclear waste, fixing No Child Left Behind, cleaning up the air without bankrupting businesses," he said. "I think I can do a better job for Tennesseans and the country by focusing more on the issues."

The issues he wants to concentrate on, he said, are issues he has cared about for years.

He wants, for example, to finish the job of cleaning up the nation's dirty air, he said. "If you stand on Clingman's Dome (in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) on a bad-air day, you can see for 19 miles," he said. "The Cherokees used to be able to see 113 miles. The air has gotten cleaner in the last 10 years, but it needs to continue to improve."

Another environmental issue he wants to look into is Cold War-era mercury contamination at Y-12 in Oak Ridge. "I want to get an accurate assessment of how much there is, what the danger of it is, and I want again to get it cleaned up," he said.

Education also will be a priority, said Alexander, who served as federal education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Back in October, a Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to fix parts of No Child Left Behind, the landmark school-reform law that is now a decade old. The bipartisan proposal would give the states more flexibility to tailor their education programs to their students' needs.

The House is working on its own bill, and Alexander said he sees no reason why the two measures could not be approved and merged this year.

"Otherwise," he said, "we're going to end up with a national school board and a United States secretary of education who's the chairman of the national school board — and we don't need that. We can fix No Child Left Behind by sending most of the decisions about whether schools or teachers are succeeding back to the states and the communities."

On financial issues, Alexander said he will be working with Democrats to put into law the so-called "Gang of Six" plan to shave $4 trillion off the debt over 10 years and reform the tax code and the budget process.

"If you're a shoe store and you're selling a shoe, it's one thing to describe the shoe," Alexander said. "It's another thing to put it in the window and let someone try it on. We've done a lot of talking to describe our debt solution problem, but we haven't got a bill that somebody can actually read. I'm going to try to write that bill in the next few months."

Before he was elected to the GOP leadership job, Alexander had a reputation as a pragmatist and a dealmaker who was willing to work with Democrats. Democrats still hold a 51-47 majority in the Senate, so Alexander knows he'll have to reach out to Democrats again if he wants to get anything done, especially with 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster.

"To get results, you have to have some Democrats and some Republicans," he said. "I was able to do that as governor, working with Ned McWherter when he was speaker. We made some real progress on schools and roads and jobs, and I'd like to bring some of that same common sense way of getting results that I used in Nashville here."

Asked to name some Democratic senators with whom he might work, he mentions Tom Carper of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Chuck Schumer of New York — all of whom he has already worked with on various issues over the years.

Alexander and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also occasionally host bipartisan dinners in Washington in which 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans come together with no other agenda than to break bread and get to know each other better.

"The purpose of all of these activities is not bipartisanship — the purpose is results," Alexander said. "For example, if Sen. Carper, who's a Democrat, and I, a Republican, if we both understand each other well enough to know we're both concerned about dirty air going into our state from other states, then we've got the basis for a Clean Air bill. But if we don't know each other well enough to know that, then we don't even know we agree."

As for his relationship with President Barack Obama, the two shared a tense exchange at a health care summit a couple of years ago. Alexander said they remain "cordial" but seldom talk. "I don't have much of a relationship with the president," he said, "but I respect the office, and I treat him with courtesy."

Alexander's decision to quit the leadership post also touched off speculation that he may be preparing to bring his long political career to an end. That, too, is a misconception, he said.

He said he plans to run for a third Senate term in 2014.