Washington Times: Lamar Alexander, Senate Republicans to test Obama’s bipartisanship

Posted on February 25, 2015

A key Republican said Wednesday the Senate GOP will fast-track two conservative priorities — a bill that shields states from Common Core or other national education standards and a state alternative to Obamacare exchanges, as they seek to test President Obama's bipartisanship.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, in a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, said states are tired of Washington calling the shots when it comes to what children learn and how teachers are evaluated.

With the right amount of buy-in from Democrats, he said he thinks he can strike an agreement and hold a vote in his committee next month on a plan that would push back on the Obama administration's moves to exert more control over teaching and testing in the states.

"They resent the idea of Washington creating, in effect, a national school board," Mr. Alexander said.

He also said he's working on a bill to plug a potential hole in Obamacare that could open if the Supreme Court later this year rules that the government has illegally been paying subsidies to customers in most states.

While vague on the details, Mr. Alexander said he wants to create a system that would allow states that don't set up their own Obamacare health exchanges to still keep subsidies long enough to adjust to the ruling by offering other insurance alternatives.

He said he hopes he and other senators "have more to say about in the next few days" — a timeline that coincides with oral arguments in the Supreme Court over the case, known as King v. Burwell.

Mr. Alexander said he knows Mr. Obama will veto many of the proposals the GOP will try to send him, from repeal of his health care law to legislation that would force the completion of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.

But the senator said there are chances to strike agreements with Senate Democrats that Mr. Obama won't be able to veto.

"I think the people elected a Republican majority to shake things up and get things done," he said.

Mr. Alexander ascended to committee chairman when the GOP assumed control of the Senate in January, and he has a list of priorities.

He wants the FDA and National Institutes of Health need to speed along medical discoveries from the lab to the medicine cabinet, and he thinks the federal application for college tuition aid is comically long and intimidating.

He said the litany of questions should be paired down to two — how big is your family, and how much money does it make?

"There is a difference in being in the majority — you have a chance to set the agenda," Mr. Alexander said.

But the GOP's new-found power comes with the responsibility to reject or preserve the Senate's venerated traditions.

After Senate Democrats "went nuclear" last year, overriding a Republican filibuster to approve Mr. Obama's judicial nominees on a majority vote, some conservatives have urged the new GOP majority to go further and eliminate the filibuster altogether.

Mr. Alexander flatly rejected that notion Tuesday, even if it would allow his party to overcome Senate Democrats who were filibustering to preserve Mr. Obama's deportation amnesty program.

"I'd be totally opposed to that," Mr. Alexander said of doing away with the filibuster through the so-called "nuclear option." "Some people would say, 'Well they did it, we should do it.' If one child acts badly, is that a justification for the other child to act badly?"

Perhaps the thorniest challenge for Mr. Alexander will be to write, along with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, an alternative plan to push in case the Supreme Court strikes down the subsidies.

"What we would like to do is give states a better option that would include more flexibility in offering lower cost insurance that fits the need of their citizens," Mr. Alexander said. "Republicans in the Senate and the House have been talking about a plan to do that, and we may have something to say about that in the next few days."

GOP leaders say they've been meeting in private to develop the plan, although they've offered few specifics about what an off-ramp from the King decision would look like.

"Our fix would be a different option than Obamacare," Mr. Alexander said, responding to the political peril of looking like they propped up the president's overhaul.

The justices are set to hear oral arguments next week in the case, King v. Burwell, and rule by June.

The administration has said Congress never intended to treat states different under the Affordable Care Act, and it expects to prevail before the Supreme Court.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told Republicans this week that a loss before the court would be disastrous for Obamacare enrollees and their states' insurance markets.

She doesn't have an administrative tweak in hand to repair the damage, leaving any fix to the states or Congress.