The Tennessean: TN senators outline priorities in hoped-for roles

Posted on April 13, 2014

Paul C. Barton, Tennessean Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – Sen. Lamar Alexander already senses the opportunities for shaping domestic policy — likewise for Sen. Bob Corker and foreign policy.

The 2014 elections could lift both Tennessee Republicans to chairmanships of high-profile Senate committees.

If Republicans take control of the Senate, which some political prognosticators consider likely, Alexander is in line to become chairman of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, giving him considerable influence over huge areas of domestic policy. Corker likely would be the next head of Foreign Relations. They are ranking Republicans on those panels now.

The Senate now includes 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

While both Tennessee senators would have to be voted into those leadership positions, first by fellow committee members and then by the entire Senate Republican Conference, those steps are often formalities. Seniority usually rules.

Tennessee has not had two chairmen simultaneously since 1946, when Sen. Kenneth McKellar, a Democrat, headed the Senate Appropriations and the Post Office and Roads committees and Sen. Tom Stewart, also a Democrat, headed the Interoceanic Canals Committee.

"What I'm prepared to do is have a good aggressive agenda ready whether we are in charge or not to transform government so we can be more of an enabler rather than a mandator," Alexander said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office.

Less federal power

If he gets the chance, the 73-year-old senior senator wants to start by carving up the $67 billion U.S. Department of Education budget and sending big chunks of it back to the states. For example, he wants to send states money for a K-12 scholarship program for low-income students. He also would give states federal money that they could use to award scholarships that would follow them to the public or private school of their choice.

Next, he wants to get the federal government out of the business of assessing success or failure.

"I want to reverse the trend toward a national school board," he said. "Washington has a hard time keeping its sticky fingers off school policy."

Alexander also wants to deregulate higher education.

"Colleges and universities are overwhelmed with paperwork that costs time and dollars that could be better spent on students," the former University of Tennessee president said.

As an example, Alexander held up a 10-page federal financial aid form — with questions front and back. Once unfolded, the form of 100 questions was taller than he is.

"I voted against the last higher-ed bill because the stack of regulations was already taller than I was, and the new law would make it twice as tall," he said.

Alexander also has given plenty of thought to undoing President Barack Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

"I want to replace Obamacare with step-by-step reforms that emphasize choices and freedom and reduced costs," he said. A series of bills to do that, Alexander added, stands ready.

Foreign policy unity

Corker says he wants "what's in our national interest" to be uppermost in senators' minds if he becomes chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. It used to be that partisanship ended on America's shorelines, meaning Republican and Democrat legislators did their best to unite on foreign policy issues.

"I want us to handle ourselves in a manner that reflects that," Corker said in an interview.

After setting a proper tone, the former Chattanooga mayor said one of his first initiatives as chairman would be to launch a top-to-bottom review of State Department staffing and operations.

"There hasn't been a top-to-bottom review since 2002," Corker said. "I find that incredible."

He also wants a review of U.S. foreign aid programs and the existing congressional authorizations for use of military force.

Although he wants to take a bipartisan approach, Corker said he would not be shy about trying to force the Obama administration's hand on some foreign policy issues.

Corker did his best in 2013 to get the administration to arm rebel factions in the Syrian civil war that had been "vetted" for terrorist influence. More recently, he has called for Obama to place additional sanctions on Russia due to the Ukraine crisis — as "a shot across the bow."

Many of the current foreign policy challenges will continue into the next Congress, he said, including the need to be vigilant about terrorism and al-Qaida and "managing the rise of China."

Alexander, Corker on Republican chances

WASHINGTON – Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker remain optimistic about the GOP taking control of the Senate in November's congressional races.

"I think we have a real opportunity," Alexander said.

The Senate now includes 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Alexander himself is also running for re-election this year, although his race is not seen as competitive.

"The best political indicator I know is the quality of candidates, and we have mature, grown-up men and women running in 13 or 14 states in very competitive races," he said. "All we need to do is win six of those to take control of the Senate."

Corker agrees, saying "The candidates on the Republican side are very, very good."

Noted political data-cruncher Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com made a splash in March when he said Republicans were likely to gain control of the Senate. But Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political report said she continues to see it as a "50-50" proposition.

"I want to see some primaries first," she said.

Similarly, Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics said: "We have the Senate at about a tossup for control right now."

Kondik said the center's ratings show Republicans with a 49-48 margin with three races rated as tossups: Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina.

"I feel like things look slightly better for Democrats today than they did a month ago, based on polling and other factors," Kondik said.

Alexander would get energy position, too

WASHINGTON – If Republicans retake the Senate, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander would be in line for another key committee post as well — chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over more than $2 billion in funding for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory annually, as well as issues affecting the Chickamauga Lock.

Alexander said he would use the post to go after subsidies for both "Big Wind" and "Big Oil."

"Long-term subsidies for mature technologies are a waste of taxpayer money," he said.