National Journal: Alexander Back in Trenches to ‘Quarterback’ Own Plays

Posted on January 29, 2012

Sen. Lamar Alexander has a crazy idea. In a year in which politics is king, in which Democrats’ chief goal is to bludgeon and beat the Republicans, and vice versa, Alexander wants to actually legislate.

“It may be old-fashioned, but it’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” the Tennessee Republican said in an interview with National Journal. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t. We actually have one extra day; I believe it’s a leap year. We’re getting paid. This year’s just as long as any other year—plus one day.”

Alexander formally resigned on Thursday from his position as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, after four years on the No. 3 rung of the GOP leadership ladder. He insisted the move was less a stepping down than a stepping up: By resigning, he’s unshackling himself from the need to align his views with those of the full 47-member GOP conference.

Being in the leadership, Alexander explained, has been “a trade-off.” And Alexander, a former Education secretary under President George H.W. Bush and two-term governor, said he is ready to start calling his own policy plays again.

“If you’re a wide receiver on the team and the quarterback calls a run around left end, and you run a run around right end, then you’re not a very good member of the team,” he said. “I might like to be my own quarterback on some issues.”

Alexander named the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, a liberal lion from Massachusetts known for forming relationships with adversaries across the aisle, as a role model. Alexander said he hopes to craft governing majorities on a handful of critical issues, including a renewal of federal education law, the disposal of nuclear waste, and reining in the nation’s debts. Advancing legislation in those areas will require more than just corralling GOP support, he said.

“I’m not interested in bipartisanship, but I am interested in results,” Alexander said. “I learned to count in … elementary school. And if I’m serving in a Senate where you have to get 60 votes and there are only 47 Republicans, I know I’ve got to get Democratic support if I want to pass a bill.”

One focus is finding storage facilities for America’s nuclear waste. Alexander said he has been working with Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on the issue. A Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing is set for this week.

Alexander also said he wants to draft a bipartisan plan to reduce the nation’s debt, including new tax revenues. He endorsed the bipartisan “Gang of Six” proposal, which would generate savings from entitlements and new revenues from overhauling the tax code. (Alexander was not a Gang member.)

“I’m going to work to try to write a bill this year, because sooner or later some president is going to have to turn around and say, ‘We’re going to have to reduce the federal debt, and we need an actual bill to do that,’ ” he said. “And when he does that, I want to be standing there ready with a copy of a bill.”

Implicit in his decision to step down is a critique of the current hierarchy, a subtle statement that GOP leaders are more interested in pushing a partisan agenda than in reaching bipartisan compromise. Alexander, 71, was careful not to put it that way, calling Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., “one of my closest friends.”

But he said that the current Congress has a “culture against consensus.” He blamed an ideological and incessant media as well as special interests for helping to pull lawmakers apart. “Getting a result doesn’t have many rewards around Washington, but I think most of the country would like for us to do a better job of getting results,” he said.