Knoxville News Sentinel: Alexander, Corker to take on high-profile roles in GOP-led Senate

Posted on November 10, 2014

WASHINGTON — It's not a done deal, but if U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander becomes chairman of the Senate committee over education and health care, his first priority will be to repair the nation's 12-year-old school reform law.

"Many of its provisions are unworkable," Alexander said of No Child Left Behind, the signature achievement of George W. Bush's presidency.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who is likely to take over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he intends to push for greater oversight of the State Department and foreign aid programs and to more aggressively challenge the Obama administration's assumptions on foreign policy.

"We will focus a lot more deeply on what it is the administration is trying to achieve," Corker said.

The two Tennessee senators are set to take the reins of two of the most high-profile committees in Congress after last week's elections put Republicans back in the Senate majority for the first time since 2006.

Committee chairmen won't be formally selected until after Congress returns to Washington this week — and possibly later. But Alexander and Corker already are the top, or ranking, Republicans on their committees, making them the almost-certain choices to step into the roles of chairmen.

The panel Alexander is expected to lead — the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — has the widest jurisdictional reach of any committee in Congress. As a result, Alexander will play a pivotal role on everything from the GOP's campaign to dismantle President Barack Obama's health-care reforms to reigning in the National Labor Relations Board to returning more education decisions to the states.

The first bill Alexander intends to pursue would fix what critics say are the flaws with No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration has been granting waivers to states, including Tennessee, to provide them with flexibility in carrying out the reforms. In exchange for that flexibility, the U.S. Department of Education has required states to meet other demands — resulting in, Alexander says, a de facto national school board.

Alexander's bill, which he hopes to move in the first weeks of the new year, would return to the states decisions about measuring student achievement, fixing underperforming schools, and determining whether schools and teachers are failing.

"We're going to have to stop this business of Washington telling Maryville City Schools how to run its schools," said Alexander, who served as U.S. education secretary under President George H. W. Bush.

Also on Alexander's agenda are plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which governs student aid. Alexander has been working with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on legislation that he says would "deregulate" higher education. Among other things, the bill would simplify the federal student financial aid application — a lengthy form with 108 questions and page after page of instructions. Alexander's bill would cut the form down to a single postcard with just two questions.

Alexander said he also intends to push to reinstate year-round Pell Grants and for simpler repayment options on student loans.

On the international front, Corker will take over the Foreign Relations Committee at a critical time in foreign affairs, with the military striking targets in Iraq and Syria, increased tensions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the spread of Ebola in Africa.

Corker said he hopes to write an authorization bill for the State Department — not exactly a sexy topic, he admits, but one he says is needed to set policies for the department and to properly monitor its programs. Corker said he also wants to look closely at foreign aid programs such as the U.S. Agency for International Aid, or USAID, to see how federal resources are being used and whether they are furthering national interests.

"It's just a basic responsibility that hasn't occurred since I've been here," Corker said.

Although he has worked with the Obama administration often — he chatted with Secretary of State John Kerry the day after last week's election — Corker has been critical of its response in dealing with Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria and for, he says, moving too slowly to help contain the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

Corker said he expects the committee under his leadership to more aggressively question the administration by "really digging in and challenging the thought process" on those and other issues.