GOP Senators Pick New Chairman

Alexander's Vow of Outreach to Centrists Helps Him Win No. 3 Leadership Post

Posted on December 7, 2007

Senate Republicans, choosing between two men who differ in age and style, yesterday selected a political veteran promising outreach to independent voters over a younger partisan whose backers wanted a more confrontational approach to life in the minority. Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), 67, won by 2 to 1 over Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), 52, to claim the chairmanship of the Senate Republican Conference. The conference chairman, the No. 3 post for Senate Republicans, is charged with coordinating the party's message and outreach operations. The opening was created after the decision by Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) to abruptly retire, leaving the post of minority whip vacant. Within days of Lott's announcement, Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the current conference chairman, emerged as the consensus candidate to succeed Lott as whip. After days of jockeying for support, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) decided this week to stay put in her leadership post, the Republican Policy Committee chairmanship, rather than make a bid to move up to the conference post. With Alexander and Burr the only remaining candidates, the race took on the theme of how Republicans could appeal to voters next fall after their disastrous showing in the 2006 elections. Both senators have Southern conservative roots and are relative newcomers to the Senate, with Alexander being elected in 2002 and Burr in 2004. Alexander was a two-term governor in the 1980s and served as education secretary in President George H.W. Bush's Cabinet before running twice for his party's presidential nomination. Burr was a member of the House, first elected in the 1994 GOP revolution, until taking his Senate seat. Afterward, Alexander said his selection as conference chair signals a victory for more direct political appeals to centrist voters and even some legislative overtures toward Democrats. "It suggests that our conference is looking for a little bit of a new direction," Alexander told reporters in a conference call. "Most of us are here not just to state our principles, but to get principled solutions." But Burr, who believed he had more than 20 votes heading into the secret-ballot race, said that Alexander is just as conservative as he is and that his own defeat only means there will not be a "new face" for party leadership. Burr received the bulk of his support from fellow newcomers to the chamber, particularly those who had also served in the House. These lawmakers, including Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), have irked party leaders at times this year in their effort to block immigration legislation supported by President Bush and by using parliamentary tactics to force difficult votes on special-interest earmarks that they view as pork-barrel spending. DeMint said Burr's campaign had delivered a message: "We've got to change the way we do things." But some Republicans turned away from Burr not because of his personality or his views, but because of the stridency of his most vocal backers, such as Coburn and DeMint, according to one senator who supported Burr, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain the defeat. Most party elders, for instance, rallied around Alexander, who fell one vote short of beating Lott for the minority whip job last year. Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), who provided Lott that critical last vote, said yesterday that he happily voted for Alexander this time around. And the message of confrontation also lost favor with some avowed conservatives, who favored Alexander. "His point, I think, is a correct one: You can't just talk to your own base," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.).