Chattanooga Times Free Press: Alexander, Corker to have strong voices in U.S. Senate

Posted on November 8, 2014

The GOP takeover of the U.S. Senate has raised the stock of Republicans across the nation, but Tennessee's position on Capitol Hill is one of the more envious.

The Volunteer State has ranking representation in three of the top Senate committees, overseeing policy on education, infrastructure, health care, labor and foreign policy.

Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, just elected to a third term, is in line to become chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions -- which has the largest jurisdiction of all Senate committees. He also is set to lead the appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

That means he will have some leverage to chip away at the Affordable Care Act, pour money into the Chickamauga lock and replace the No Child Left Behind Act, which Republicans have criticized as a government takeover of education.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker is plugging away at his second term and is in line to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker said Friday he is not giddy about the new GOP-ruled Senate but has "a great sense of humility." He said the first order of business will not be to push legislation through, but to get the Senate operating responsibly.

MOVING NCLB FORWARD

For Alexander, the GOP majority means a few of his legislative endeavors that were stalled a few months ago might have new life. And the former governor, U.S. education secretary and college president is keenly focused on schools.

The first step for Alexander is to pass a bill he developed last session to replace parts of No Child Left Behind.

Alexander said in a phone interview Thursday that his bill, the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act, returns decisions about testing and curriculums to state and local school districts without reducing the federal funding on which schools rely.

"My top priority is to fix No Child Left Behind. That's the bill that's in committee, and that's the bill that would move back to the states the decisions about education standards," Alexander said. "Any train going through the station, I'm going to try to attach it."

Those in state education like the bill, but balk at a second piece of legislation Alexander hopes to pass, which would open up $24 billion in federal education money for about 11 million lower-income students. The bill would allow the children to use federal money to "pay private school tuition and fees, supplement their public school or public charter school budget, attend a public school outside their assigned school district, or purchase tutoring services or homeschooling materials."

Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, a professional organization that advocates for public schools and teachers, said state educators are all for regaining control of curriculums. And she noted that control should not be gained at the expense of federal money, which she said makes up about 70 percent of education funding throughout the state.

"Sen. Alexander understands how important federal dollars are for education. But when the federal funding is tied to some federal rule, it restricts us from coming up with local solutions," Gray said. "We know that [students and teachers] fare the best when decisions are made at the local level."

But Gray said Alexander's second bill could undercut public schools if funding starts going to private institutions.

"On things like the vouchers, we have no common ground ... because we know that Tennessee schools are vastly underfunded already. Tennessee is ranked 41 in terms of student investment," Gray said.

DAM, LOCK AND ROAD FUNDS

Alexander is also set to lead the subcommittee that can work to direct more money toward the stalled Chickamauga lock project. Alexander said Thursday that progress made last year coupled with his new position could help restart work on the lock.

Last year, Alexander -- and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in the House -- worked to restructure the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which pays for lock and dam projects across the nation. They removed the Olmstead lock on the Ohio River from the priority list, bumped the new Chickamauga lock to No. 4 and increased appropriations to the fund.

Now Alexander said he's going to work to pass a diesel fuel tax increase for barge businesses for the Chickamauga lock, which major barge owners volunteered to pay, and continue to put more money in the trust fund.

"It's beyond belief to me why we wouldn't do it if the big barge owners are volunteering to say, 'We will pay more if it means we can get through sooner,'" Alexander said. "I see no reason in the world not to allow them to do it. It would save everyone money. It would speed up the smaller boats through the lock, and they wouldn't have to pay the fee."

The barge tax has stalled but not necessarily due to Democratic control in the Senate. Many Republicans, such as Fleischmann, had primary challenges and didn't want to be associated with any kind of tax. But Fleischmann said in a debate last month with Democratic challenger Mary Headrick that he supported the barge tax.

The same may be so for a proposal by Corker to fix the nation's highways.

In June, Corker and Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., proposed a 12-cent-per-gallon increase to the gas tax over two years to cover the shrinking Federal Highway Trust Fund.

The gas tax hasn't changed since 1993, and with less travel overall and more fuel-efficient cars, funding is dwindling.

Corker said Friday the tax would be offset by reductions in other revenues. And Congress has been playing a shell game with the highway fund that must stop, he said.

"What's been occurring is foolish and cowardly, where basically we've been moving money out of the general fund and moving it into the Highway Trust Fund," he said.

Corker said he is open to ideas about where tax cuts should happen, but he favored reducing marginal tax rates for middle- and lower-income families.

"That way the trust fund is whole and you're doing something that can spur the economy," Corker said.

Alexander would not give Corker's idea an up or down Thursday, but he said the highway funding issue needs to be addressed and he is interested in seeing "a complete plan." But he added he thought that plan should come from the White House.

OBAMACARE BATTLE

Alexander had no illusions Thursday about repealing the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's flagship health-care legislation.

"There will be a vote to repeal Obamacare, and I'll vote for it. But the president is not likely to sign it," Alexander said.

But after the Senate gets that vote out of its system, Alexander said, the GOP needs to work "quickly to do the things that are palatable [for Obama]."

One move will be to repeal the medical device tax, a 2.3 percent tax that medical device manufacturers pay when they sell such devices. The industry has lobbied hard against the tax, saying it will stifle innovation and increase the cost of the devices to those who need them.

Alexander also said he wants to make insurance cheaper for employers and employees and increase the threshold of part-time work to 40 hours from 30 hours.

Employers are not required to provide health insurance to part-time workers, under the law.

"Now, you have to go to 29 hours for part-time work, and no one can live off 29 hours' wages," Alexander said.

LABORING FOR LABOR

An Alexander bill to reconfigure the National Labor Relations Board, an agency that aims to safeguard employees' rights to organize and to prevent unfair labor practices, also has had little traction until now.

Alexander said his bill would make the NLRB "more of an umpire than an advocate" in labor issues. But Alexander also made clear he meant to protect Tennessee's right to work laws. The bill is co-sponsored by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the upcoming Senate majority leader.

Labor issues hit home for Chattanooga recently when workers at the local Volkswagen plant voted against unionizing.

Alexander said Thursday the state's labor laws were "the main reason Tennessee has been able to attract the auto industry."

While Republicans across the nation were jubilant about Senate gains, Corker said Friday the party should settle down before it gets back to D.C. and approach leadership with a "sober" attitude.

"I realize we really have an opportunity to move our nation ahead. I don't think Tuesday's election was a mandate to the Republican Party in any way. I think it's an opportunity to move our country forward responsibly," Corker said.

"The first order of business is to cause the Senate to function. It's something that hasn't happened in so long."