Knoxville News Sentinel: Alexander, Corker score unusual bipartisan victories

Posted on April 20, 2015

WASHINGTON — Score one — no, make that two — points for bipartisanship.

It doesn’t happen often, but U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander managed to get two potentially controversial bills passed out of their committees last week with large, bipartisan majorities.

In both cases, the votes were unanimous.

Defying the White House, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 19-0 on Tuesday to pass a bipartisan bill that would let Congress review — and potentially overturn — any deal President Barack Obama’s administration and other world powers might negotiate with Iran to keep that country from developing nuclear weapons. The bill was a compromise negotiated by Corker, the committee’s chairman, and its top Democrat, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.

Two days later, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 22-0 to approve a compromise bill that would fix problems with the Bush-era No Child Left Behind school reform law and let states decide how schools should be held accountable for student performance. The compromise resulted from weeks of negotiations between Alexander, the committee’s chairman, and its top Democrat, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

For Tennessee’s Republican senators, passage of the two measures marked their biggest triumphs since taking the reins of the committees in January. Both see the sudden burst of bipartisanship as an encouraging sign lawmakers may be ready to get beyond gridlock and put policy over party.

“Maybe it’s catching,” Alexander said. “Maybe we’ll see more of it later.”

Corker, in particular, faced significant hurdles — and the threat of a presidential veto — in getting the Iran legislation through his committee.

The U.S. and other world powers have been negotiating with Iran for months in hopes of striking a deal that would end that country’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. In exchange, sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy would be lifted.

Congressional Republicans and many Democrats argued Congress should have a say in any such deal, and Corker proposed legislation to make that happen. But the White House pressured lawmakers to back off, arguing such legislation would scuttle the chances of reaching an agreement.

Obama personally called Corker and asked him to hold off. Instead, Corker and Cardin, working with the White House and other committee members, came up with a new plan that addressed some of the administration’s concerns yet put in place a framework for Congress to review the final agreement.

The day the committee voted on the bill, Secretary of State John Kerry made a trip to the Capitol building to lobby against the measure. In the end, with the legislation expected to pass, the White House backed off its earlier veto threat and said Obama would sign the compromise. The full Senate is expected to approve the bill this week.

“This is one of those things where Congress, working together, despite the concerns from the White House, decided this was the right thing to do,” Corker said.

Cardin praised Corker “for his patience and willingness to work with me in good faith” and added, “America is always stronger when we speak with one voice on foreign policy.”

On the education bill, Alexander said the bipartisan approach toward fixing No Child Left Behind was essential in getting the committee’s unanimous endorsement of the legislation. Congress has tried for more than seven years — and failed — to rewrite the school-reform law.

Alexander credited Murray with approaching him and suggesting the two lawmakers come up with a bipartisan approach this time instead of following the usual procedure, in which the chairman’s bill is used as a starting point for the discussions. They did, eventually agreeing on a plan that jettisons the parts of No Child Left Behind that aren’t working but still holds schools accountable for student performance.

“It was a smooth process for a difficult job,” Alexander said of the committee’s work.

Other committee members agreed.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., lauded Alexander and Murray “for the tone, tenor and process” of the debate. She offered special kudos to Alexander for heeding Murray’s suggestion the committee take a bipartisan approach.

“Had you thrown down the gauntlet,” Mikulski said, “we would have been just fighting with each other, and you know we would have been fighting over process. This way, we really got into the meaty substance.”

While the display of bipartisanship is encouraging, Alexander said, “we shouldn’t be giving Boy Scouts a merit badge for telling the truth or patting senators on the back for doing their job.”