Alexander seen as force in freshman Senate term

Posted on September 29, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Though a newcomer to Congress, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has taken lead roles in areas ranging from the scuttling of an Internet access tax ban to pushing clean air issues in the Tennessee Valley, observers said. "What he's succeeded in doing, especially in the last six months, is setting a separate identity for himself as a senator," said Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer, contrasting Sen. Alexander with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Sen. Frist said Sen. Alexander, a former governor, U.S. education secretary and two-time presidential hopeful "hit the ground running and hasn't looked back" since his arrival last January. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said that while a "lot of former national leaders who go to the Senate feel like resting on their laurels," Sen. Alexander "is exactly the opposite. He went to work rolling up his sleeves to prove himself." In an interview with Tennessee reporters on Monday, Sen. Alexander said he is enjoying himself. "What I like about being up here is I can take the background that I have and put it to some good use, and I hope make a contribution in that way," he said. The battle over Internet access taxes was perhaps Sen. Alexander's highest profile fight this year. He and a group of other former governors successfully fought efforts by U.S. Sens. George Allen, R-Va., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to permanently ban states and local governments from taxing access to Internet providers such as America Online. Tennessee already has an access tax. Sen. Alexander said he thinks it is wrong for the federal government to tell states they must permanently ban Internet access taxes. He said he is even more concerned that the bill will affect telecommunications services conducted over the Internet and carve out up to $20 billion from state and local tax bases nationwide. It could mean $360 million a year in losses for Tennessee, he said. "It just increases the likelihood that Tennessee has to reduce TennCare more, has to lay off some teachers or raise the food tax, tax on medicine or consider putting in an income tax," Sen. Alexander said. He said he hopes to push next year for creation of a Federalism Caucus to push state and local issues in Congress. Sen. Allen's spokesman, Michael Waldron, said the senator intends to bring the permanent ban back next year. A temporary ban expired last fall. "If the opponents of this legislation are successful, then the net effect will be a new excessive tax that will be placed on Internet access by states and localities," Mr. Waldron said. He said the estimated $20 billion in losses, widely cited by organizations for states and local governments, was "grossly exaggerated for shock and awe value." On another front, Sen. Alexander said as a former education secretary he expects to take a closer look at how President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act impacts Tennessee schools. He said if local and state educators' complaints about inadequate funds are accurate, he would look at legislation next year to get them more money. Regarding pollution issues, Sen. Alexander said he "did not expect to have a chance of being as involved in clean air and clean energy." The issue came up suddenly because of the need for many Tennessee counties, including Hamilton, to meet new federal ozone standard, he said. Air pollution issues caused Sen. Alexander to break with the Bush administration and its Clear Skies initiative. Sen. Alexander instead backs a bill by U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., that requires faster, further-reaching clean-up at coal-fired power plants such as those operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Sen. Alexander has also held state hearings to publicize counties' plights. "It's a jobs problem. It's a health problem," he said. Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy gave Sen. Alexander high marks for his support of the Carper bill as well as his efforts to get TVA to use "clean coal" technology at its power plants. But Mr. Smith said Sen. Alexander "voted wrong on a couple of very important issues" favored by environmentalists. One would have given states the continued ability to set tougher clean air standards than the federal government. White House spokesman Taylor Gross said that "while the president may not agree with every senator on every issue, he feels that Sen. Alexander is doing an outstanding job." Copyright 2003 Chattanooga Publishing Company