Knoxville News Sentinel: Editorial: Sens. Alexander, Corker lead on Iran, education

Posted on April 14, 2015

When Republicans took control of the Senate after last year's election, Tennessee Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander figured to play more prominent roles. This week they are fulfilling those expectations.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Corker is at the center over the struggle between the White House and the Senate over the multi-lateral negotiations about Iran's nuclear future. Alexander, who heads the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has crafted a bipartisan overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

Corker's task is the more daunting one. He is trying to assemble and maintain a veto-proof coalition of Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation that would force the Obama administration to seek Senate approval of any agreement made with Iran regarding that country's nuclear energy program.

The United States, the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany have arrived at a framework for an agreement with Iran that would limit Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Corker wisely refrained from signing an open letter to the Iranian government from other GOP senators. That letter, penned by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, threatened to undermine negotiations. Corker is attempting to get those Republicans and enough Democrats on board with his legislation to override a likely veto from President Barack Obama.

The Obama administration is resistant to any legislation that could threaten the success of the negotiations. The pact being negotiated with Iran and the other powers would be an executive agreement that does not require Senate approval.

Corker is adept at hammering out compromises between Republicans and Democrats, but this task is particularly tricky. Most Democrats do not want to tie the president's hands at the bargaining table, while many Republicans want to make the bill more restrictive.

Alexander's bipartisan effort to revise No Child Left Behind, the comprehensive K-12 education law passed under President George W. Bush, has a lower profile but is no less important. The law is widely seen as outdated and cumbersome.

Alexander and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington have developed legislation that would give more flexibility to state and local education officials. Mandatory achievement tests remain, but states would have flexibility in how to use them in accountability measures. Federal grants would be available to help low-performing schools. The federal government would no longer be able to offer incentives for developing higher academic standards, a practice that led some to oppose Common Core State Standards.

No Child Left Behind needs an overhaul, and as long as Tennessee's standards remain lofty, the Alexander-Murray bill is a positive step toward a sensible education policy.

Both bills likely will be amended in the coming days, so their final form cannot be assessed at this time. Regardless of the legislative outcome, Corker and Alexander are providing effective leadership in a Congress that has been dysfunctional for far too long.