Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander -- A Bad Start for Bipartisanship

Posted on February 15, 2009

Republicans are disappointed about the lack of bipartisanship on the stimulus bill. We respect our new president. We want him to succeed, because if he succeeds, our country succeeds. We expected that in this first major piece of legislation, a number of us would sit down on both sides of the aisle and compare our notes and say: “Let's go forward.” We know the Democrats have the majority and we have the minority, and so more of their ideas are going to be included than more of our ideas. But legislation that passes in a virtual party-line vote with 58 Democrats and just three Republicans is not a truly bipartisan effort. That is not the way we should be doing things in Congress. In 2005, when Senator Domenici and Senator Bingaman – the Democrat and Republican heading up the Energy Committee – worked side by side to put together an energy bill, they showed how bipartisanship can produce legislation that not only has broad support but truly helps the country. While the process took some time, we considered all ideas, and we got a big result. Another example of how to build a strong bill is the America COMPETES Act. Both parties worked side-by-side on that legislation. Even with such a contentious topic as reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in order to prevent terrorist attacks, the Democratic chairman and senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee were able to work together despite their different party affiliations to come to a conclusion on which both could agree. The American people gained more confidence in what we would do and in the resulting policy. I am afraid in the case of the stimulus, we have not had that kind of bipartisanship. I fear that this is not a good sign for the future, because this should have been an easy piece of legislation to work together on and get to the president. This is the first major proposal from the president, and there was broad consensus in Congress that some sort of stimulus bill should be passed. After this we have to deal with health care and controlling entitlements and authorizing more money to take bad assets out of banks and to fix housing. Climate change is also going to be a huge debate. And all of these are going to be difficult pieces of legislation. I have said before that President Bush technically did not have to get broad-based congressional support to wage the war in Iraq because he was the commander in chief. So he went ahead without it, and it made the war more difficult. It made his presidency less successful. “We won the election, we will write the bill” – which is what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said about the stimulus – is not a recipe for resolving a difficult problem or for a successful presidency. I would hope we could start over again on this bill and retarget it – make it temporary, make it timely, and save hundreds of billions while focusing on housing and lending. I hope we can get Congress on track with the president so that when we say bipartisan, we do bipartisan, and we don't have an attitude that says, in effect: “We won the election; we will write the bill.”