Months after his startling loss in the race to be the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader and enforcer of party discipline, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) has morphed into one of Congress’ most ardent advocates for compromise.
Even Alexander concedes the role he’s looking to carve out these days as one of the Senate’s leading deal and relationship brokers could have been problematic — if not impossible — had he successfully staved off a challenge in the Minority Whip race from Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
“If I had been elected Whip, I would have hoped to work better across party lines,” Alexander said in an interview this week. “But by not being Whip, it has sort of freed me to do that even more.”
One of Alexander’s biggest campaign pitches in his race against Lott was his premium on loyalty and a vow to serve the Republican team now led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Many of his allies contended then that Alexander was a better fit for the job than Lott, who as a former GOP Leader known for his outspokenness and independent streak would not work hand in glove with McConnell.
But the Republican Conference thought otherwise, and Lott secured the job in a stunning come-from-behind one-vote defeat of Alexander.
Eight months later, Alexander says he isn’t licking his wounds over the outcome, but rather has decided to immerse himself in a series of bipartisan initiatives he hopes ultimately may serve as catalysts for compromise in a 51-49 Democratically controlled Senate.
“There are a lot of forces to divide us,” Alexander said. “And there are very few like the bipartisan breakfasts that create an opportunity [for agreement]. I think we need more of that.”
Yet, Alexander quickly conceded, “It’s harder than it ought to be.”
Alexander is an architect of weekly Senate breakfasts, which he launched at the start of the Congress with Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) to encourage greater across-the-aisle dealings and less partisan acrimony. The Tuesday sessions have had better weeks than others, but overall, Alexander insists they are worthwhile, noting that in the past two weeks as many as 40 Senators have shown up to discuss the Senate’s ongoing debate on Iraq.
Breakfasts aside, Alexander also has been at the center of the floor fight on Iraq as part of a bipartisan group of about a dozen Senators who are pushing a deal on the thorny, highly charged issue. Alexander, along with Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), drafted a proposal to urge President Bush to adopt key components of December’s bipartisan Iraq Study Group report that sets goals for a troop withdrawal from the region.
“He really has carved out a niche where he’s demonstrated a willingness and ability to reach across party lines,” Salazar observed.
Salazar and Alexander’s measure, which was to be an amendment to the Defense authorization bill and one they suspect has private support of more than 60 Senators, may not even see the light of day, given the partisan lines now drawn in the chamber on the topic. The plan’s fate was all but sealed Wednesday morning when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — unable to get enough votes to block a GOP filibuster — pulled the Defense bill from the floor.
“If Harry Reid doesn’t back off and the president doesn’t show some flexibility, we won’t get very many votes on the Iraq Study Group at all this week,” Alexander said before Reid sidelined the bill.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who also has been working with Alexander on the Iraq bill, said the Tennessean deserves a lot of credit for trying to find a deal in a sea of partisanship on Iraq. And generally speaking, Pryor noted that Alexander’s bipartisan efforts have won him the trust of Democrats who see him as good to his word and committed to the idea that “the only way to make things better is to reach across the aisle and try to make things happen.”
Although Pryor said it is hard to know how Alexander would have positioned himself had he won the Minority Whip slot, the Arkansas Senator said it is clear “when you are in leadership you are limited in what you can do on this type of thing.”
“Maybe that’s the silver lining in the story — that it freed him up to work with the Democrats in a constructive way,” Pryor said.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing,” Alexander said. “It’s freed me and given me a chance to be more independent and work on issues that I care about and reach across party lines. I have much more independence.”
It could have been a futile Congress for Alexander, who after four decades of public service was weighing whether to even seek re-election in 2008 on the heels of his failed leadership bid. McConnell sweetened the deal and won Alexander’s pledge to seek re-election by handing him a coveted seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee this Congress.
McConnell has been an Alexander ally and privately supported him over Lott for the No. 2 leadership job last year. But even those who didn’t back him then now say Alexander has established his relevancy in a party struggling in a new minority.
“This is a very polarized time here in Congress and in the nation,” said Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think [Alexander is] really is trying to bring some comity back to this place that’s missing right now. I really commend him for trying.”
Beyond Iraq and the bipartisan breakfasts, Alexander cites a list of other measures he’s worked on with Democrats in recent years, from offshore oil and gas leasing to competitiveness legislation. He’s also shown his independence on legislation ranging from stem-cell research to global warming, he said.
Some of his Senate allies say, and Alexander agreed, that he always has been something of a compromiser, dating back to his early years as a Senate staffer and throughout much of his political life. Even before Democrats took control, Alexander said he was involved in bipartisan legislative brokering and played a role in the early organization of the “Gang of 14,” a group that staved off a showdown over stalled judicial nominations in the previous Congress.
But Alexander said because of his deference to his Tennessee Republican colleague and friend, then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, he decided he couldn’t sit at the table with the bipartisan group. Frist led the GOP’s fight to push for the use of the “nuclear option” to avert Democratic filibusters over the nominees.
Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), an Alexander ally who helped orchestrate his bid for Republican Whip, said Alexander has long been inclined to look for ways to work with other Members rather than simply act as an ideological standard-bearer. And Bennett said it is clear that Alexander “is not allowing the defeat in the Whip race to discourage him.”
Bennett added that the Whip position can be difficult for a Senator like Alexander who has an inclination to work out compromise, particularly since leadership duties take up so much energy. “When you’re either the Leader or the Whip you have significantly less time for policy debates,” he said.
Looking ahead, Alexander insists he is running for re-election, even amid chatter that he is on the short list of contenders to take the helm of Vanderbilt University. Alexander once served as the head of the University of Tennessee, as well as that state’s governor, a Cabinet secretary and a candidate for the White House.
And while he says he’s a sure bet for the ballot next fall, he’s far less certain about whether his Senate future includes another run at a leadership slot.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Alexander said. “I’m happy to be where I am. Maybe that’s where I can make the greatest contribution.”
John Stanton contributed to this report.