Barely two hours after Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) secured his place as GOP Conference chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) — the closest confidant to his internecine rival for the job, Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) — was hosting a noontime fundraiser for Alexander’s 2008 re-election bid.
The luncheon was noteworthy since Chambliss is among a bloc of conservative Republican Senators who not only backed Burr over Alexander for the No. 3 leadership post last week, but also believe the party must continue to steer to the right to paint a clear contrast with the majority Democrats. Most of them felt Alexander — known for his moderate temperament and affinity for bipartisanship — would take the Conference message job to lighten up Republican principles and blur the lines between the two parties.
That criticism of Alexander has been an open one, and one he has sought to deflect in the few days leading up to and since being elected handily as Conference chairman, a position he assumes later this year when current Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) becomes Minority Whip. Kyl has been tapped by his colleagues to take over for Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), who is resigning his Senate seat and leadership position within the next two weeks.
In an interview following his Thursday victory, Alexander said he recognized he needs to reach out to the Conference’s junior fiscal conservatives who supported Burr in the race. And he said that while his approach to the leadership will be to help steer a message that appeals to independents and even Democrats, he won’t do it in a vacuum and abandon long-held GOP principles.
“First, I’m going to listen to them very carefully,” Alexander said. “I’m going to make sure I understand what’s on their minds.”
But, Alexander acknowledged, “It’s never easy to put 49 very independent views into one package.”
Conservatives and several of the 16 Republicans who supported Burr in the contest have said publicly that they believe Alexander will do a solid job at the leadership table. But privately, concerns are simmering that Alexander will take too tempered an approach for a party in transition.
One aide to a conservative Senator said given Alexander’s record, including on working to craft a bipartisan plan to end the war in Iraq, many Republicans worry “he won’t just be Democrat light, but he’ll be right there with the Democrats.”
“That would be political suicide for Republicans,” this staffer said.
At the same time, Senators seem willing to give Alexander a chance to prove his salt as a conservative who will take a hard line against Democratic initiatives. The GOP aide said: “He does have a chance as the leader of a majority conservative GOP party. It has yet to be seen how it pans out.”
For his part, Burr said he hoped his candidacy, though unsuccessful, “may have generated some new energy that Lamar can tap into with Members on their willingness to participate, their willingness to speak, their willingness to do media interviews, their willingness to communicate what … our vision is as Republicans.”
Although he doesn’t have a specific plan to formally incorporate the conservative naysayers of his campaign into his message shop, Alexander seems poised to try to tamp down their concerns at the outset.
And he said last week that he will talk to all of them as he launches an upcoming intraparty listening tour. That will include meeting one-on-one with all of his colleagues to determine how they want to shape the Republican message for the remainder of the 110th Congress in a year that is unlikely to yield electoral gains for the minority party.
He isn’t sure what exactly will come of his efforts, but foremost on his mind is “how to make the Senate more effective — almost every Senator thinks we need to get more done around here.”
“The onus on me is not to write a message, but to bring out the best of our Conference,” he said. “I want to listen to find out where the consensus lies and put it together. I have no intention of trying to impose a message on the Conference.”
Indeed, Alexander said he’s already spoken with Chambliss and Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), the ad hoc leaders of the Senate conservative cause. Coburn and DeMint have led numerous efforts to throw up procedural roadblocks to sideline bipartisan legislation — especially on their pet issues of earmark spending and immigration reform.
Also, Alexander said “one of the very first visits I make” will be to Burr’s office to make sure the Republicans are “all in the same fold.” Burr joined the Senate in 2004 along with DeMint and Coburn as part of a GOP surge in the chamber that included a strong group of vocal and partisan former House lawmakers.
Whether Alexander wins over the entire Conference remains to be seen, but in the meantime the former Tennessee governor and university president said he believes most of his colleagues understand that it is better to try to pass legislation than to simply add to the partisanship that has saddled Congress of late.
“You know, I’ve spent most of my time in the executive branch,” he said, but “you can’t get anything done in the U.S. Senate without negotiating across the aisle.”