This appears to be Alexander's only chance.
Despite the hope for a resolution, if Alexander's plan doesn't work and the HELP bill fails when he brings it to the floor next month, the minority will not help him take a second shot at the issue this year, a Democratic aide with knowledge of the discussions said.
Democrats had high hopes that things would be different. After Murray negotiated a budget deal with Rep. Paul Ryan in one of the few successful conferences with House Republicans in years, Democrats sent the same top emissary to lead the committee negotiations with Alexander.
The idea was simple: Murray, a former preschool teacher, is held in high regard by the other members of her party, and their trust in her is unqualified. Alexander has a similar position in his conference; conservatives such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and establishment Republicans hold the Tennessean in high esteem. Both have the implicit trust of their respective leaderships and each has the respect of lawmakers on the other side of the aisle. Perhaps more than any other members, if Murray and Alexander sign off on a deal, their colleagues are likely to fall in line.
So Democrats were troubled when they sat down to begin discussing No Child Left Behind this year only to see that Alexander already had a plan. Not one he negotiated tirelessly with Murray, as Ryan did two years earlier, but a conservative draft with few Democratic fingerprints.
Democrats, Republican aides counter, are still acting like they're in the majority. The party needs to adapt and understand that they're no longer calling the shots on legislation, aides say.
Alexander wouldn't say whether the committee will proceed with his draft bill, allowing Democratic amendments, or whether he would try to write a separate bipartisan bill with the minority.
"We've tried for six years to develop a bipartisan draft, and that hasn't worked," Alexander said. "And I think the logical and normal thing to do would be for the majority to suggest a draft, as I have, and then to have an open amendment process in the committee, on the floor, in the conference and then to work the president to get his signature."
Still, Democrats—including Murray—have praised Alexander for his outreach. The Republican has met privately with every member of the committee, including Democrats, to talk about No Child Left Behind. "I think he clearly wants to work together. The proof will be in the pudding," Sen. Chris Murphy said.
Similarly, Alexander heaped praise on Murray, calling her a "terrific partner. She's very effective, she's a good leader, she cares about children, and I see no reason we can't get to a result," he said.
But Democrats say they're still concerned about the time line. With just over three weeks to go, Alexander and Murray have yet to sit down and begin negotiations over a final bill (although, Alexander emphasized, the two have talked often).