Alexander's Goal: A Bipartisan Model That Will Work More Than Once

The HELP panel chairman teamed up with Democrats to pass education reform unanimously. Can he do it again on another bill?

HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (Chet Susslin)

As mem­bers of the Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee chat­ted with staff and one an­oth­er, a steady chor­us of “ayes” rang out as the com­mit­tee voted on an edu­ca­tion-re­form bill that had been months in the mak­ing.

Com­plet­ing a reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the No Child Left Be­hind Act for the first time in sev­en years had been a goal of Chair­man Lamar Al­ex­an­der’s when he took the job at the be­gin­ning of the year. And al­though the Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an had taken painstak­ing meas­ures to make sure it would have broad bi­par­tis­an sup­port, Al­ex­an­der was still heartened to see that the bill’s sup­port­ers ranged from Rand Paul and Tim Scott on the right to Bernie Sanders and Eliza­beth War­ren on the left.

The clerk called out the vote count: Des­pite the odds against it, the bill had passed the com­mit­tee un­an­im­ously 22-0. Emo­tion flashed mo­ment­ar­ily across Al­ex­an­der’s face be­fore he re­sumed busi­ness.

“When you got a com­mit­tee chair­man who gets choked up by de­liv­er­ing a un­an­im­ous vote rather than by tor­tur­ing the oth­er side, that’s a pretty good sign,” said Sen. Shel­don White­house, re­call­ing the com­mit­tee vote in an in­ter­view.

At a time when Con­gress is of­ten char­ac­ter­ized by par­tis­an grid­lock, the bill’s ori­gins stem back to a meet­ing in Feb­ru­ary between Al­ex­an­der and rank­ing mem­ber Patty Mur­ray. Mur­ray sug­ges­ted they work to­geth­er on a draft of the edu­ca­tion bill, and the chair­man de­cided to heed his Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­part’s ad­vice.

The meet­ing not only paved the way for the Every Child Achieves Act to make it un­an­im­ously through com­mit­tee and then pass the Sen­ate in an 81-17 vote, but it also set the tone for the way the com­mit­tee works on nearly everything un­der Al­ex­an­der’s lead­er­ship.

“We’ve learned to work to­geth­er, trust one an­oth­er, un­der­stand that we have some pretty big dif­fer­ences some­times, but we put those to the side and work on what we can agree on,” Al­ex­an­der said in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al in­side his Sen­ate of­fice.

When Al­ex­an­der be­came chair­man, it wasn’t dif­fi­cult to identi­fy what the com­mit­tee should tackle first. The No Child Left Be­hind Act, passed in 2001, had ex­pired in 2007, and none of the three pri­or Con­gresses had been able to come to­geth­er to re­form it. “It’s be­come an un­work­able law,” Al­ex­an­der said, “It’s really an in­tol­er­able situ­ation.”

But this Con­gress’s re­form ef­forts didn’t bode any bet­ter at their on­set. Ini­tially, Al­ex­an­der had sug­ges­ted a bill draft, but Mur­ray and her fel­low Demo­crats were un­happy that he seemed to be mov­ing for­ward without their in­put.

The two then had a private meet­ing, with the out­come be­ing that they would both work on a new draft and then present that one to mem­bers. Look­ing back, Al­ex­an­der sees this as the most im­port­ant part of the en­tire reau­thor­iz­a­tion pro­cess.

“I thought about the fact that we had not suc­ceeded in the last three Con­gresses on fix­ing No Child Left Be­hind, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll take your ad­vice,’” he said. “And it turned out to be good ad­vice.”

The next step is for the House and Sen­ate to go to con­fer­ence, and Al­ex­an­der hopes the bill be­comes law be­fore the end of the year.

The chair­man sees bi­par­tis­an­ship as the key to the com­mit­tee’s le­gis­lat­ive suc­cess, and he hopes to rep­lic­ate the Every Child Achieves Act style with his next two pri­or­it­ies: high­er edu­ca­tion and med­ic­al in­nov­a­tion re­form.

Aside from the ur­gency of ad­dress­ing ele­ment­ary and sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, Al­ex­an­der also chose it as the first of the com­mit­tee’s pri­or­it­ies be­cause of his back­ground. Be­fore com­ing to Capitol Hill, he served as the edu­ca­tion sec­ret­ary un­der President George H.W. Bush, foun­ded a private-work­s­ite day­care com­pany, and was the pres­id­ent of the Uni­versity of Ten­ness­ee. He also served as the gov­ernor of Ten­ness­ee from 1979 to 1987 and then reentered pub­lic of­fice, this time via the Sen­ate, in 2003.

He pre­vi­ously served as the No. 3 Re­pub­lic­an in the caucus as the chair­man of the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence but said lead­ing the HELP com­mit­tee is “the job in the Sen­ate that I’d have the most in­terest in do­ing.”

“No com­mit­tee has a lar­ger jur­is­dic­tion than it does,” he said. “The things we work on af­fect vir­tu­ally every Amer­ic­an.”

But the di­versity of the com­mit­tee’s jur­is­dic­tion presents its chair­man with the task of nav­ig­at­ing a com­bin­a­tion of bit­terly par­tis­an is­sues and those on which agree­ment can be found. Al­ex­an­der’s fo­cus has been largely on the lat­ter.

“He re­cog­nizes noth­ing’s go­ing to pass the Sen­ate without Demo­crat­ic votes, so he’s been mov­ing every pri­or­ity is­sue through the com­mit­tee with Sen­at­or Mur­ray largely in the loop,” Sen. Chris Murphy told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a phone in­ter­view.

“The HELP com­mit­tee has a hand­ful of hy­per-par­tis­an is­sues like health care and then a hand­ful of is­sues that can bring Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans to­geth­er, like high­er edu­ca­tion and FDA re­form,” Murphy ad­ded. “The HELP com­mit­tee has a smor­gas­bord of is­sues that al­lows you to be par­tis­an or bi­par­tis­an … as a chair­man.”

When it comes to health care, while med­ic­al in­nov­a­tion is a safe top­ic to ap­proach, the Af­ford­able Care Act con­tin­ues to be a sub­ject Al­ex­an­der avoids as much as he can to keep the com­mit­tee’s tra­ject­ory bi­par­tis­an.

But a re­con­cili­ation bill re­peal­ing ma­jor pieces of Obama­care is on its way through the House and will likely even­tu­ally cross over to the Sen­ate, po­ten­tially ap­pear­ing in the two com­mit­tees with jur­is­dic­tion over the law: HELP and Fin­ance. The goal for Re­pub­lic­ans will be to send a re­peal bill to the pres­id­ent’s desk with only a simple ma­jor­ity vote in the up­per cham­ber.

Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for pres­id­ent are still run­ning on a health care plat­form of re­peal-and-re­place, and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Al­ex­an­der, are already be­gin­ning to pre­pare for a dif­fer­ent pres­id­ent in 2017.

“We’ll be work­ing over the next year so that in the next Con­gress we’ll be ready to hope­fully re­place pro­vi­sions of the Af­ford­able Care Act with something that gives Amer­ic­ans more choices and lower costs,” Al­ex­an­der said, ac­know­ledging that con­sensus is al­most im­possible when it comes to the health care law des­pite his com­mit­tee’s bi­par­tis­an suc­cesses: “If the Af­ford­able Care Act comes up, you still have the same par­tis­an di­vi­sions.”

But some­how the com­mit­tee man­ages to work around that, choos­ing—some would say con­trary to much of the rest of Con­gress—to work on things that can get done rather than on polit­ic­al-mes­saging tac­tics.

Al­ex­an­der, both by tak­ing the lead on some is­sues and step­ping aside to give oth­er mem­bers room to cham­pi­on oth­ers, keeps his eyes on res­ults.

“It’s hard to get elec­ted to the Sen­ate. It’s hard to stay here, and as long as you’re here, you might as well amount to something,” he said. “And if you’re on our com­mit­tee, you’re go­ing to have a chance to do that if you want to work.”