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.”
Caitlin Owens is a health care reporter at National Journal. Her work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.