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

HELP Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderChet 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.

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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.”