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Months after his startling loss in the race to be the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader and enforcer of party discipline, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) has morphed into one of Congress’ most ardent advocates for compromise.
Even Alexander concedes the role he’s looking to carve out these days as one of the Senate’s leading deal and relationship brokers could have been problematic — if not impossible — had he successfully staved off a challenge in the Minority Whip race from Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
“If I had been elected Whip, I would have hoped to work better across party lines,” Alexander said in an interview this week. “But by not being Whip, it has sort of freed me to do that even more.”
One of Alexander’s biggest campaign pitches in his race against Lott was his premium on loyalty and a vow to serve the Republican team now led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Many of his allies contended then that Alexander was a better fit for the job than Lott, who as a former GOP Leader known for his outspokenness and independent streak would not work hand in glove with McConnell.
But the Republican Conference thought otherwise, and Lott secured the job in a stunning come-from-behind one-vote defeat of Alexander.
Eight months later, Alexander says he isn’t licking his wounds over the outcome, but rather has decided to immerse himself in a series of bipartisan initiatives he hopes ultimately may serve as catalysts for compromise in a 51-49 Democratically controlled Senate.
“There are a lot of forces to divide us,” Alexander said. “And there are very few like the bipartisan breakfasts that create an opportunity [for agreement]. I think we need more of that.”
Yet, Alexander quickly conceded, “It’s harder than it ought to be.”
Alexander is an architect of weekly Senate breakfasts, which he launched at the start of the Congress with Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) to encourage greater across-the-aisle dealings and less partisan acrimony. The Tuesday sessions have had better weeks than others, but overall, Alexander insists they are worthwhile, noting that in the past two weeks as many as 40 Senators have shown up to discuss the Senate’s ongoing debate on Iraq.
Breakfasts aside, Alexander also has been at the center of the floor fight on Iraq as part of a bipartisan group of about a dozen Senators who are pushing a deal on the thorny, highly charged issue. Alexander, along with Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), drafted a proposal to urge President Bush to adopt key components of December’s bipartisan Iraq Study Group report that sets goals for a troop withdrawal from the region.
“He really has carved out a niche where he’s demonstrated a willingness and ability to reach across party lines,” Salazar observed.
Salazar and Alexander’s measure, which was to be an amendment to the Defense authorization bill and one they suspect has private support of more than 60 Senators, may not even see the light of day, given the partisan lines now drawn in the chamber on the topic. The plan’s fate was all but sealed Wednesday morning when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — unable to get enough votes to block a GOP filibuster — pulled the Defense bill from the floor.