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Alexander Takes a Step Back

Senator Says He Feels ‘Liberated,’ Wants to Chart His Own Policy Course

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
After Sen. Lamar Alexander (right) announced his 2012 plans, Policy Committee Chairman John Thune declared his intention to seek the Tennessean’s leadership position.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander ultimately decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

In announcing Tuesday that he would drop his Whip bid and step down from leadership in January, the veteran Tennessee politician avoided a difficult November 2012 leadership race that was not guaranteed to go his way. But Alexander's decision also resulted from frustration with some of the Senate Republican Conference's newer Members and a desire to follow legislation wherever his pragmatic heart desired.

"After thinking about it, I decided that the best job in the Senate is being a Senator," Alexander told reporters. "I feel liberated."

In his statement announcing the move, Alexander said he believes he can "make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues" from outside his party's leadership.

Even so, Alexander and Republican operatives familiar with his decision insist there were no hidden motives behind his decision. The Tennessean, 71, has no health problems, maintains a strong friendship and rapport with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and the rest of the GOP leadership team, and is onboard with the political message that he is charged with developing and communicating to the public as Conference chairman.

But this year, in the months following the February launch of Alexander's Whip campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Senate's No. 3 Republican began to reconsider. It was during an August fishing trip in Canada that Alexander wrote Tuesday's floor speech in which he announced his plans. His final decision was made at least as early as last week, when he informed McConnell.

Republicans who follow the Senate say multiple factors contributed to Alexander's decision. One former GOP Senate aide said Alexander's uphill campaign for Whip against National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) was key. Alexander lost a close Whip race in 2006 against then-Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), and he would have remained in leadership had his victory in the November 2012 Whip contest been assured. Alexander could have his eye on the top Republican spot on the Appropriations Committee instead, the former aide said.

But the Tennessean also had grown weary of dealing with some of the freshmen elected last year.

A knowledgeable Republican lobbyist confirmed that Alexander was frustrated with some of the new tea-party-inspired Members — especially with their impatience, disdain for deal-making and low regard for Senate tradition and protocol. Even less appealing was trying to wrangle that crowd as the Whip. "He's a practical guy," this lobbyist said. "He knows the Conference is headed in a more conservative direction, and he wanted to be more active brokering deals."

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