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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."

Other sources close to Alexander say he simply grew tired of leadership — not only its hold on his time but also the requirement that he consider the position of the Conference and the leadership team in every legislative vote he cast and in every policy proposal he supported. Although Alexander is far from moderate, he occasionally bucks his party and is inclined toward compromise — two proclivities that don't mesh well with any Congressional leadership structure. That is particularly true for the Whip position, which is essentially the post of the party enforcer.

Leaving leadership in January, rather than serving the remainder of this Congress, will allow Alexander to more quickly involve himself in legislation and participate in bipartisan efforts to tackle the problems before Congress. Alexander said Tuesday that he will run for re-election in 2014, and sources say he might not have chosen to do so had he remained in leadership through the end of his current term, his second in the Senate.

One Republican Senate aide said Alexander might fill the role of senior statesman for the Republicans and the chamber in general, much as the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a former Majority Leader, did.

"You can easily find yourself in this place adhering to group think, and typically group think is not what solves many of the major issues," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. "I relish my independence, and I think he is going to relish his."

Still, Alexander's leadership position allowed him to build strong relationships across the party's ideological spectrum. Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), a staunch conservative, said of Alexander: "I'm sorry to see him go. I thought he was an extremely good communicator for us."

Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), a moderate on many issues, described him as "one of the most thoughtful, honest, hardworking, nicest men I know up here."

Alexander's decision, a surprise to most on Capitol Hill, set off a domino of leadership race decisions in a Republican Conference that hopes to retake the Senate majority in 2012.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) immediately announced that he would run for Alexander's Conference chairman position in January. But Thune left open the possibility of challenging Cornyn for the Whip position in November of next year. Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) revealed that he would run for Thune's Policy Committee slot in January. Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.) dropped his bid for Conference chairman, although he did not rule out running for a leadership position.

Cornyn said Alexander's move does not affect his Whip bid and that his main focus is on his job at the NRSC. Still, he would have to be considered the overwhelming favorite at this point, even though challengers such as Thune and others might emerge.

"I don't take anything for granted," Cornyn said. "Right now the more important thing to do is get the country back on track. One hundred percent of my efforts are directed toward electing a Republican majority in 2012."

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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