Free agency agrees with Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Two weeks removed from leadership, the Tennessee Republican has shifted 180 degrees from politics to policy — attempting to parlay his newfound freedom and influence as a respected, tenured Member into legislative action and a more bipartisan Senate.
Alexander’s liberation from the shackles of Conference chairman, the No. 3 GOP leadership post responsible for messaging strategy, dawned on him during a recent flight from Nashville to Washington, D.C. Rather than catching up on the latest news on national politics and the presidential race to determine how to position Senate Republicans for the coming week, Alexander realized that he had time to write a floor speech on recess appointments — a policy of keen interest to him.
“Leadership in the Senate is really —ironically — very confining. You are really very limited by what the consensus is in your caucus. I think there’s a reason why two of the three Senate office buildings here are named after people who were never in the elected leadership — Sen. [Philip] Hart and Sen. [Richard] Russell,” Alexander said this week during a wide-ranging interview in his office.
Since Alexander first announced in September that he would abandon his bid for Whip against National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and step down from leadership altogether, his phone has been ringing off the hook with Democrats looking to partner with him. Long viewed as the most independent-minded Republican in leadership, Alexander can now take their calls and negotiate without looking over his shoulder.
And he has.
Alexander is working with the bipartisan “gang of six” negotiators on a deficit reduction package; he is pursuing consensus legislation with Democrats and Republicans on where to store nuclear waste and on an update of the No Child Left Behind Act. His penchant for breaking ranks while in leadership was considered a potential liability in any race for Whip, and his ability to cut deals was sharply limited.
Democrats now see a bipartisan ally in “rank-and-file” Alexander, as he refers to himself. His leadership stint may also give him the credibility to bring other Republicans along for bipartisan deals. Asked whether that’s what some Democrats are hoping for, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) smiled and said: “Amen.” The two co-host a regular dinner designed to allow members of both parties to mingle and build relationships.
“He’s got great judgment,” Warner said. “Sometimes we talk through these issues; I have the impatience of being a new guy. He’s got the judgment of having been here longer. I think he’s well-trusted by people across the spectrum, and everybody talks about in politics finding people you can disagree with without being disagreeable: He’s classic that way.”
But GOP operatives who have followed Alexander’s career said it appears as though some Democrats might be confusing the Senator’s decision to free himself from leadership with the notion that he also has freed himself from his governing record as a loyal and mainstream conservative. In 2010, Alexander voted with his party 87 percent of the time and received an 80 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
“I haven’t changed my stripes at all,” Alexander said flatly during his interview with Roll Call. “But I know what it is to get results, and that’s what I’m interested in doing.”
He said he would not attend GOP leadership meetings as a part of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) extended kitchen cabinet of advisers.
But Republican operatives expect that Alexander may be helpful to McConnell on the outside, at times using his independent voice to communicate leadership’s position on an issue. In fact, GOP sources noted, that’s what Tennessee’s senior Senator did last week when he delivered that Senate floor speech about recess appointments that he had worked on during the plane ride from Nashville.
Alexander and McConnell have been friends for 40 years — since both were GOP Senate staffers — and the Minority Leader has often sought Alexander’s advice. One former Senate Republican leadership aide said Alexander could fill the role previously occupied by Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who left the chamber last year. Alexander did not dispute expectations that he might prove valuable to McConnell going forward, emphasizing that “most of the time, Sen. McConnell and I are going to have the same view on things.”
“He can be used as proxy to make phone calls for McConnell or to communicate a message in the press that’s helpful. He could be the new Bennett,” the former Senate GOP leadership aide said.
As Alexander attempts to leverage his deep relationships on both sides of the aisle to return a bit of comity to the Senate, he has not lost sight of politics completely.
Alexander said Democrats are making a mistake in their decision not to bring a formal budget resolution to the floor. He added that if Republicans capture the majority in November, he believes his Conference should provide vigorous oversight of government spending, which he said the GOP failed to do the last time it ran the chamber.
“To not have a budget when the country’s going broke? I think that’s really pretty dumb politics,” he said, joking: “I don’t want to give them too much political advice now that I’m out of political messaging.”