When the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee met last week, the proceedings got a little, well, tense.
“I am not going to change the rules of the game,” HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said 30 minutes into the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos to be the next Education secretary.
“I was not aware those were rules,” the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, quickly retorted, expressing hope that members could have more rounds of questions for DeVos.
A partisan fight over timing and rounds of questions for President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees had spilled into the hearing. But the terse exchange between the two leaders of the HELP Committee stood out among some of the other disagreements.
That’s because Alexander and Murray usually get along.
In recent years they had forged a bipartisan relationship, guiding some of the Senate’s major pieces of legislation over the finish line.
But the confirmation fights raise questions about whether that productive relationship will continue as the committee considers a major health care overhaul and potential legislation relating to higher education.
For their parts, Murray and Alexander both say they’re working to maintain the committee’s reputation as a bipartisan and productive team.
“I’m doing my best to continue the bipartisan tradition our committee established by passing, arguably, the two most important pieces of legislation in the last Congress — the 21st Century Cures Act and a bill fixing No Child Left Behind,” Alexander said in a statement.
Alexander noted that DeVos and Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price, the nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, spent more time before the committee than past nominees, and DeVos is answering follow-up questions.
Murray said she was surprised about Alexander’s position on limiting hearing questions, particularly for DeVos. But she said the conflict would not affect their relationship in the long term.
“We have an open relationship,” Murray explained. “I tell him straight out, I don’t think this is fair, I think this is fair, and vice versa. And that’s how you are able to get past any short-term issues.”
Murray and Alexander first worked closely together on reauthorizing sweeping education legislation, known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The bill was lauded as an example of how Congress could actually function at a time when the body was rankled by partisan divides.
“We were careful not to surprise each other,” Alexander told The Washington Post in July 2015. “You don’t succeed if you spend your time or your staff’s time trying to make each other look bad.”
Before working together on the education overhaul, Murray and Alexander had both garnered reputations as Senate workhorses.
Murray forged a budget deal with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, when the two chaired their chamber’s respective Budget committees. Alexander left the GOP leadership in 2011 to focus on policy. He wrote in a letter to his colleagues, “Stepping down from leadership will liberate me to spend more time working for results on the issues I care most about.”
The example set by Murray and Alexander helped prompt cooperation in a committee with an expansive political spectrum. Members include liberal icons like Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, moderates like Maine Republican Susan Collins, conservatives like Kansas Republican Pat Roberts and libertarians like Kentucky Republican Rand Paul.
Alexander wasn’t exaggerating when he boasted about the education law and the 21st Century Cures Act relating to medical innovation. They were arguably the most significant legislation passed in the 114th Congress.
However, the start of the 115th Congress has seen a round of partisans taking to their corners fighting in the committee.
The fight over the DeVos hearing continued Monday. Murray and the committee’s Democrats wrote a letter to Alexander asking for another hearing for DeVos so they could get answers to questions relating to her finances and potential conflicts of interest.
A committee aide said there would not be a second hearing for DeVos. The aide noted each committee member has met with DeVos, and the nominee is in the process of answering 837 written questions from the committee’s Democrats.
Despite recent conflicts, committee member Bill Cassidy said lawmakers would be able to eventually move forward in the panel’s usual bipartisan fashion.
“My wife and I have an argument and the next day we love each other, right?” the Louisiana Republican said. “Even when we’re having the argument, we’re loving each other, right?”
“So it isn’t about our personalities; it isn’t about our conflict,” Cassidy said. “It is about the American people and getting this right”
Troubled waters ahead?
Another member wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t think this is good news for the ability of this committee to work going forward,” Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut said the day after the DeVos hearing. “What happened last night was a real tragedy.”
“I want to work with the majority to make good policy but it seems like their priority this week has been protecting the administration, not on getting answers for the members of the committee,” he added.
Murphy also noted that a big fight looms over the committee in the form of Republicans’ plans to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.
“I don’t know why we would go on as business as usual while the HELP Committee is involved in dismantling insurance for 400,000 of my constituents,” Murphy said.
Asked if there could be bipartisan agreement on some issues relating to the health care law in the HELP Committee, Murray said Republicans took a “wrong step” by beginning the process of budget reconciliation to repeal portions of the law. Using that expedited procedure requires only majority support to pass, an end run around the Senate’s filibuster rules, which usually require some give and take by both sides of the aisle to get a deal.
“This is compromised by the fact that the very first thing the Republicans did out of the box was to bring a procedure they’d never used before, a budget bill, to allow them 50 votes to take away something all of us had worked very, very hard on,” Murray said. “They didn’t even have a president sworn in office yet. I think that probably didn’t help the beginning of the year.”
As if to buffet her case, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Monday that it didn’t bother him at all that there would be party-line votes on gutting the health care law, a poke at his Democratic colleagues who are fuming over the dismantling.
“Obamacare came into this world on a party-line vote and a flurry of executive actions, and it can leave the same way,” the Kentucky Republican said.