U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., listens during a May meeting at the Senate Print Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Distinction be damned.
That's U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's attitude toward "third-ranking Senate Republican" and "Republican conference chairman," two titles he's relinquishing this month in a move designed to free him of GOP orthodoxy.
Since 2007, Alexander, 71, has served as one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's top lieutenants, mostly tending to political and media strategy.
Alexander announced his intentions in September. His junior colleague, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said then that giving up the posts would allow Alexander to "express himself more fully," adding that leadership positions tend to be a "little stifling."
In a 30-minute phone interview last week with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Alexander agreed.
"If you're the tight end on the team instead of the quarterback, and you think the play ought to go around left end, and the quarterback calls right end," Alexander said, "you go around right end."
As a rank-and-file senator, Alexander said, he won't feel pressure to publicly endorse the Republican line on every issue. He hopes to spend the rest of his legislative career working with Republicans and Democrats -- yes, "including some Democrats" -- on environmental issues, tax loopholes and debt reduction.
"Too many members of Congress think all we have to do is make speeches," he said. "After we make our speeches, we need to act like grownups, get as close as we can to our principles and then move on to the next issue."
But for a lawmaker long described as a moderate Republican, Alexander didn't show much love for the other side.
In the interview, he readily praised House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP power players, saving his barbs for Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama.
"His weakness is a lack of executive leadership," Alexander, a former Tennessee governor, said of Obama.
"The president's job is to set an agenda and develop a strategy and persuade at least half the people he's right. He's unskilled at that. And he's unskilled at working with Congress."
Asked if Obama has any strengths, Alexander did not cite any legislative achievements, instead mentioning the president's intelligence and temperament.
- 1979-1987: Governor of Tennessee
- 1988-1991: President of the University of Tennessee
- 1991-1993: U.S. secretary of education
- 1996, 2000: Unsuccessfully ran for president
- 2003-present: U.S. senator
"And obviously, he's a good father," he said.
A former U.S. secretary of education and two-time presidential candidate, Alexander said he'll continue to fight boilerplate Democratic proposals, including a surtax on millionaires.
Asked to explain his opposition, he diverted and said, "Only half of Americans pay federal income taxes today. Half don't pay any at all."
"When Republicans say they're willing to close loopholes and use some of that money to reduce debt, most of that burden would fall on wealthy people," said Alexander, whom the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call names the 27th-wealthiest member of Congress.
Brandon Puttbrese, a spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, said when Democrats controlled both houses of the state Legislature, Alexander indeed worked across the aisle as governor.
"To get anything done, he had to," Puttbrese said, adding that he hasn't seen similar bipartisanship since Alexander joined the Senate in 2003.
"Lip service isn't going to get it done," Puttbrese said. "Democrats welcome the rhetoric from Senator Alexander, but we'd like to see where he's interested in working."
friendly to tea party
While Alexander said he wants to work with Democrats, he also favors the tea party movement. Alexander called the tea party "an all-American constructive force on politics."
Alexander lined up with the tea party's message that government is too big in December, when the Senate passed 13 appropriations bills as one omnibus bill. Alexander termed it a "big 1,000-page bill we didn't have time to properly provide oversight for."
"This is the basic work of Congress -- appropriating the money to operate the government for a year," he said. "Offering amendments and casting votes ... is really all there is to do in the Senate. It would be like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing."
He said he'll now have more time to spend in the Appropriations Committee, where he hopes to persuade a majority to individually consider each appropriations bill "to give all members of the Senate a chance to amend them."
Alexander said using his status as the committee's third-ranking Republican is the most efficient way for him to "cut out waste and do a better job of spending taxpayer money."
Alexander is up for re-election in 2014. Stepping down from leadership shouldn't be taken as a soft step toward retirement, Alexander said, adding that a "bushel load" of policy issues awaits his influence: nuclear waste storage, No Child Left Behind and clean air. He's even thinking up his own plan to reduce federal debt by $4 trillion, he said.
Standing on the Senate floor, McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who's been Alexander's friend for four decades, said, "I am relieved he is not leaving the Senate."
"I am confident we all agree this is not a eulogy in which we are about to engage," he said.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at email@example.com or 423-757-6610.