Senator's one small step toward bridging Congress's massive divide: trust

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander looked like he was going to 'play hardball' with Democrats and force them to accept his new education bill. Then, he didn't.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, sitting next to Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, start a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington last month looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee has done something unexpected and, by the measure of Washington politics, somewhat remarkable.

He has agreed to take a breath, legislatively speaking.

As recently as last week, Senator Alexander was moving with all good speed toward amending and reauthorizing America's primary statement of federal education policy, No Child Left Behind. The law, everyone agrees, is broken, some of its mandated tests are redundant or low quality, and its reauthorization is long overdue, considering the law expired eight years ago. 

But that's about where the unanimity ends. Like many Democrats, for example, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington thinks Republican fixes for NCLB could ruin the whole law, which was designed to overcome the resigned pessimism that long defined the education of disadvantaged students. 

In the recent past, those Democratic concerns would hardly have been a speed bump for the Republican majority. The hyperpartisan tide on Capitol Hill means that power has been equated with total control of the process of legislating. Rules have been changed, amendments to bills have been shut down, and legislation has routinely been pushed though with complete disregard for what the minority thinks.

The result has been a Senate that gets nothing done – a series of bills that the majority loves and the minority hates, therefore lacking the bipartisan support needed to cross the 60-vote threshold to bypass a filibuster.

On his NCLB bill, Alexander appeared to be heading down this familiar road. When he released his own version of the bill last month, the press jumped. Alexander was going to “play hardball” with Democrats and jam his bill down their throats, reports suggested.

Then, he didn't.

Senator Murray, who is the top Democrat on the education committee that Alexander chairs, proposed working out a bipartisan draft, together. And Alexander agreed.

The decision is not necessarily cause for a ticker tape parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. But at a time when congressional comity has been in full reverse, one small step points toward a much more giant leap for Congress-kind: establishing trust.

In its report “Governing in a Polarized America,” the Commission on Political Reform in 2014 urged committee chairs to consult with all committee members, but to pay special attention to minority members, including efforts to “incorporate their suggested changes.”

“It’s an important first step,” says Don Wolfensberger, a congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, which sponsored the commission. “There’s a need to take the baby steps first in order to build relationships and build trust.”

For Alexander, the decision is less about lofty ideals of bipartisanship than one cold, hard fact: If he can't get some Democratic support, his bill isn't going anywhere.

“I learned to count in the Maryville city schools, and 54 Republicans [in the Senate] doesn’t add up to 60, and you need 60 to get a result,” he says in a Monitor interview. “If you don’t get a consensus, you don’t get a result.”

Even this simple idea makes Alexander something of a throwback on today's Capitol Hill. The current hyperpartisan atmosphere on the Hill has ushered in an all-or-nothing era. Whereas legislators of the past focused on what they could pass, a new generation of legislators typified by Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas focuses on what they want, irrespective of its prospects for passage.

Those dynamics are still in play on Capitol Hill and will influence the talks Alexander and Murray are holding.

"In the end, there's going to be a great pressure on [Alexander] by GOP colleagues to come up with conservative legislation, and pressure from Democrats on the floor not to make concessions prematurely when the president has leverage by veto power," says Steven Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “The Senate Syndrome: The evolution of procedural warfare in the modern U.S. Senate.”

Still, given the skill and track record of the two negotiators, it’s an experiment that bears watching, Professor Smith says.

“Alexander feels that people working together can find common interests they didn't realize before the process began."

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