Alexander Discusses Leaving GOP Leadership Job

Melissa Block interviews Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee about his decision to leave his post as Republican conference chair this coming January. He has said that after four years in the third top spot in the Republican leadership, he's looking forward to having more independence.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The number three Republican in the U.S. Senate has decided to give up his leadership role. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says he's making the move to, quote, "get my independence back." Alexander is 71 and he says he will seek a third term in 2014. Senator Alexander joins me from his office to explain his decision.

Welcome to the program, Senator.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: What does that mean to get your independence back?

ALEXANDER: Well, it simply means that it's - the rarest privilege of being a senator is your autonomy. You're one of a hundred in an organization that operates by unanimous consent. You're free to do whatever you want to do. And when you go to the leadership table you exchange some of your independence for the seat at the leadership table. I'm giving that up to get my independence back.

BLOCK: What would be some issues in particular that you think you would be more constrained in a leadership role in advocating and that you might want to take up on the outside?

ALEXANDER: Well, one might be - although it didn't constrain me very much when I was in the leadership - is the so-called Gang of Six debt solution. I endorsed it soon after the recommendations were made. I'm one of 37 senators, about equally divided among the parties, who said let's go as big as you can in trying to reduce our debt. Another would be I'd like to work with Senators Feinstein and Bingaman, they're Democrats, with Murkowski and I - we're Republicans - to find a place to put nuclear waste so our 104 reactors can keep operating.

Now, that's controversial. It takes a lot of time and I'll have the time to work on it if I'm not spending so much of my time on leadership jobs.

BLOCK: You mentioned the Gang of Six proposal, which did include revenue increases as a way to cut the deficit. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has not expressed any support for new tax revenues. Are you are at odds really with the rest of the Republican leadership? And did that become untenable for you?

ALEXANDER: Well, neither the Republican leader nor the Democratic leader in the Senate liked the Gang of Six very much. I do like it. I'm waiting to see what the supercommittee recommends. But I think the deficit problem is so serious - I mean, we're borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend - that I'm ready to look at a wide range of options in order to solve the problem. I'll wait to see what they are, but I'm not going to rule things out to start with.

BLOCK: A number of Republicans, of course, have flatly said revenue increases are off the table. Do you agree with that?

ALEXANDER: Well, what I'm saying - my own position is the debt is such a big problem that if we're going to get a $4 trillion reduction over the next 10 years, and even more after that, I'm willing to consider a number of steps, including revenue increases, but only if we deal with the entitlement problems.

The budget agreement we came to in August pretty well got 40 percent of the budget under control, the part we call discretionary spending - everything from national defense to national parks. It's only growing at about the rate of inflation over the next 10 years. The other part, including Medicare, Medicaid, which we call mandatory spending, is going up at three times the rate of inflation. If we can get control of that I'm willing to take some extraordinary steps to do it.

BLOCK: When you think about the year ahead, obviously we're in the midst of a presidential election campaign, do you anticipate that the Republican focus on defeating President Obama will be a hurdle that you just can't get over, if you're trying to reach any bipartisan deals on big issues that the country...

ALEXANDER: Well, it's going to make it harder. I mean, presidential election years are hard years to get things done. But we're still at work. We're still getting paid. We still ought to try. And we have some big challenges. For example, I was one of several Republicans who introduced five bills last week to fix No Child Left Behind. That fixed 100,000 public schools in every state in the country. So we don't have a year off. We have a job to do and we should do it.

But you're right. In a presidential year and will be a little harder on the Democratic side and on the Republican side.

BLOCK: And what would you say to your GOP colleagues about that?

ALEXANDER: What I would say is that after the primaries are over - which will be early in next year - that the American people will be looking for a president who can solve some really big challenges for our country. And we'll be given that opportunity to govern if we look like we can govern. And the independent voters of America will make that decision.

So we better be on our best behavior, do everything we can to work with the president when he's willing to work with us, and see what we can do to restrain the debt and build up our national laboratories and build roads and bridges, and govern this country in a way that it deserves to be governed.

BLOCK: Okay. Senator Alexander, thank you very much.

ALEXANDER: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. We were talking about his decision to step down from his number three GOP leadership post as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

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