Sen. Lamar Alexander Gives Up Leadership Spot

The Senate leadership experienced a minor shakeup this week when Lamar Alexander announced he was giving up his No. 3 spot. He said he could accomplish more outside leadership than from within.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Now with divisions in Congress deepening, there was one development this week that caught some observers by surprise. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the number three Republican in the Senate, announced he's stepping down from that leadership post.

NPR's David Welna reports, that says as much about the state Senate as it does about the Tennessee lawmaker.

DAVID WELNA: As head of the Senate Republican Conference the last few years, Lamar Alexander was in charge of shaping his party's political message. But while on a fishing trip in Ontario last month, Alexander began drafting a very personal message, which earlier this week he delivered on the Senate floor. The 71-year-old senator said he would be seeking a third term, three years from now, but would also be quitting his leadership post.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Stepping down from the Republican leadership will liberate me to spend more time trying to work for results on issues that I care the most about.

WELNA: Tennessee's other Republican senator, Bob Corker, hailed Alexander's decision and called it a great day for Tennessee.

BOB CORKER: I thank you for having the courage to step down from a position that many Republican senators would love to have.

WELNA: Alexander had already parted ways with fellow GOP leaders on many occasions, voting to put Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, backing the NewStart Arms Treaty, and sponsoring legislation to limit power plant emissions.

Congressional expert Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, says Alexander's penchant for bipartisan deal-making seems out of step with his more partisan colleagues.

THOMAS MANN: He is a member of a team whose primary goal...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MANN: ...is to defeat President Obama. That means all-out opposition. That means banal, sordid talking points that get repeated again and again and again. What could be satisfying about the job for - for someone like Lamar Alexander?

WELNA: It used to be the case that leadership teams in Congress represented various aspects of their parties, says Vanderbilt University political scientist, Bruce Oppenheimer.

BRUCE OPPENHEIMER: But now the parties are so cohesive and so much more polarized, that the need to include somebody like Alexander in the leadership, is not seen as a political necessity on the Republican side.

WELNA: Which is why, Oppenheimer says, Alexander stands little chance of moving into the Senate Republicans' number two spot when it's up for grabs a year from now. Alexander, for his part, dismisses suggestions he might simply be making virtue out of necessity by stepping down as a leader. His primary motive, he says, is to be more effective.

ALEXANDER: I think this Senate and our country needs more senators whose primary goal is to work for results on the issues they care about, and to be willing to do it with senators of the other party. I mean, if I could get 100 percent Republican solution, I would. But it takes 60 votes in the Senate and you can't get that with only Republicans or only Democrats.

WELNA: One of those Democrats is Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. She's says she's delighted to see Alexander cutting himself loose from the confines of being a GOP leader, and she hopes he'll join her own efforts to encourage more attempts at compromise.

MARY LANDRIEU: It seems to be just a lost art up here. And we've got big problems to figure out, how to close this deficit, what revenues to raise, what programs to cut. I mean, Democrats are going to have to give up some things, Republicans are going to have to give up some things. And there're just a dwindling number of us who are sort of willing to even start those discussions.

WELNA: There is also a dwindling number of the kind of senators regarded as statesmen, with the deaths in recent years of Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd. Alexander seems eager to make his own name as an above-the-fray dealmaker

ALEXANDER: I noticed that two of the three Senate Office Buildings are named for very well-respected senators, Senator Hart, Senator Russell - who were never elected to leadership by their parties.

WELNA: Alexander says he's decided the best job in the Senate is simply being a senator.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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