Sen. Alexander touts bipartisanship in Sevierville visit

Apr. 19, 2014 @ 08:15 AM

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Thursday that even if Republicans retake the Senate this year, it “is going to be very divided. It’ll take a bipartisan coalition to pass anything.”

Last year, Tennessee tea party and conservative groups criticized Alexander in an open letter, telling him that the country “can no longer afford bipartisanship and compromise.”

“I learned to count in the Maryville city schools,” the Tennessee Republican said. “We have 45 Republicans, and it takes 60 senators to pass anything that’s important. So you have to work with people on the other side to get a result. And I think that’s what’s expected of me. I’m conservative, but I think my job is to solve problems and get results.”

Alexander, who is running for reelection, spoke during a visit to The Mountain Press. His challengers in the August primary include state Rep. Joe Carr (R-Lascassas) and Memphis physician George Flinn.

The senator distanced himself from the confrontational tactics of some in his party.

“I’m not in the shut-the-government-down crowd,” he said, referring to the partisan dispute that shuttered the federal government for more than two weeks last October.

“We saw what shutting down the government did for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Sevier County and Blount County, and the businesses that are on the road to the park,” he said. “I think people won’t trust us with the government if we shut it down.”

Republicans have “pretty good” chances of winning the Senate, Alexander said. “We have very good candidates running, men and women in states that we normally have a difficult time winning.”

If Republicans retake the chamber, Alexander is in line to be chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as well as chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

“I’ll have two good opportunities,” he said. “What I want to do is elect six more Republican senators and govern, which means: start dealing with Obamacare, fixing the debt, deregulating our businesses.”

Alexander, 73, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002. Starting in 1979, the Maryville native served two terms as Tennessee governor, and he was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. After serving as President George H.W. Bush’s education secretary, he mounted unsuccessful presidential bids in 1996 and 2000.

The senator emphasized education in his remarks Thursday, as when he praised Gov. Bill Haslam’s recently enacted policy to make community college free to Tennessee students.

Alexander also touted his proposed legislation that would distribute $2,100 federal scholarships to low-income students. The scholarships would pay for education at private or public schools of parents’ choosing.

At one moment, Alexander dramatically held up the many pages of the federal government’s student-aid form. They cascaded to the floor.

“I brought this so you could see how ridiculous it is,” he said. “I was reading it the other day. You’d have to be a Ph.D. to figure it out.”

In the name of deregulation, Alexander proposed reducing the number of questions on the form from 100 to two.

“If we did that, you’d save three or four hours for every family that has to fill this out, and you’d probably encourage a lot more people to go to college,” he said.

Alexander likewise invoked deregulation when asked how best to keep the American economy on track.

“The single best thing we could do is lift the big, wet blanket of Obama regulations off the free enterprise system,” he said. Alexander made other tart comments about President Obama, including this one about the president’s foreign policy: “President Obama is making Jimmy Carter look like a resolute president.”

The senator also outlined what he called “the damage” of the president’s health-care reform: “Canceled policies, higher costs, higher-priced premiums, higher deductibles, fewer choices.”

On the topic of immigration, Alexander alluded to the reform bill the Senate passed in 2013. He, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and 11 other Republican senators voted for it; the Republican-led House of Representatives has not taken up the measure.

“What I did, and what Sen. Corker did,” Alexander said, “was vote for a Senate bill that, number one, strengthened the borders; number two, created a legal way for talented people to come into the country and create jobs.”

The bill also would penalize immigrants who enter the country illegally, Alexander added.

“Now, there may be a better way to do it, but if there is, the House of Representatives needs to pass it,” Alexander said.

Alexander suggested that immigration reform is in the Republican party’s political interest.

“Our country’s changing,” he said. “Tennessee’s changing in its demographics. So the Republican party needs to have an open door for new Americans, for people who come to this country from Mexico or China, or wherever they come from.”

Republicans, Alexander said, “certainly don’t want to look like we don’t welcome new people to our party.”

kburns@themountainpress.com