Senate GOP leader: I have no secret pact with Democrats on education reform

A Senate Republican leader is pushing back against claims that he and Sen. Tom Harkin have a secret plan to pass the Iowa Democrat’s education reform bill. 

During an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program last month, Harkin said he and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) had ironed out a bipartisan strategy to pass a retooled No Child Left Behind bill through the upper chamber.

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In October, Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said he and Alexander, who sits on the committee, had come up with a surefire plan to pass the legislation on the Senate floor.

At the time, Harkin said, “Sen. Alexander came up with, I thought, a very good idea on how we would handle this on the floor,” calling the plan “quite ingenious” but declining to elaborate.

Alexander, a former Education secretary, told The Hill that he is unaware of such a scheme.

“The only discussions that several of us had … was that this would seem to be a piece of legislation that has bipartisan support — still a lot of work to be done on it,” Alexander said Tuesday. “It’s the kind of bill that perhaps we could persuade Senate Republicans to agree that we would only allow relevant amendments if [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [(D-Nev.)] would agree that all of those amendments could be debated and voted on and considered.”

Alexander said that situation was “the only thing we’ve talked about.”

The reform legislation passed the HELP Committee 15-7 in October, attracting bipartisan support. Alexander voted to approve the education overhaul bill. 

Harkin wants the legislation on the floor by either Thanksgiving or Christmas.

In response to Alexander’s comments, HELP Committee spokeswoman Justine Sessions said Harkin’s comments were in reference to early discussions. 

“Chairman Harkin was referencing some very preliminary conversations about how to move forward with the bipartisan bill to fix NCLB recently approved by the HELP Committee,” Sessions said in a news release.

Alexander earlier this year announced he is leaving his leadership post at the end of this year, suggesting the move could free him up to work to pass bipartisan bills. 

Meanwhile, Harkin’s measure has sparked opposition from liberal and conservative senators, as well as some stakeholder groups. Liberals wanted the bill to include performance targets, while conservatives such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) cried foul over how the legislation moved through committee.

Moving the bill through the Senate could put the House GOP majority in a politically tough spot. Should the measure clear the upper chamber, both the White House and Senate Democrats could call on the House to move the bill.

House Republicans have adopted a piecemeal approach to revising No Child Left Behind. It remains unlikely that a comprehensive education reform bill will be signed into law in the 112th Congress.

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