Ally to become thorn in McConnell's side

When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) resigns his leadership post in January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will lose his right-hand man and gain a thorn in his side. 

Alexander has been one of McConnell’s trusted deputies for the past four years, serving as Senate Republican Conference chairman.

But the two-term senator said he’s leaving the leadership post to give himself greater freedom to work with Democrats.

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And while he acknowledges his plans to reach across the aisle will be irritating in the short term, Alexander argues they will help McConnell become a successful Senate leader by fixing what many lawmakers say is a broken chamber.

“I hope the end result is that it’s easier for Sen. McConnell to be an effective Republican leader and, after 2012, an effective majority leader,” he said.

Alexander has already begun reaching out to the other side, hosting two bipartisan dinners with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) at The Alibi Club, a private club a few blocks from the White House, in the past month.

He also worked with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Rules Committee, to open the so-called inner sanctum, across from the Senate members’ dining room, as a bipartisan hangout.

One Republican senator said Alexander is leaving because he could not fully embrace the initiatives agreed to by the rest of the leadership.

But the senator says he’s doing so to work with Democrats to get things done and that his aim is to help McConnell become the leader of a Senate where debates, votes and legislative accomplishments are the norm. 

These days the chamber sits empty for most of the week as the clerk slowly reads quorum calls.

A Republican source close to Alexander said his plans to work more closely with Democrats will prove helpful after Republicans capture control of the Senate.

“It’s helpful to the Senate achieving results, which will be helpful to McConnell when he becomes majority leader,” said the source. “If you’re Mitch McConnell and you’re majority leader, you’re not going to be judged on how you stick to the party line but how much your Senate gets done. Lamar can be more helpful in that way.”

His departure to the rank and file also raises the question of who will fill his role as McConnell’s pragmatic confidant in leadership meetings — a role previously served by centrist Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), both of whom are no longer members of the upper chamber. 

Alexander is one of McConnell’s closest allies, having known him for more than 40 years. 

Then-Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) urged Alexander to become friends with McConnell when Alexander was a staffer in the Nixon administration and McConnell was an aide to former Sen. Marlow Cook (R-Ky.) in the late 1960s. 

Many Republican senators view Alexander as a proxy for McConnell when he speaks at Republican Conference meetings. This has made it difficult for Alexander to pursue his personal agenda.

“When I stand up and speak in the caucus, people expect I’m reflecting the leader’s views — that’s part of the job,” Alexander said.

He said this has made it difficult to champion initiatives not formally supported by the leadership, such as the Gang of Six.

“If the majority leader and Republican leader aren’t supporting the Gang of Six, it makes it tough for me to support the Gang of Six,” Alexander said, citing the distain with which leaders from both parties view the ad hoc bipartisan group.

An ally to McConnell said the talk that Alexander leaving the leadership will deprive the leader of an indispensable ally is overblown. The ally noted that insiders speculated in the past that the retirements of Gregg, Bennett and former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) would leave gaping voids in McConnell’s leadership team but that the trains nevertheless kept running on time.

One possibility is that Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who officially announced his candidacy for Senate Republican Conference vice chairman on Tuesday, could fill the role of pragmatic policy expert in leadership meetings.

Blunt, like Alexander, has extensive party leadership experience and is recognized for his policy expertise. He served six years as House Republican whip and temporarily as House majority leader.

A GOP aide said Blunt would be more helpful as a potential liaison to the House, which would be especially useful if Republicans control both chambers in 2013.

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Republican senators will vote Tuesday on whether Blunt or Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a favorite among Tea Party conservatives, will become Senate GOP Conference vice chairman. 

Alexander has strayed more and more from the leadership orthodoxy in recent months. He praised the framework of the Gang of Six deficit plan, which would raise approximately $1.2 trillion in new tax revenue over the next decade.

Last month he told reporters that Republicans on the deficit-reduction supercommittee needed to give more ground on taxes, even after Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) unveiled a proposal to raise $300 billion in new net tax revenue.

Alexander has teamed up with Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) to push legislation enforcing the payment of local sales taxes by online retailers.

Earlier this year, he joined forces with Schumer to pass legislation to streamline the Senate confirmation process by allowing more nominees to take jobs in the executive branch without formal Senate votes. 

And he raised eyebrows in November by voting with Democrats against a motion sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to disapprove Environmental Protection Agency air pollution regulations. He complained at the time about dirty air blowing into Tennessee from Kentucky.

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