Longtime GOP lawmaker urges Senate to restore itself in farewell speech
Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a longtime GOP senator, urged the Senate to re-embrace bipartisanship during his farewell floor speech Wednesday.
“Our country needs a United States Senate to work across party lines to force broad agreements on hard issues, creating laws that most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept,” said Alexander, who has served in the Senate since 2003.
Alexander, a known dealmaker and ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), acknowledged that the Senate had failed in recent years to tackle big issues or pass much legislation at all, comparing it to “joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing. It’s a real waste of talent.”
But Alexander argued that divided government, in particular, should create an environment prime for cutting deals. While Democrats will control the House and White House next year, the Senate is still up for grabs. Two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 will determine which party controls the chamber next year.
“When the presidency and at least one body of Congress was of different political parties, that offers an opportunity to share the responsibility or the blame for doing hard things,” he said.
Alexander, one of the chamber’s few remaining institutionalists, also warned against nixing the legislative filibuster, an idea backed by progressive activists and a growing number of Democratic lawmakers.
The Founding Fathers “created this cooling saucer for those passions that Washington talked about and the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, is the permanent tool we use to force broad agreements on tough issues that most of will vote for and that the country can live with,” he said.
He added that the “Senate doesn’t need a change of rules, it needs a change of behavior. And the behavior to change first is to stop blocking each other’s amendments.”
Alexander, 80, is widely respected on both sides of the aisle. About half the chamber was in attendance for his farewell speech, with senators sitting at their desks listening to him and members from both parties lauding him in their own remarks.
Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) visibly teared up during his emotional farewell speech toasting Alexander.
“You’re leaving this body and those of us in it, and the nation it exists to serve, stronger and better because you were here,” McConnell said.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) added that Alexander “will leave this chamber with a legacy that every senator would be proud of.”
Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, tipped his hand to several deals that he’s been involved with during his time in the Senate, including working with McConnell and then-Vice President Joe Biden on the 21st Century Cures Act.
Alexander, who decided not to seek reelection, recounted that he told Biden at the time that he was having difficulty getting the White House to move on the bill and felt like a butler.
“And Joe Biden said, ‘If you feel like the butler, try being vice president,’ ” Alexander added.