Lamar Alexander, the No. 3 Senate Republican leader, will step down from his leadership job in January, saying he can do more to help set budget priorities and curb government regulations as an “independent senior senator.”
Alexander, 71, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference for four years, said he will remain in the Senate and run for re-election in 2014. The decision by Alexander, a former Tennessee governor who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000, will shake up the Senate’s Republican leadership ranks. The chamber’s No. 2 Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, isn’t seeking re-election in 2012 and Alexander had been seen as his likely successor in the Congress convening in 2013.
The Republican leader in line behind Kyl and Alexander is John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
Thune, 50, said in an interview that Alexander’s decision came as a surprise. In a statement he issued later, he said he planned to seek the conference leadership job.
“The chairman of the Senate Republican Conference sits in a unique position to support Senate Republicans as we help shape the national conversation and put this country on a new path toward prosperity,” Thune said in the statement.
In a floor speech today, Alexander said he wants to confront “the timidity that allows runaway health-care spending to squeeze out research, scholarships, highways and other government functions that make it easier and cheaper to create jobs.”
He said he wants to “do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues.”
Speaking later to reporters, Alexander rejected the idea that his decision shows that it’s becoming too difficult for the leaders to reach bipartisan accord on contentious issues. He did express frustration with the Senate’s slow pace and gridlock over issues.
“The problem with the Senate is that we make our speeches and then we go home,” he said. “We’re supposed to make our speeches and then come to a conclusion. I could help do that in the leadership, I think I can do more about that in the position as an independent senior senator.”
Republicans now have 47 of the Senate’s 100 seats and are working to take control of the chamber in the 2012 elections.
Alexander has been pivotal in helping to shape communications strategy for the Republican leadership team led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He also has helped negotiate across the aisle, working with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York earlier this year on a compromise over conflicts about the frequent use of the filibuster, a delaying tactic Republicans have frequently used to block President Barack Obama’s initiatives and nominees.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, today praised Alexander on the Senate floor as a “unique person in this body.”
“I have found Lamar Alexander to be one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever served with in the Senate,” Reid said.
Alexander told reporters he made his decision “several months ago,” and wrote the floor speech announcing his plan in August while on vacation in Canada.