Politico has an interesting article comparing the new crop of U.S. Senate chairmen to their counterparts back in the 1980s when Republicans gained control over the Senate during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Basically, it’s said that the incoming chairs are much older – the average age is over 70 versus under 60 in the comparison Congress — and most are from the South, elected by a white Republican base that is hostile toward President Obama, the nation’s first black president who is now a lame duck. But they are also concerned about their own legacy and seem to be searching for compromise ground.
Consider the case of Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the incoming chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. A former governor and secretary of education at the federal level, he brings impressive credentials, and in November, won reelection ensuring him six more years in the Senate.
That said, life’s markers are also there. Just last July, Alexander delivered the eulogy for Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), who had been Alexander’s mentor coming up in politics. Already 74, the new chairman will be 80 before this Senate term runs out.
“Howard Baker knew how to make the Senate work. He understood that the Senate’s unique role is as a place for extended debate and amendment on important issues until there is a consensus,” Alexander said in his eulogy. Six months later, he’s rushing to seize his chance.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has opted to go back onto the HELP panel for this Congress, said she was surprised when Alexander called on her — even before she could go to see him.
“He is in my judgment a legislative powerhouse,” Collins said. “He’s determined to have accomplishments come under or as a result of his chairmanship. I had planned to go visit him, but before I could do so he had called and came over and visited with me to find out what my particular interests were and to offer me the ability to lead on bills that I’m particularly interested in … I very much expect the HELP committee will be enormously productive under his leadership.”
First on Alexander’s list is tackling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — a battle which will require him to find compromises not just on school testing but civil rights issues important to Obama.
“This is not veto bait. This is a legitimate effort,” said one Democratic leadership aide of Alexander’s early efforts to reach across the aisle. And reforms in the Food and Drug Administration are expected to be a second part of Alexander’s committee agenda.
For other chairs, the same hunger for enacting legislation — signed by the president — is there. The trick is to find issues that are not so “about Obama” that supporters at home can accept compromise.