Alexander Sidesteps Tradition, Lands Ed. Committee Slot

January 29, 2003 2 min read

Former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander got his wish this month: a seat on the Senate committee that oversees education policy.

A couple of weeks back, Sen. Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who came to Congress this month to take the seat previously held by retiring Sen. Fred Thompson, appeared pessimistic that he would gain a post on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

That’s because Republican Sen. Bill Frist, the new majority leader, also is on the education committee—and also from Tennessee. While there’s no Senate rule prohibiting two senators from the same party and same state from serving on the same committee, both the Republican and Democratic conferences strongly discourage such an arrangement. (“Alexander’s Bind,” Federal File, Jan. 8, 2003)

But not only did Mr. Alexander get his wish, the freshman senator also was immediately granted some unearned seniority. He is officially the fourth-ranking Republican on the panel, a designation that would become meaningful only if all the GOP members ahead of him somehow left the committee in future years and put the gavel in his hand.

Mr. Alexander has said he hopes to focus considerable attention on education, given his background both as education secretary—under the first President Bush—and as a prominent “education governor” during his two terms as Tennessee’s chief executive.

Few Changes

With the Republicans having wrested control of the Senate from the Democrats in the midterm elections, the new breakdown on the HELP Committee is 11 Republicans, nine Democrats, and one Independent, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who is aligned with the Democrats.

The new chairman is Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. (“Gregg Brings N.H. Ways to Chairmanship,” Jan. 8, 2003.)

There were no changes on the Democratic side of the panel. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the former chairman, will remain the committee’s senior Democrat.

Despite the contrasting political philosophies of the liberal Sen. Kennedy and the conservative Sen. Gregg, the two lawmakers have worked closely together on some education matters, including the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Last year, for instance, they also introduced a bipartisan bill on early-childhood education.

One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, opted to leave the committee. Although on key committee votes she usually sides with her party, Sen. Collins’ moderate leanings have led her at times to part company with other Republicans on issues such as school vouchers, which she opposes.

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