Sen. Lamar Alexander, retiring this year after three terms, pleaded with fellow senators to get the storied chamber back on track as the backbone of legislative compromise, warning against shortcuts such as Democrats’ ravenous appetite for doing away with the filibuster.
Instead, the Tennessee Republican said, lawmakers should be willing to put in the time to negotiate, strike deals, compromise and, most of all, be willing to cast hard votes in order to write laws that will last for generations.
Doing away with the filibuster, he predicted, would instead result in big changes with little staying power, since they would easily be erased the next time the majority changed from one party to the other.
“The Senate doesn’t need a change of rules, it needs a change of behavior,” Mr. Alexander said, delivering his farewell address to a Senate chamber filled with colleagues, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. That change begins with allowing rank-and-file senators to vote on more policies in the form of amendments. Over the last 15 years there’s been a tendency for each side to block the other side from offering amendments, turning most bills into partisan talking point battles rather than attempts to write legislation.
“Lately, the Senate has become like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing,” Mr. Alexander said.
A former Tennessee governor and federal Education Department secretary who made an ill-fated run for president in 1996 — with iconic “Lamar!” campaign signs — Mr. Alexander would win his Senate seat in 2002 and go on to establish himself as a key deal-maker and an honest broker. And he has consistently warned colleagues against giving up the Senate powers and rules, such as the filibuster, that make the chamber the focus of legislating, outclassing the House where leaders who hold the majority jam legislation through based on pure party power.
Thanks to the filibuster, nearly every major policy question takes a supermajority of 60 votes to be approved in the Senate. That makes bipartisanship a must in the chamber, where the two parties are split by only a few seats.
“Our country needs the United States Senate to work across party lines to forge broad agreements on hard issues creating laws that most of us have voted for, and that a diverse country will accept,” Mr. Alexander said.
He recalled his inaugural speech to the Senate 18 years ago, where he floated the idea of creating an academy for history teachers to visit Washington and expand their knowledge to share with students back home. He said unbeknownst to him, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal icon, quietly worked to get 20 Democratic co-sponsors to back the idea.
Figures like Kennedy, who passed away in 2009, are increasingly rare in the Senate, and Mr. Alexander’s departure will deprive the Senate of another one.
That was clear even in the praise from fellow senators.
Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called Mr. Alexander a solutions-seeker and someone “willing to see the other side.”
The example Mr. Schumer picked out was immigration, where the Democratic leader praised Mr. Alexander for bucking fellow Republicans to vote for a legalization bill, despite intense pressure.
The pain of Mr. Alexander’s departure was evident for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wept openly on the floor as he delivered farewell remarks for his friend.
The Kentucky Republican ticked off a massive list of bills Mr. Alexander oversaw, from a fix to the No Child Left Behind education law to the CURES Act to promote faster vaccine development.
“He is hands-down one of the most brilliant, thoughtful and most effective legislators any of us have every seen,” Mr. McConnell said.