Retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, used his Senate farewell address on Wednesday to urge Republican and Democratic colleagues to work across the aisle as he has and "put country before partisanship and personal politics."
That includes not ending the Senate filibuster, said Alexander, warning that doing so "would destroy the impetus in the United States Senate to force broad agreements on hard issues and unleash the tyranny of the majority to steam-roll the minority."
"Presidents would like it. They would get their way more easily if we ended the requirement that 60 senators vote to cut off debate before we vote on a legislative issue," the three-term senator and former governor said.
If that were to happen, Alexander, 80, warned, "the passions of the people would roar through the Senate like a freight train, like they do in the House of Representatives." But the nation "needs the Senate to force broad agreements on controversial issues that become laws most of us have voted for that a diverse country will accept," he said.
Alexander added: "That's why the motto above the presiding officer's desk is not just one word, 'pluribus.' It is 'E pluribus unum, out of many, one.' More than ever, our country needs a United States Senate to turn pluribus into unum, to lead the American struggle to forge unity from diversity."
The senator cited examples including the creation of Social Security in the 1930s; the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s; ratification of the 1978 Panama Canal Treaty, which created headaches for Alexander's mentor Sen. Howard Baker, who supported it; as well as Alexander's own 2015 legislation to fix the No Child Left Behind education law, which restored control of education testing to the state; and his 21st Century Cures Act to accelerate development of new medicines, which became law in 2016.
The Cures Act "seemed to run off the track every two or three days," Alexander said, recalling how he contacted then-Vice President and now President-elect Joe Biden and told him "Joe, we've included personalized medicine for President Obama. The Cancer Moonshot is there for you. We have Sen. McConnell's regenerative medicine. And Speaker Ryan has worked out a way to pay for it.
"But I can't get the White House to move on it," Alexander said he complained to Biden. "I feel like a butler standing outside the Oval Office with the order on a silver platter, and no one will open the door and take the order."
Biden, the senator said, told him, "if you want to feel like a butler, try being Vice President."
Senate rules "literally forced us to work out a broad agreement to pass 21st Century Cures, in the end it got 94 votes," Alexander said. "Sen. McConnell called it 'the most important legislation' considered in that Congress. Today it is helping to produce COVID tests, treatments and vaccines in record time."
He cited years-long efforts before he finally was able to pass a copyright law change that allowed songwriters to be fairly compensated for their music streamed over the internet as well as this year's Great American Outdoors Act, which he called the "most important" conservation and recreation funding bill in a half century.
"Enacting these laws took a long time, much palavering, many amendments, many years," said Alexander, pointing to others' past efforts. "Too many years, civil rights leaders, patients, students, songwriters and conservationists would say. But those laws didn't just pass. They passed by wide margins. The country therefore accepted them. And they are going to be there for a long time."
He also urged the majority party to allow floor amendments to be offered on legislation, saying, "it doesn't take a genius to figure out how to gum up the works of a body of 100 that operates mainly by unanimous consent. Here's my view: It's hard to get here, hard to stay here, and while you're here, you might as well try to accomplish something good for the country. But it's hard to accomplish something if you don't vote on amendments."
Lately, Alexander said, "the Senate has become like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing."
With control of the Senate expected to be decided in a Jan. 5 runoff for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia, along with Democrat and President-elect Biden slated to be sworn into office on Jan. 20, Alexander said, "divided government offers an opportunity to share the responsibility — or the blame — for hard decisions."
A rarely emotional U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, a decades-long friend of Alexander's, said he isn't thrilled about Alexander's departure.
"For the last 18 years there's been Lamar Alexander and then there's been the rest of us," he said. "So, I'm sorry that in a few more weeks there'll just be the rest of us left." But he said both those in the Senate as well as "the nation it exists to serve [are] stronger and better because you were here."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, called Alexander a "man of principle."
After Alexander spoke, other Senate Republican and Democratic colleagues paid tribute to the Tennessee senator.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, praised Alexander, saying he has not only "touched the lives of many in this body but millions" across the country. And he earned a reputation for being a "go-to" senator to get things done, Blackburn said.
A number of senators said the body should heed his words.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, who has served as both chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee now headed by Alexander, said she has "truly come to appreciate Sen. Alexander's fairness, his interest in solving problems and his bipartisanship." And, she quipped, she finally learned the correct pronunciation of "Chickamauga Lock" in Chattanooga, which Alexander and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, and Fleischmann's predecessor, Republican Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, worked to secure funding for over the years.
"I do believe the Senate is going to be diminished by the absence of this senator," Feinstein said, noting they both shared a "willingness to find common ground" that generated results in any number of areas.
Noting she first met Alexander during his unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Alexander is "that rare individual who is far less interested in getting the credit than getting the job done. Lamar never gives up the search for a solution and common ground."
Alexander's last day in office is Jan. 3 as the new 117th Congress is sworn in. His replacement is Republican Bill Hagerty.
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