In farewell address, Lamar Alexander calls for Senate to come together, work better

In his farewell speech to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, Lamar Alexander emphasized what he has become known for in his time in the nation's capital: his knack for bringing together the two major parties.

The moderate Republican from Maryville, Tennessee, used his time to laud the legislative chamber, but also scold his colleagues — in his particular way — by comparing the Senate to a singer joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.

He also used the address to defend the filibuster, the tool that allows the minority party to hold up legislative action. It forces, he said, consensus and prevents one party from steamrolling the other.

More than anything, though, Alexander used his address to urge his colleagues to keep the faith and get to work.

Alexander briefly highlighted his legislative achievements, including:

  • Tying student loan interest rates to market rates in 2013.
  • Fixing No Child Left Behind in 2015.
  • Speeding up funding for medical cures through the 21st Century Cures Act.
  • Changing copyright laws to better benefit songwriters.
  • And his crowning achievement, the Great American Outdoors Act, which will, among other things, pay for billions of dollars’ worth of backlogged maintenance projects in the nation’s national parks.

“And most of these laws were enacted during divided government, when the presidency and at least one body of Congress were of different political parties,” Alexander said, trying to encourage the Senate into meaningful work.

The Senate, he said, should be leading the country in creating unity from the diversity that often divides, a far cry from what the chamber has represented in recent years.

Divided government offers an opportunity to share the responsibility — or the blame — for hard decisions. ...

“That’s why our country needs a United States Senate, to thoughtfully, carefully and intentionally put country before partisanship and personal politics, to force broad agreements on controversial issues that become laws most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept.”

The best way to do this, he said, is to keep the filibuster, which requires 60 senators to cut off debate before a vote. In recent years, prominent Democrats have called for an end to the rule, with former President Barack Obama calling it a "another Jim Crow relic" during his tribute to Georgia Rep. John Lewis at the civil rights icon's funeral in July.

The filibuster protects both sides, Alexander said, and keeps the majority party in the Senate from dominating the other, creating a vicious cycle as control passes from one party to the other.

“That is why the framers created the Senate as the cooling saucer for the passions that President Washington talked about,” he said. “And the filibuster — the right to talk your head off until you force a broad agreement — is the preeminent tool the Senate uses to turn those passions into a compromise that most senators can vote for and that the country can live with.”

Beyond that, Alexander, derided both parties for gumming up the gears of government and said the Senate has not brought enough meaningful bills to the floor.

“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,” he said.

Alexander, 80, honed his commitment to bipartisanship over a long career in leadership positions in Tennessee and nationally. He served eight years as governor of Tennessee, nearly three years as president of the University of Tennessee, two years as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and 18 years in the Senate.

Before Alexander spoke, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer praised him.

McConnell spoke about dreading life in the Senate without Alexander, but he said Alexander had earned the time to spend with his family.

“For the last 18 years there’s been Lamar Alexander and then there’s been the rest of us,” he said as he teared up. “So, I’m sorry that in a few more weeks they’ll just be the rest of us left. ... you’re leaving this body, and those of us in it and the nation it exists to serve, stronger and better because you were here.”

Schumer called him a “man of principle.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Tyler Whetstone

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit


Published December 4, 2020