How Old-School Legislating Brought an Education Bill to the Finish Line

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Image via flickr

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sat down in December of 2014 to hash out how they would work together as the new chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

According to aides, they agreed at that meeting that each of them would designate a long overdue rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law as their top priority. Other issues in the committee’s jurisdiction, such as higher education or certain health-related topics, would have take a lower profile, in part because they were too controversial to realistically expect a consensus.

It’s one year later. On Tuesday, the Senate is set to pass the carefully negotiated bill that was conceived at that meeting. It wasn’t easy. Murray and Alexander had to learn how to trust one another in a fiercely partisan environment where Republicans were anxious to put their stamp on policymaking. Democrats were determined not to be cowed by losing control of the Senate in the 2014 election.

Into this tense situation, Alexander, a former governor and education secretary, inserted his number-one policy priority — get a good education law. “I wanted a result from the beginning. I’m not here just to make a speech. If all I wanted to do was make a speech about education, I could get my own radio show,” Alexander told Morning Consult.

The odds were against him. The committee had tried in several previous Congresses to get an education bill over the finish line. They never managed to get a bipartisan consensus. This year, the Republican-led Congress was more fractious than it had been in recent memory. The idea that Republicans could sponsor a bill that Obama would actually sign was almost ludicrous

How Alexander and Murray, and their House counterparts, put the education bill together is a lesson in old-school legislating. It happened the way grade school kids are taught that the process works: House and Senate committees went to work early on. The House passed its bill. They Senate passed its bill. They went to conference. They hashed out their differences. Each chamber then passed the accompanying conference report.

But that’s not the whole story. The real reason this bill survived all of those steps —it could have died at each one — is that the key negotiators learned early on to protect the members of the opposite party from being forced to take politically suicidal positions. “We tried to find a way to reach a deal that didn’t make either one violate their principles,” said one aide who was close to the talks.

For Alexander, that meant backing down from a first draft that he wrote in January. He had intended the draft measure as a starting point. In his mind, Democrats and other committee members would amend it such that it became a consensus bill.

Murray said that wouldn’t work, that Democrats needed to be part of the discussions from the beginning.

In another setting, that standoff would have killed the negotiations. But Alexander really wanted a deal, and even though he was eager to act quickly as the new committee chairman, he acquiesced. He withdrew his initial draft and delayed a committee markup until he and Murray could huddle and come up with a bipartisan solution.

“I learned a long time ago to try to be a good listener. I was a Republican governor in the 1980s in a state with a Democratic legislature,” Alexander said in an interview. “I know what it takes to get to a result. Patty gave me some advice on how to get to a result. I took her advice, and it was good advice.”

But that didn’t give them any assurance of actually getting a deal. They knew they were far apart on key issues like accountability and federal authority. And Murray had taken a tough tone in the initial talks, threatening to delay everything if Alexander didn’t involve Democrats from the beginning.

Her next step was to explain to him that despite her initial tough stance, she really did want a deal. Washington State had recently lost its No Child Left Behind waiver, which meant the entire state’s school system was designated as failing. “What was happening in my state was virtually every parent was getting a letter saying their school had failed,” Murray said in an interview. “When I came into this position [on the HELP Committee], I knew it needed to be fixed.”

Murray and Alexander both have histories of negotiating complex legislation, but they hadn’t worked together until then. “At the beginning of the year, I had to convince him that I was actually willing to work with him and compromise, not just demand something that he could never meet,” Murray said.

So they laid parameters. There were policy areas that each of them couldn’t tread on, and even if they did, they couldn’t ask their respective party members to follow them. In negotiations, those parameters became sacrosanct. “We kept looking for areas of consensus in a committee where you’ve got Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on one side and Rand Paul on the other,” said Alexander.

Aides said Murray and Alexander took on the most controversial parts of the law for their own parsing. They were also the most essential parts of the law — accountability for student achievement and funding attached to it. They knew that if they didn’t strike the right balance on those fronts, everything else would fail. Other members of the committee took on other provisions involving teacher training and assessments, school choice, flexibility, etc.

What emerged was a consensus bill that passed the committee on a 22-0 vote. It then passed the Senate 81-17. It was carefully crafted to achieve what the Republicans wanted most, giving control of schools back to the states, while maintaining what Democrats needed most, requirements that schools would honestly measure the achievement of their students and take action if they found problems.

That wasn’t the end of it. House Republicans had crafted their own bill, which was far to the right of the Senate version and barely passed with only Republican votes. House Democrats were shut out of the debate until it was time for a conference committee.

The willingness of House negotiators to meet Murray and Alexander in the same spirit — honoring the principles that each side needed the most — stuck in conference. House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) knew that the initial House bill would not pass muster with Obama in the White House. He had decided early on to pursue his own bill, but he also said early on that he knew the House Republican bill wouldn’t be the final word.

He and Alexander were in close contact with one another as the Senate was working through its process.

The result was a conference committee with Murray and Alexander walking in already well familiar with each other’s no-go zones. Kline and Education Committee ranking member Bobby Scott (D-Va.) simply added to the conversation.

According to aides, Kline’s number one goal was getting a majority of Republicans to support the bill. Scott’s goal was to strengthen the civil rights components of the bill. If there was a problem in any school with a certain group of students — English language learners, minorities, students with disabilities — Scott wanted the federal government to be able to step in and ensure that a school district would address it.

It was Scott, the last negotiator at the table, who came up with the final accountability plan that Kline could sell to the GOP conference. “What we ended up doing was say [to states], ‘We have to tell you what you have to get done. We don’t tell you how to do it,’” Scott told Morning Consult. “The states have all the power to do. And they have to get the job done.”

If they don’t, under the bill, the Secretary of Education has the power to step in. Republicans wanted to curtail the federal authority, and Democrats agreed, so long as they knew achievement gaps wouldn’t be ignored if the states fell down on their responsibilities.

For now, at least, the federal government’s strong arm probably won’t be needed. States have been at the mercy of the Education Department for several years, waiting for the agency to approve waivers of the current law. Once Obama signs the new bill into law, the states will have far more power to assess students as they see fit and address the achievement gaps in ways that are most appropriate.

And in a rare moment of comity for both parties, everyone can declare victory. Alexander and Kline both have major legislation to claim as their legacies. And ironically, so does Obama.

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