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Senate health chief Alexander will not pursue 2020 re-election bid

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said he plans to retire at the end of his current term and will not seek re-election in 2020, relinquishing a seat he has held since 2003.

The 78-year-old lawmaker — a former Tennessee governor — leads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where he helped shepherd major bipartisan bills affecting the healthcare and biopharmaceutical industries through Congress.

Specifically, Alexander helped author legislation to overhaul the U.S. biomedical enterprise. The 21st Century Cures Act had major implications for the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, adding significant resources to those agencies.

When then-President Barack Obama signed the act into law in December 2016, Alexander joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in calling the legislation the most important bill of the year.

The greatest share of the law's funding went toward expanding research into three areas championed by Obama: the brain, precision medicine and cancer.

The Cures Act formally established and authorized funding for the Cancer Moonshot, an initiative Obama revealed in his final State of the Union address in 2016 aimed at creating a national strategy to accelerate efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

The legislation also directed the FDA to create the Oncology Center of Excellence, which was established to bring together the combined skills of regulatory scientists and reviewers with expertise in cancer drugs, biologics and devices, including diagnostics, to expedite those products to the marketplace.

In addition, the law called for $1 billion to address the opioid epidemic and for mental health issues. The legislation laid the groundwork for a larger bill Alexander helped guide through his chamber and to enactment earlier this year.

That landmark bill, known as the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act, passed the Senate on Oct. 3 in a 98-to-1 vote.

As head of the Senate HELP Committee — a chairmanship he plans to retain over his last two years on Capitol Hill — Alexander has teamed up with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel's ranking member, on getting legislation passed. On Twitter, the Washington Democrat said Alexander was a "great partner."

The two lawmakers, however, were unsuccessful in persuading their colleagues to adopt a bill intended to fix the individual healthcare insurance market.

Earlier this month, Alexander acknowledged the effort was "maybe" a loser issue for Republicans and said he wanted to pivot away from it and now focus on reining in healthcare costs.

"You'll never get low-cost health insurance until you have lower-cost healthcare," Alexander said.

'The go-to expert'

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who also worked with Alexander on healthcare legislation — another effort that has not succeeded — called the Tennessee lawmaker "an extraordinarily effective member of the U.S. Senate, with a strong record of bipartisan accomplishments that take aim at the problems facing the American people."

"Simply put, he is a great senator," Collins stated.

McConnell said Alexander was one of the "most consequential senators on domestic policy in memory."

"For his colleagues in both parties, he is a go-to expert on some of the most critical subjects that directly impact Americans' lives, particularly American families' healthcare and our children's schools," McConnell said about Alexander on the Senate floor Dec. 17.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker said he often refers to his Tennessee colleague as the "legislator of the decade, because of the effective way he has worked across the aisle to pass legislation that directly affects the lives of so many throughout our state and around the country."

Corker is also leaving the Senate at the end of the year, being replaced by Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who won the seat in November, defeating former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

That means Tennessee is losing its seniority for both of its Senate seats on Capitol Hill.

Other legislation

In addition to his healthcare legislation, Alexander also authored the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was aimed at fixing former President George W. Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind education bill.

As the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Alexander led his colleagues in ensuring funding was not cut by the Trump administration for the Department of Energy's national research laboratories. The Tennessee lawmaker also supported efforts to advance nuclear power research and development.

Early days

Before coming to Capitol Hill, Alexander was elected governor of Tennessee in 1978, serving until 1987. He was also former George W. Bush's education secretary from 1991 to 1993.

Alexander said he was "deeply grateful" for his time serving his Tennessee constituents on Capitol Hill and as governor, "but now it is time for someone else to have that privilege."

"I have gotten up every day thinking that I could help make our state and country a little better, and gone to bed most nights thinking that I have," he said in a Dec. 17 statement. "I will continue to serve with that same spirit during the remaining two years of my term."

Alexander ran twice for U.S. president — in 1996 and 2000 — but was unsuccessful both times in gaining his party's nomination for the White House.