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EDlection2018: Republicans Keep Control of U.S. Senate, Setting Countdown Clock on Alexander’s Chairmanship

By Carolyn Phenicie | November 7, 2018

EDlection2018: This is one of several dozen races we’ve analyzed for the 2018 midterms that could go on to influence state or federal education policy. Get the latest headlines delivered straight to your inbox; sign up for The 74 Newsletter.

Updated, 11:30 a.m. – Incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is calling for a recount in his race against Republican Rick Scott. 

Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, leaving longtime Sen. Lamar Alexander in the chairman’s seat of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, likely for the final time.

As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, Republicans will hold at least 51 seats and Democrats 45. Republicans are ahead in races in Montana and Arizona, though those races have yet to be called, and with no candidate getting a majority in Mississippi, that race will move to a runoff later this year.

National news outlets, including the Associated Press, have not yet called a final result in Florida, where margins are razor thin.  Though the Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald reported early Wednesday morning that Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson had conceded to his Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, Nelson’s announced Wednesday morning he’d ask for a recount. Florida law triggers an automatic recount if the margin of victory is under 0.5 percent; Scott currently leads by about 30,000 votes, which is 0.38 percent of votes cast, according to state records.

(Check in with our liveblog here for the latest on what’s happening in Senate and other races across the country.)

The election starts something of a countdown clock for Alexander. Republicans in both houses of Congress put a six-year term limit on members serving as chair of committees, so the 2019-20 session would be the 78-year-old’s last as chairman. Alexander is also up for re-election in 2020. He told the New York Times in October he “might” run again.

A former U.S. education secretary and university president, Alexander has long wanted to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. He and ranking Democratic Sen. Patty Murray have so far been unable to recreate the 2015 bipartisan magic that produced the Every Student Succeeds Act and craft a deal on rewriting the higher ed law. The contentious tenure of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whom Murray has assailed and Alexander supported, has also been a dividing point in one of the Hill’s stronger bipartisan relationships.

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Lamar Alexander’s White Whale: Will 2018 Be the Year the Education Veteran Finally Gets His Chance to Rewrite the Higher Ed Act?

Chief among Alexander’s goals in higher ed is cutting federal regulations, and he has put a special focus on reducing the size of the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, known as the FAFSA form, an idea that has bipartisan backing. Alexander’s favorite prop at congressional hearings and advocacy group speeches in recent years has been a printed copy of the current 108-question form, which the chairman thinks can be cut to two.

With Democrats expected to retake the House, small-scale changes, like cutting down the FAFSA, may be a more achievable goal than a large-scale reauthorization of the higher ed law.

Republicans currently hold a 51-49 advantage in the Senate, and 11 seats on the HELP Committee to Democrats’ 10. That split of committee seats could change slightly depending on how big the GOP majority ultimately is.

There is always some swapping of committee assignments as members post-elections gain and lose seniority on different panels, but the faces on the HELP panel shouldn’t change dramatically. Only Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is retiring, is definitely leaving. All the other members of the committee up for re-election this year — all of them Democrats, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — won their seats.

EDlection2018: This is one of several dozen races we’ve analyzed for the 2018 midterms that could go on to influence state or federal education policy. Get the latest headlines delivered straight to your inbox; sign up for The 74 Newsletter.

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