Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander caused a ripple on Capitol Hill last week by announcing he will drop out of his party’s Senate leadership to pursue a more independent course, which would seem to be a break from the GOP’s my-way-or-the-highway solidarity.

The news that in January he will give up his No. 3 position as Republican conference chairman was particularly surprising because the two-time presidential candidate has always been a conspicuous climber. A few years ago he ran for the No. 2 spot as Senate Republican whip and missed by a single vote; he had been expected to try again, with Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the incumbent whip, slated for retirement.

But this time he would be facing stiff competition from conservative Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the tough-minded chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee credited with moving the GOP minority closer to a majority heading toward the 2012 elections.

While insisting he remains “a very Republican Republican” who has spent the last four years in the Senate leadership seeking Republican consensus, Mr. Alexander said “there are different ways to offer leadership,” and he cited talks with several Democrats aimed at finding common ground on issues ranging from education to clean-air legislation.

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