Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) announced Tuesday that he would step down from his GOP leadership post in January to pursue an individual agenda of bipartisan dealmaking in the Senate.

His explanation seemed to raise the question of whether party leadership was incompatible with bipartisanship and compromise in the current climate.

“What I’m giving up is a seat at the table for more independence,” Alexander said Tuesday in an interview shortly after he announced his decision to resign as Republican Conference chairman.

Alexander said he wants to steer the Senate back to its role as the chamber that forges the nation’s great compromises.

His decision marked an about-face in a legislative career that, for nine years, had been aimed at advancement up the leadership ladder. Alexander had been widely expected to mount a campaign to become Republican whip, the No. 2 position in leadership — a spot he lost by a single vote in a bid five years ago.

A former governor, university president and two-time contender for president, Alexander said he thinks that the chamber has plenty of good leadership candidates. What it is lacking, he said, are senators forging bipartisan agreements. And he added that it is not likely happen if left to the leadership teams of each party.

“Two of the three Senate office buildings were named for senators never elected to leadership,” Alexander said, citing Richard Russell (D-Ga.) and Philip Hart (D-Mich.).

Alexander could have served out 21 / 2 additional years in his leadership job before term limits would have forced him out. His resignation surprised his colleagues and other observers.

“Either they’re challenged or they retire or they die,” Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian, said.

Alexander lamented the loss over the past 15 years of many of the Senate’s more able architects of compromise, either through death (Edward M. Kennedy) or retirement (Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi). He recalled his many conversations with Kennedy (Mass.), who in his 30s served as Democratic whip but lost the job in a bitter 1971 challenge by Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.). Kennedy would later say that the loss was the best thing to happen to him because it allowed him to return to his committee work and forge a legislative legacy that, according to Alexander, is the “most consequential” of his era.

Alexander’s effort to carve out a path as an elder statesman dealmaker was greeted with relief by some senators. “This is a liberating thing that allows him to express himself more fully and to spend more time on those issues,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)

Alexander’s decision suggests a Republican leadership team that will probably become younger and more assertive. The only other contender for whip — succeeding retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, the 69-year-old Arizonan — is Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Cornyn, 59, is campaigning for the post as part of the younger, conservative wing of the Republican Conference. Meanwhile, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a 50-year-old conservative, has emerged as the front-runner to succeed Alexander, 71, in the No. 3 position.

Across the aisle, Democrats have had their own shadow race for leadership succession. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) or Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) is viewed as the likely successor to Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). Schumer, a former campaign chairman, is portrayed as the more confrontational of the two, and Durbin has recently carved out a role as a member of the Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of six senators who tried to devise a plan to shave $4 billion from the federal budget over the summer.

Durbin suggested that Alexander’s bipartisan work might have “hurt him with some of his colleagues” and made Cornyn the favorite in that leadership race but that the Democratic caucus has different “personalities” from those of Republicans.