Senator Warner grapples with freshman status

Sen. Mark Warner worked for more business-friendly health-care reform.
Sen. Mark Warner worked for more business-friendly health-care reform. (Chip Somodevilla/getty Images)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

Few things agitate Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) more than the way Congress sold the economic stimulus bill to the American public. "Only the Democrats would allow a $200 billion-plus tax cut to be called a spending bill," Warner said with such frustration that he lurched forward in his chair.

A hugely popular former governor who came to politics after earning a fortune in the cellphone business, Warner entered the Senate in January with big plans to show Democrats a middle path, taking to the national stage the blend of fiscal conservatism and business know-how that had helped him win over Virginia independents and Republicans. But the freshman senator has found himself mainly on the sidelines as Congress and President Obama have pushed health-care reform, spending and energy measures without much attention to creating a center-based coalition.

Warner is not the first freshman to struggle with the diminished role of a Capitol Hill newcomer. But to some, his discomfort with Democratic policies is about more than a bruised ego; it is a symbol of the mood in a crucial swing state. If the most popular politician in Virginia is unhappy with his party's direction, some Democrats worry, it is possible their party might be alienating a crucial bloc of independent voters in elections next year and beyond.

"Obviously, in 2008, America voted for change," said John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of large U.S. companies. "But they are maybe finding out now that they didn't want to vote for big government spending that's unchecked, or government intervention to a very, very low level into the economy. Mark Warner really represents that kind of middle ground that wants government to help solve problems but not so much interfere with all areas of the economy."

That Warner ended his first year in the Senate with less stature than he had hoped for had less to do with his actions than with what happened in the 2008 elections: a commanding victory for Democrats that fortified their control of Congress and left them less eager to follow a moderate businessman itching to broker deals with Republicans.

Still, Warner, briefly a presidential hopeful in 2007 and a widely mentioned possibility for 2016, thinks his "radical centrism" is right for Virginia and the nation. Upon arrival in Washington, he quickly carved out a centrist niche for himself. He was named the Senate Democrats' liaison to business leaders and worked with corporate executives to produce more business-friendly health reform. He got a seat on the Senate Banking Committee and dug into regulation of the financial industry, holding more than 80 briefings with experts.

"You stay for the whole hearing so you can ask your questions," Warner said. "And you try not to ask just the ones that your staff wrote for you. It's not rocket science."

Warner has seized small stages on which to do what he did so effectively as governor: build relationships with business and political leaders and put his financial acumen to work. He told Treasury Secretary Timothy M. Geithner when he thought the administration was overreaching in its efforts to regulate the financial industry. He wrote Obama a letter in October -- and 32 other senators signed it -- urging the use of a portion of the bailout fund to ease the flow of credit to small businesses. He also demanded that some of the money go toward deficit reduction, and he led 11 freshman Democrats in proposing a package of amendments to the Senate health bill intended to control costs and increase accountability.

"People are very concerned about the long-term deficit in this country, and I think people are very concerned about jobs," said fellow centrist Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Warner's seatmate. "We are large in number, but many of us are freshmen, and that obviously has an impact in the Senate, which is very much based on seniority."

The health-care overhaul bill has put tremendous pressure on Warner -- from Democratic Senate leaders who needed every vote to push the measure through, and from his base of supporters in the business community, who feared what the bill would do to their bottom lines.

"I give Warner and [Sen. James] Webb a lot of credit for trying to influence the proposed bill to benefit Virginia," said Katharine M. Webb, senior vice president of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, who says certain Medicare cuts would devastate providers. "These are tough votes for them, and the pressure has been huge."

The health-care bill "isn't perfect," but it would "give a shock to the system" -- and nothing is worse than the "unsustainable" status quo, Warner said. He said he is glad the public option was removed from the bill. His amendment package, which was incorporated into the final bill, "doesn't bring cost containment home in the way that I'd like to do it; I would have liked us to have been much more aggressive." But it was a starting point, and even small improvements are better than nothing, he said.

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