For Mark R. Warner, years of frustration with a dysfunctional U.S. Senate and a broken budget have built to this: The sequester stands to rob Virginia of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs, and there’s not much he can do about it.
Used to being in charge, the former governor and hyperactive venture capitalist now sits restlessly on the sidelines of another fiscal crisis, referring to himself as “the guy who, unfortunately, hasn’t been in the room on any of these final negotiations.”
In his fifth year on Capitol Hill, Warner (D) acknowledges that he won’t get the immediate gratification that came with being chief executive. Instead, he has become a fixture in the media as the face of deal-friendly centrism, a role that gives him the opportunity to nudge the debate.
And while his poll numbers at home remain stratospheric, Warner has not decided whether to run for reelection next year or follow the example of Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who retired after one term with his own set of frustrations.
Warner’s patience is thinnest when it comes to the federal budget impasse, now manifesting itself in the form of automatic spending cuts. As co-leader of the bipartisan group originally known as the Gang of Six, he spent two years pleading with congressional leaders and the White House to strike a long-term fiscal plan.
Her uses phrases like “debacle” and “embarrassment” to describe the way Congress has fashioned a series of last-minute, slapped-together deals. The sequester, he says, is “the stupidest of all ways” to pare the budget.
“All of these negotiations have become the same folks in the same room at the 11th hour,” Warner laments. Asked how he can get in that room, Warner responded with an exasperated laugh: “I am trying!”
Virginia’s governorship is an unusually powerful post, limited to one breakneck term, while in the Senate it can take a decade or more for a lawmaker to score a key committee post or a signature achievement.
“As governor every day that I lost . . . I knew wasn’t coming back to me,” said Warner, adding that in the Senate “the challenge is keeping an edge and not going crazy.”
At a gathering of dozens of defense and technology executives in Reston last month, Warner delivered a blunt message, underscoring his aggravation. He scolded the private sector — particularly the defense industry — saying it shares some blame for the budget cuts because it had not done enough to back earlier deficit-reduction efforts.
“Yeah, [Congress] ought to get 80, 90, whatever percent of the blame. But you ought to take some of the blame, too,” Warner told an aerospace industry lobbyist who asked why Congress had not gotten serious about the budget. Outside interest groups need to get out of their narrow “foxholes” the same way lawmakers need to do, he said.
“I think Mark’s been frustrated by that, and I see it” said Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.). “People come and talk to me about, ‘Boy, we’ve got to be austere’ . . . and at the same time they’re asking for their next appropriation.”
As governor, Warner befriended Democrats and Republicans, often corralling difficult budget votes over meals, at late-night meetings at Richmond diners and elaborate mansion affairs. “There is enormous value in building personal friendships and trust,” said Warner.
He is still hosting dinners at his Alexandria home, from backyard buffets to impromptu meals he whips up himself. His culinary courtship has not yielded the same breakthroughs it once did in Richmond, but Warner’s allies believe he can play an important role in the process.
“Of course, a lot of people would feel very good about Mark being at the table . . . and being the ultimate decider on a lot of those issues,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Warner’s closest Republican ally.
Warner’s incessant complaints about the way both parties have handled the budget crisis have not endeared him to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), with whom Warner has had a bumpy relationship. But party leaders have relied on Warner — who is viewed as a key player among younger, reform-oriented Senate Democrats — to serve as an emissary to the business world.
Behind the scenes, Warner has unsuccessfully sought to drum up support for implementing term limits for committee chairmen. Veteran senators have resisted giving up their gavels. Warner has also tried to win a seat on the Finance Committee, which would give him a role in any forthcoming tax reform.
Warner was quick out of the gate when he entered the Senate. He teamed up with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in 2010 to write two key portions of the Dodd-Frank bill that reformed the financial system. Nothing has gone quite as smoothly since then.
Now, Warner is working with Corker on housing finance issues, while pushing for increased domestic energy production and for offering more immigration visas to entrepreneurs and students earning math or science degrees. Warner also hopes to enlist Northern Virginia technology leaders to help improve the system for electronically verifying workers’ immigration status.
“Am I satisfied? Absolutely not,” Warner said. “What’s so unusual is you hear people saying you’re making a big imprint for a freshman. But I’ve never thought [in that] kind of time frame. . . . This is a different and, to me, foreign role that I’ve never played and I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Virginia has a tendency to elect senators, often former governors, who don’t seem thrilled to have the job.
Chuck Robb (D) said he was frustrated by the Senate’s pace, which George Allen (R) famously compared to “a wounded sea slug.” Kaine had his arm twisted before agreeing to run in last year’s contest to succeed Webb, who decided one term was enough. Now Warner faces his own choice.
“I’ll make those decisions at an appropriate time,” Warner said.
Polls consistently give Warner the highest job-approval rating of any statewide officeholder, and he would not be easy to beat in 2014. Democrats hope Warner stays, as the party’s bench behind him is relatively thin.
“He’s got broad-based bipartisan appeal,” said longtime Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee. “He’s the guy who redefined what it meant to be a Virginia Democrat 12 years ago.”
While noting that no top-tier Republicans have signaled they planned to challenge Warner, Elleithee said, “I think he would be the first to tell you that he’s not going to kick up his heels. . . . Virginia is a volatile enough state electorally that no one can ever rest on their laurels.”
But some Republicans believe Warner is more vulnerable than poll numbers suggest.
“Mark Warner is the luckiest politician in the commonwealth of Virginia,” said consultant Chris LaCivita, arguing that Warner’s Senate voting record is more party-line Democrat than is commonly portrayed.
LaCivita said his fellow Republicans have failed to be aggressive in challenging Warner. “No one from the Republican side of the aisle has laid a glove on him . . . and because of that the perception of Mark Warner the untouchable or Mark Warner the moderate . . . is completely and utterly baseless,” LaCivita said.
Warner may not have committed to running again, but he is dropping some hints.
“You’ve recently seen some members who say, ‘These problems are so challenging, I’m going to try to do this on the outside rather than the inside,’ ” Warner said. “For all the frustrations, there is always still more you can do inside the Senate than almost anywhere else.”