By Michael Sluss
If he could make his case in another setting, Mark Warner is confident that he could persuade the public to get behind a comprehensive, bipartisan plan to reduce the national debt.
"I don't think these things are that hard a sell," Virginia's junior U.S. senator said late last month over a brown-bag lunch in his Capitol Hill office. "You give me a hundred people from the Roanoke Valley, a hundred random people, and I'll take my chances convincing them on 85percent of this solution in two hours."
That's the kind of approach Warner took as Virginia's governor in 2004. Through public forums and private negotiating sessions, the Democratic chief executive built a broad coalition of support for a tax reform package that raised rates on retail sales and cigarettes, and pumped new money into education, health care and public safety. The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the plan, Virginia was recognized as the nation's best-managed state and Warner left the governor's mansion with approval ratings north of 70 percent.
Now Warner is a leader of a bipartisan group of U.S. senators doggedly working to rally support for a plan to reduce the nation's debt by as much as $4 trillion over 10 years. But when it comes to selling the proposal in a polarized Congress, the former governor and businessman isn't trying to persuade 100 random people from the Roanoke Valley or 140 state legislators in Richmond.
He's dealing with congressional leaders whose agendas revolve around the next election and with powerful special interests that are unwilling to surrender an inch of ground for a "grand bargain" to put the country on stable financial footing. Compromises on spending, taxes and entitlement programs are harder to come by in such a tribal setting.
"What you've got here, you've got every group that says, 'Yeah, we've got a problem -- but don't touch mine, take the other guy's,'" Warner lamented.
Warner said he was embarrassed by the 2011 debt limit debate that took the country to the brink of default and led to the first-ever downgrade of the nation's credit rating. He was disappointed that a congressional "supercommittee" failed to come up with a deficit and debt-reduction plan late last year, leaving open the possibility of automatic federal spending cuts in 2013 that could stagger Virginia's economy.
He remains hopeful that Congress can reach a deal, perhaps in a postelection, lame-duck session. But while dysfunction and inertia reign in the U.S. Capitol, the nearly $16 trillion debt increases by more than $4 billion a day.
And Warner's frustration grows along with it.
"What's been impossible to get done -- and one of the things that has frustrated me is -- in Washington there is no support group, or institutional structure, to support people doing the right thing," Warner said during a leadership summit that his office organized at the University of Richmond last month.
As governor, he was able to rally business leaders, educators, health care providers and seniors groups to get behind a plan that raised taxes, and that foundation helped him persuade enough Republican legislators to vote for it.
"Governor Warner and his team had done a heck of a lot of work creating a broad coalition to support what we were trying to do," said former Republican Del. Preston Bryant, a key player in the 2004 Virginia tax and budget compromise. "It's much easier to do in a state than it is to do across a very disparate country."
No one knows that better than Warner himself.
"Understanding what it takes for a legislator to do the right thing has been a learning process for me," he said. "It gives me one more appreciation again for what a lot of [state] legislators did back in 2004."
Aiming for a consensus framework
Shortly after the 2008 election, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia heard from a friend in Atlanta who urged him to get acquainted with the newly elected senator from Virginia. Democrat Mark Warner had just won the Senate seat that Republican John Warner (no relation) had held for three decades before retiring.
Chambliss said the friend, a former Warner business associate, told him, "Look, this guy's a dear friend of mine; you're a dear friend; and, knowing both of you, I think you guys are going to find you've got a lot in common and you need to meet this guy as soon as you can."
Chambliss took the advice and the result, he said, is "a friendship as strong as with anybody I have in the world today."
The high-strung Warner and the easygoing Chambliss became unlikely allies in a bipartisan effort to tackle the mushrooming debt. It began as a small group -- the so-called "Gang of Six" -- that labored for months to come up with a plan modeled on the recommendations of President Barack Obama's fiscal commission, better known as the Simpson-Bowles commission. Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Republicans Mike Crapo of Idaho and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma were the other charter members of the group.
The initial meetings occurred quietly on Capitol Hill and at Warner's Alexandria home. Chambliss said he could trust Warner to keep politically sensitive talks private as they tried to build a consensus framework.
For Warner, the group's task was "to thread this needle where everybody's got skin in the game, that deals with deficit reduction, that doesn't grow government." He approached the challenge with an intensity that made an impression on Chambliss.
"I always talk about the fact that my chief role in the 'Gang of Six' is to make sure Warner's got his Valium," Chambliss joked.
The two senators hit the road to make their case in public forums, including one last year before members of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Richmond. Warner told that audience that the country was flirting with "financial Armageddon" if it continued to postpone tough decisions about reducing the debt.
"I think he's done just an immense amount to keep this issue front and center -- with his colleagues, with the business sector, with every speech he makes," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "I have a feeling if you asked him to make a speech about global warming or unrest around the world, he'd find a way to mention the debt. Because he's been just absolutely tireless, not just on how big a problem it is, but how to find solutions."
The problem, Warner said, is simple math. Federal spending is at 25 percent of the nation's gross domestic product and revenues are at 15percent, he said. The ratio of workers to retirees is down to 3-to-1. A decade's worth of tax cuts and spending increases have the government on an unsustainable path.
"You took four and a half trillion dollars out of your revenues for 10 years at the same time you doubled defense spending, created a whole new area of spending you called 'homeland security,' gave seniors a free drug benefit that cost a trillion dollars, and we all got older," Warner said.
"I've got everybody saying, 'Yes, you're right,' and 'Yes, we know what's coming,' but somehow it hasn't translated into a sense of urgency -- enough urgency."
Former Sen. John Warner said his successor "has been absolute, front-and-center courage on this issue of the budget."
"It's politics be damned, save the nation," said John Warner, who fended off an election challenge from the younger Warner in 1996. "And it comes at a critical time when we're in a global community competing economically."
The two Warners appeared together last month in Tysons Corner for an annual leadership forum hosted by the pro-business organization Virginia FREE. Mark Warner told business leaders in the audience that they "can play an incredible role" in shaping the debate.
"Anybody who comes to you and says, 'I'm never going to touch revenues under any circumstance,' or they come to you from the other side and say, 'I'm never going to touch entitlements under any circumstance;' my ask is, please, say to them, 'Well, how are you going to get this problem fixed?'"
Seeking leadership from above
The "Gang of Six" produced a bipartisan framework to eliminate about $3.7 trillion in debt over 10 years. The plan called for an immediate $500 billion in deficit reductions, including dramatic cuts in discretionary spending. The senators proposed simplifying the tax code to reduce marginal income rates and to reform, but not eliminate, popular tax breaks for charitable giving, home mortgages and retirement.
The plan came together too late to be part of last August's last-minute deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. When a congressional "supercommittee" was tasked with coming up with a deficit-reduction plan by Thanksgiving, Warner and Chambliss led a group of 45 senators and 100 House members from both parties in endorsing a "go big" strategy to cut the debt by as much as $4 trillion over 10 years.
But the "supercommittee" failed to strike a deal, and party leaders on each side blamed the other for the impasse. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dismissed the "Gang of Six" proposal as "happy talk" because it had not been put in legislative form.
"I still maintain that at the end of the day it's going to take leadership coming out of the White House to get this problem solved and that leadership has not been there," Chambliss said. "It's also going to take leadership out of the Congress, and there's been a lack of leadership there, too."
Warner acknowledged that party leaders in Congress "have been unwilling to get out of their comfort zones." He was not as critical of Obama, whose embrace of the "Gang of Six" plan may have turned some Republicans against it.
"There were a lot of people who said the president coming out hurt us," Warner said.
Democrat Jim Webb, Virginia's senior senator who will retire after one term, said last year's debate over the debt "was a really frustrating time for all of us." But to some extent, Webb said, the political stalemate in Washington reflects divisions in the country.
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said the "Gang of Six" proposal "leans heavier on taxes than I would want." But Griffith gave Warner credit for advancing a proposal when "Harry Reid and company were doing nothing."
Over the next several months, Warner said, he hopes to build "an outside coalition that's going to be supportive of people in both parties to do the right thing after the election."
"We put out a document that's based loosely around Simpson-Bowles that would be a framework in this so-called 'lame duck' session," he said. "And the positive reaction that would greet a deal would be a wonderful jump-start to whoever's going to be president in 2013 to really get this economy roaring.
"Obviously, I hope the president is re-elected," said Warner, who appeared with Obama in Roanoke on July 13. "But whether the president is re-elected or it's [Republican Mitt] Romney, I think there is a value-add of putting a product down that has bipartisan support to at least take the first round of arrows.
"This is not putting a man on the moon or defeating communism," he said. "Somehow we've made this into this mega-battle that in any historical context shouldn't be this big."
Last week, a bipartisan group of business leaders, former policymakers and budget experts announced a $25 million "Fix the Debt" campaign to build political support for a comprehensive debt-reduction plan. MacGuineas said many business leaders "describe this as this incredibly predictable problem that we continue to barrel toward because policymakers are more focused on partisan fighting than they are problem-solving, which is just the opposite of what the DNA of an executive is."
"I think one of the things about Senator Warner is he sees a problem and he wants to solve it," MacGuineas said. "I think it's immensely frustrating to him and many of his colleagues that the institution seems to move so slowly and dysfunctionally at critical times."
'Committed to playing the heavy role'
Warner's frustration has fueled speculation that he could leave the Senate and make another run for the governor's mansion next year.
When asked about the chatter, Warner, 57, insists that he is focused on tackling the debt problem. He has told supporters in Virginia that they should feel free to get behind another 2013 gubernatorial candidate, without entirely taking himself out of the running.
"I think Mark Warner's so committed to playing the heavy role in fixing the nation's fiscal challenges that he is not going to give up until substantial progress is made," said the former Del. Bryant, who also served as state secretary of natural resources under Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine. "I think this is the calling of his life right now."
Warner also has other priorities he wants to advance through legislation and the pull of his Senate office. Some of those had his attention on the Wednesday before the Senate broke for its July 4 recess.
His day began at the White House, where he attended a forum for the "A Billion + Change" campaign. Warner is the honorary chairman of the campaign, which mobilizes skills-based volunteer services from American businesses to help nonprofit organizations. On this day, Warner was celebrating the fact that the campaign had enlisted some 200 companies to provide $1.8 billion in pro bono services. One company Warner singled out was Virginia-based Capital One, which developed an online case management system to help the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society match clients with lawyers who provide pro bono services.
After arriving at the Russell Senate Office Building that morning, Warner met with his deputy chief of staff, David Hallock, and Amy Edwards, his Senate Budget Committee staffer, to review government reform legislation that the senator is fine-tuning.
Warner is chairman of the committee's Task Force on Government Performance -- a job well-suited to a wonk who made a big deal out of reducing state government's cost for light bulbs from 32 cents to 23 cents. He's crafting a federal regulatory reform proposal that would require an economic impact analysis for regulations costing more than $100 million, measurable goals for those regulations, and elimination or modification of a regulation when a new one is adopted.
"We never call out regulations that have outlived their time or worn out their purpose," Warner said. "There's never any retrospective review of any regulation to see if it's accomplished its goal."
He's also staying busy on the other side of the Potomac River. On a Saturday in mid-June, his office hosted its second "Virginia Leadership Summit" at the University of Richmond. The program drew a diverse crowd of about 500 people, many of them alumni of various Virginia leadership programs.
Warner said he wants to help cultivate a new generation of civic-minded leaders -- not necessarily in politics --who can work together across regional lines to move the state forward. He recalled how the state's movers and shakers would flock to the annual Christmas party held by Roanoke business giant John Hancock, who died in 1994. Those gatherings, Warner said, "exemplified the old Virginia business community."
The crowd he's trying to stoke now is younger, more mobile, more diverse. But there is a certain characteristic he wants the next generation to retain.
"I don't want Virginia to become like Washington," Warner told the group. "I don't want Virginia to become a place where this is no institutional support at any level â? to kind of do what's in the best interest of the overall community."