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Warner learns from talks

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

NORFOLK (AP) — U.S. Sen. Mark Warner was fired up.

After a four-year crusade for tax and spending reforms to rein in a dangerously high national debt, he was finally getting a seat at the table.

In the aftermath of a 16-day government shutdown sparked by bitter congressional feuds, Warner was one of about two dozen lawmakers tapped in mid-October to hammer out a budget agreement and head off another shutdown.

Warner saw it as a chance to use his persuasive skills and knowledge of fiscal issues to convince the group that a “grand bargain” of entitlement reforms and tax changes would stabilize the economy.

“I absolutely believe this is the biggest security threat to our country. Leaving our kids and grandkids with this giant IOU is un-American,” Warner said in an interview in his office.

It was not to be.

The budget committee’s two leaders worked out a less ambitious fix — approved by Congress last week — that staves off a January shutdown and sets the budget for two years. But it doesn’t address the nation’s larger spending and debt issues.

Warner’s involvement ended up being a small supporting role — one with some humbling lessons in how to gain clout and temper his aggressive style to get things done.

“Am I frustrated? Yes. But does that mean it’s time to give up? Absolutely not,” Warner said after the budget deal was struck.

A 59-year-old former governor who made a personal fortune in the cellphone industry before entering politics, Warner has a self-admitted reputation as a hyperkinetic, take-charge executive. Since being elected to the Senate in 2008, he has often chafed at the deferential, slow-moving approach that prevails on Capitol Hill, where egos are huge and seniority carries weight.

After Sen. Patty Murray, who led the Senate negotiators, named Warner to the special budget panel, he waited for marching orders.

None came.

In the meantime, Murray, a Washington state Democrat, and her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, were talking privately and saying little to their committee’s members.

The full panel of 29 legislators — which included Virginia’s other senator, Tim Kaine — held two public meetings. One expert testified, and each member talked, but there was little debate and no votes.

Not wanting to sit on the sidelines, Warner reached out to Murray and her staff, offering alternative proposals, background information and insight about other lawmakers.

Murray, who viewed him as valuable counsel, had more private conversations with Warner than any committee members other than House leaders, said a Senate staff member close to the negotiations.

“He was one-part advice, one part resource or ideas,” the staff member said.

Warner started looking for a way to reach out, using his own network of contacts to connect with key legislators and press his ideas. He urged business executives to tell the negotiators that a larger deal was needed to help stabilize the economy.

Mindful that he didn’t want to interfere with Murray’s talks with Ryan, Warner kept her advised of every move.

Even with her backing, having private conversations with other legislators can be difficult to arrange. In the Capitol, it requires some finesse just to get in the same room without being seen.

This was the case when Warner sought to meet with House Speaker John Boehner — a Republican not easily available to Democratic senators. The meeting was arranged by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who has worked for years with Warner on debt issues and is a close friend of Boehner’s.

The two senators drew little attention as they strolled from the Capitol’s Senate wing to Boehner’s office on the House side. But just as they reached his suite, the door opened, and out walked the entire House GOP leadership team, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Not wanting to explain to Cantor, a Virginia Republican, why he wanted to talk to his boss, Warner quickly turned his back and knelt down, pretending to tie his shoe as Cantor walked by.

Warner declined to discuss his half-hour conversation with Boehner, saying only that he “wanted to make clear” that if there was a chance for a larger debt deal, many legislators would support it.


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