Democratic Sen. Mark Warner Defies Party to Engage GOP on a Deficit deal

The Virginia Democrat marches to his own beat. Can he help revive a bipartisan effort to cut the deficit?

Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo

In politics as in business, Mark Warner can be indefatigable in the pursuit of deals. So last spring, while the Democratic senator’s suburban Washington home was in a state of utter disorganization during a renovation project, Warner still found it the perfect time to invite a half dozen of his Senate colleagues over for dinner.

“His house was a mess, there was plastic all over the place, and we just meandered through the plastic to get to the kitchen,” Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss recalled. “His wife wasn’t home so he takes over the cooking, cutting up tomatoes, making salad, grilling steaks.”

The guests—the Gang of Six senators seeking bipartisan debt relief plus former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the president’s deficit commission—were put to work cooking and setting the table before they could get down to talking business.

The informality and the lack of vanity were a stark contrast to the group’s normal surroundings in the Senate, where decorum and parliamentary rules reign supreme. But it was classic Warner. He likes to sweeten the negotiations with a little food, drink, and social lubrication, no matter the circumstances.

The millionaire businessman-turned-politician doesn’t seem to care about perceptions, social formalities or bucking his party’s leadership these days, driven with singular focus to find a bipartisan solution to cutting a $15 trillion national debt he fears may soon cripple America.

“Anybody that thinks there’s going to be a one-party solution is living in a different reality,” he tells The Daily Beast, subtly tweaking his own party for its rigidness in engaging the GOP on all-or-nothing-terms.

Warner’s style may grate at the Democratic leadership from time to time but it draws accolades among a growing number of his congressional colleagues tired of the gridlock, sniping, and unpopularity of the current institution.

Warner “has provided tremendous leadership on these fiscal questions at a time when it is desperately needed and set an example by working as hard as he has to try to forge a bipartisan agreement,” says Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who was put to work grilling the steaks at last spring’s impromptu dinner.

Top on Warner’s list right now is getting the so-called Gang of Six talks back on track, a process involving three Republicans and three Democrats that unveiled a debt-reduction framework in the midst of last summer’s debt-ceiling negotiations. Their idea caught President Obama’s fancy momentarily before it was suffocated by both parties’ leaderships in Congress. Warner has since helped expand the group by two. Bennet and Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, are the new members of what has now become a Gang of Eight.

But the number of members of Congress who care about this issue has grown significantly and even become bi-cameral in the wake of the Supercommittee failure. About 45 senators and 100 House members have signed a letter to the congressional leadership expressing support for a “Go Big” $4 trillion deal that would include both entitlement and tax reform.

“The challenge is to get more people not just to sign letters but to get involved in this process,” he says, questioning why there isn’t more urgency as a debt crisis sweeps Europe. “The number of people who talk about change here versus the number of people who want to do it is very different.”

Warner sees himself as a “radical bipartisan centrist”—a position that serves him well back in Virginia, a “purple” state that leans right and where other centrist, pro-business Democrats are now often called “Warner Democrats.” But he recognizes his approach can be lonely—one Senate staffer called it more bluntly being “road-kill”—in hyper-partisan Washington.

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Many liberals in the party have resented Warner’s overtures to Republicans at a time when Democrats have been trying to draw stark contrasts between the two parties. And Warner has a somewhat chilly relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who recently derided the Gang of Six efforts as “happy” talk.

Despite such pressures, Warner remains a glass-half-full kind of guy, an upbeat, energetic workaholic who looks younger than his 57 years.

Warner graduated in 1977 from George Washington University as a political science major and valedictorian, attended Harvard Law School and then moved to Virginia to start a couple of businesses. His first effort failed in six weeks; the second in six months. But he found his stride in venture capital and “got in on the ground floor of the cellphone industry.”

He was a cofounder of Nextel Communications, a cellular phone network that merged with rival Sprint, leaving Warner a wealthy man. His net worth of about $180 million makes him one of the richest in Congress and one of the few whose wealth comes from being self-made rather than inheritance or a spouse. That endows him with significant business gravitas along with a certain freedom from toeing the party line.

Warner relishes being a dealmaker and problem solver, not only in business but because of his experiences as Virginia governor from 2002-2006. He clearly preferred that executive’s job to being a junior member of the U.S. Senate, where progress requires the blessing of leadership.

As governor he successfully worked with Republicans in the legislature to tackle a state budget shortfall and he was ranked one of the best governors and Virginia one of the best managed states in the nation under his tenure.

That left him well respected but not quite a major national political player. He flirted with a presidential run in 2008 but settled on running for the Senate. Now he has decided to make fixing the nation’s fiscal mess his mission. If his effort succeeds—and it is a big if—Warner will emerge a national figure of greater stature.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, calls Warner a tireless “policy wonk.”

“Once he focuses on something it is all or nothing,” she says.

As soon as he arrived in the Senate, Warner started cultivating relationships across the aisle, most notably befriending Chambliss, a conservative Georgian who is the co-leader of the Gang of Six. The two men began talking in summer 2010 about the nation’s deficit and debt crisis.

“We’re such opposite personalities,” says the laid-back Chambliss, who observes that Warner is much higher energy. “He is a hyper guy.”

The two focused on the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which issued its report Dec. 1, 2010. The proposal would shave $4 trillion off the national debt over the next 10 years by reforming entitlements, eliminating tax breaks and cutting government programs. Eleven of the commission’s 18 members endorsed the proposal, three votes short of the 14 needed to bring the plan before Congress for a vote.

President Obama essentially ignored the commission’s report, now commonly known as Simpson-Bowles, for its two chairmen—former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

MacGuineas considers the failure of the president and Congress to act on Simpson-Bowles “a huge missed opportunity that leaves us vulnerable to some very dangerous times ahead.”

Warner and Chambliss asked four of the senators who were commission members and had voted in favor of the report to join their effort—conservative Republican deficit hawks Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho; and Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the chairman of the Budget Committee; and Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s assistant majority leader. Thus the Gang of Six was born.

But party leaders and activists have not been particularly supportive.

“In the atmosphere that we’re dealing with in Washington right now, any time you have folks from the opposite side of the aisle getting together there’s a certain segment of my base and [Warner’s] base that doesn’t like it, Chambliss says.

The Gang started meeting about once a week but eventually it was almost every day for hours at a time. Talks almost broke down many times, and Warner was intently focused on keeping the discussions on track.

“I kept telling him I have to keep him on his medication to keep him calm during the negotiations.” Chambliss joked about Warner.

After months of meetings however, all the Gang was finally able to produce was a four-page summary released in July at the height of the debt-ceiling negotiations. Like Simpson-Bowles, it proposed reducing the debt by roughly $4 trillion through eliminating some tax breaks and deductions, Medicare reform, Defense Department cuts, scaling back agricultural subsidies, and other domestic spending reductions.

Thirty-six senators from both parties signed a letter endorsing the Gang of Six framework, and many outside groups concerned with budget issues praised its direction, but the unveiling came too late and the Gang’s approach was overtaken by the appointment of the Supercommittee, part of the debt-ceiling agreement.

Warner says he wished they could have gotten the plan out three months earlier but the group has resumed meeting and is looking to try to come up with something tangible that can get a vote in 2012.

Reid, however, isn’t a fan. “If someone has a proposal about reducing the deficit, the debt, here is my suggestion: Put it in bill form, in writing—not all these happy statements on what people think can be done,” Reid told reporters. When asked about the comments, Warner would only say, “I think the most important thing is keep your eye on the final goal.”

Jim Manley, a 21-year-veteran staffer of Congress who previously served as spokesman and senior communications adviser to Reid, says he thinks the majority leader feels “at some point you have to realize Republicans aren’t really interested in dealing.”

Manley also believes Warner’s efforts are noble but futile. “A moderate is nothing but road-kill in the Senate right now,” he says.

Warner doesn’t buy that, nor the theory that it will take a massive crisis inside the United States for partisanship to yield to action.

“I don’t accept that,” he says. There’s a hesitation. Even the optimists in Washington have some qualifiers. “I pray that’s not the case.”