OPINION: Warnock looks to make his mark on first Defense bill

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks at a news conference on Medicaid expansion with other Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 23rd, 2021.

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks at a news conference on Medicaid expansion with other Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 23rd, 2021.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock went to Washington from the pulpit of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church. But he has spent a significant amount of his time getting rapidly up to speed on defense policy, especially as it relates to Georgia’s 13 military installations.

Along with fellow freshman Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, Warnock is working to keep Georgia’s clout as a leading state for military missions and spending, even as Georgia heads into the end-of-year Defense policy debate without a Georgian on the Senate Armed Services Committee for just the third time since 1946.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, the Republican from Tifton, is a senior member of the House version of the panel, but the senators’ first test comes this week as the Senate prepares to debate the annual defense authorization bill.

What Warnock and Ossoff lack in seniority and committee memberships, they may be able to make up for as members of the Senate majority with direct lines to Joe Biden’s White House.

Warnock in particular is fascinating to watch. Perhaps because his father was an Army veteran or because his hometown of Savannah is also home to two massive military installations, Warnock said military and defense policy is a space he’s “very comfortable” in.

“I have a tough-minded view of the world,” Warnock said in an interview Tuesday. “We have to be able to protect the homeland and we have to be able to restrain evil in the world.”

Along with the senators’ travels throughout Georgia this year to learn about the state’s military infrastructure, Ossoff has also gone overseas twice to bone up on foreign policy, including a visit to troops stationed in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

One trip for Warnock to visit Moody Air Force Base led to his effort in this year’s NDAA to keep the A-10 fleet based there in operation, even though it’s been pegged by military leaders for possible retirement.

“I heard from airmen there in August and raised concerns about the future of that mission with the Air Force secretary, and the bill prevents the retirement of the A-10,” he said.

Along with continuing the A-10 and expanding weapons systems and missions at bases around the state, Georgia is also slated for $320 million in military construction funds that would do everything from upgrading and expanding barracks to building microgrids for dedicated energy sources.

They’re not the most headline-grabbing projects in the world, but try fighting a war without the lights on at HQ or beds for trainees to sleep in. It’s not possible.

It’s also not possible to keep military bases open if they don’t have a mission that’s necessary — and that’s where each senator’s strategic planning and legislating in the NDAA come in.

If you’re ever in Columbus, Augusta, or Middle Georgia wondering how the Pentagon became those area’s largest employers, Georgians on the Armed Services Committees sending projects home to the state are the answer.

“I have fought to the mat to make sure that we continue to strengthen our military installations,” Warnock said.

Along with individual items for bases, the bill also includes a 3% pay raise for active duty and civilian personnel. Warnock also pushed for a “basic needs allowance” to make sure that the lowest-income service members still have their basic needs covered.

And Ossoff is working to get an amendment to expand cybersecurity training programs at Historically Black colleges and universities, along with flood mitigation for low-lying bases, including Georgia’s King’s Bay Naval Submarine Base.

The NDAA was supposed to be up for debate in the Senate this week, but a last-minute maneuver by mostly Republican senators has stalled the bill for now. Failing to pass it could mean the House version of the measure is the only one that passes, but that wouldn’t include all the changes the Georgia senators pushed.

“You’re watching the sausage-making in Washington, it’s not a pretty sight,” Warnock said of the senators blocking debate on the bill. “They need to stop playing games because we’re talking about our national security.”

Along with billions of dollars of funding, and major policy changes, the NDAA would affect not just Georgia military bases, but nearly every Georgian one way or another.

If the House debate is any guide, there will be heated debate over language in the bill, already approved by the House, to require young women to register for the military draft as men already do.

Georgia’s U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t on any House committee, but that didn’t stop her from offering an amendment to prevent women from signing up for the draft.

“This mother does not want her daughters drafted into the military,” she said of her two draft-eligible daughters. (The House included the draft language anyway.)

Warnock and Ossoff are both eager to move the Senate bill forward and it will be worse than a shame if the reason that doesn’t happen is because GOP Senate leaders block a bill that includes Republican priorities, too.

For Warnock, it will also be the result of his new priorities as a Senator along with the work he’s always done as a pastor.

On that trip to Moody Air Force Base to talk about the A-10′s, he also boarded a C-130 to pray with young service members deploying to Afghanistan to help evacuate Afghan citizens as the Taliban took over the country there.

“I had the honor as a pastor to pray with them and then come back to Washington and make sure they have the resources they need.”