Opinion: Without reelection looming, Warnock dives into the grind of lawmaking

Now that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is not campaigning for office, he's focusing on work, such as trying to bring down the cost of insulin. “Here’s the thing," he said. "I actually want to get things done.”

Credit: Patricia Murphy/AJC

Credit: Patricia Murphy/AJC

Now that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is not campaigning for office, he's focusing on work, such as trying to bring down the cost of insulin. “Here’s the thing," he said. "I actually want to get things done.”

Amid the flurry of speculation about President Joe Biden’s health and the future of the Democratic presidential ticket, Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has frequently been floated as a potential vice presidential replacement or candidate for a future presidential run.

It’s not hard to see why. Along with being Georgia’s first Black senator and the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Georgia Democrat has also shown he knows how to win in a battleground state. He’s run in five statewide elections since 2020, between his run to unseat then-U. S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and his successful reelection campaign against Herschel Walker in 2022.

In both those races, Warnock won with a message that he would fight for broadly popular Democratic priorities but also work with anyone — Democrat or Republican — to get things done for Georgia. Ahead of the Walker race, he talked as much about working with Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as anything he had done with the Biden White House.

But outside of the heat of a reelection cycle, with a six-year term to work with, what kind of senator has he become since then?

I went to Washington recently to find out. On a typical Thursday with the Senate in session, the Warnock of today is the senator he promised to be, doing the slow, meticulous work of legislating, often with Republicans, to move his priorities forward, even as Democrats increasingly look to him as a national voice.

“Here’s the thing. I actually want to get things done,” Warnock said during our interview in his compact hideaway office above the Senate chamber.

Some members of Congress seem to want to be social media influencers, he said, but “I like actually making a difference in the lives of ordinary people.”

In the weeks after Warnock won reelection in 2022, he and his staff sat down to list his long-term priorities and chart a path forward to make them happen. At the top were significantly reducing health care costs, training young Georgians for the high-skill jobs coming into the state, and meeting Georgia farmers’ needs in the upcoming Farm Bill from his seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. He would work with Democratic leaders on gun safety, voting rights, abortion rights and more.

On the day I went to see him, Warnock’s schedule began with a photo with staff for the Senate’s annual Seersucker Day, followed by an hour presiding over the Senate floor. From there, he shuttled between multiple Senate votes, a Democratic lunch, an interview with an agriculture trade publication about Farm Bill negotiations, and video recordings for local Georgia events. The day before included committee hearings, a visit with Usher on diabetes treatment and more Senate votes. Not all of it was headline news, but the day-to-day grind of lawmaking rarely is.

“The good news is, I’m still very much enjoying my work, even with its frustrations,” he said. “Change is slow. I just like being in the fight about the things that matter.”

The frustration is the obvious one — chronic partisan gridlock in Congress where real solutions require members of both parties to be engaged.

“What’s frustrating is when we can’t move on things about which the American people, Democrats and Republicans alike, largely agree,” he said. “So for me, that’s a democracy problem.”

That’s also the view of the Lugar Center, a Washington think tank that studies and promotes bipartisanship in the mold of the late U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar. The moderate Republican from Indiana was a frequent partner with or Georgia’s former then-Georgia U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, on sweeping bipartisan bills.

The center’s bipartisan scorecard this year ranked Warnock at 14 out of 100 senators for most frequently working across the aisle. Dan Diller of the Lugar Center said while it’s not unexpected for senators up for tough reelections to move to the center, Warnock’s rate of co-sponsoring Republicans bills and getting GOP senators on his bills only increased after winning reelection in 2022.

“For a member like Warnock to establish such a strong bipartisan score when he was up for election and then to maintain and expand that when he has six years of running room is impressive,” Diller said.

Working across the aisle vastly improves the chances of a bill’s passage, Diller said. “If you’re interested in governance and solving problems,” he said, “your chances of succeeding are much more likely if you include outreach to the other party.”

Warnock’s approach can seem like swimming against the tide in Washington. On the day we met, the Senate voted on a Democratic bill to guarantee access to in vitro fertilization, which Republicans blocked. While Democrats met for their caucus lunch, Republican senators, including all the ones Warnock mentions as partners for his bills, huddled with former President Donald Trump, who had been convicted on 34 felony charges weeks earlier.

Warnock said he was aware of all of that.

“But in the meantime, I work with Tommy Tuberville to help Georgia farmers get their products to market. I’ve got on my insulin bill with John Kennedy as a co-sponsor,” he said of the Alabama and Louisiana Republicans he sponsored bills with this year. He listed more Republicans who co-sponsored his bills. “We’ve got J.D. Vance, we’ve got Mike Braun. I’ve got both Alabama senators. I’ve got Josh Hawley,” he said.

Yes, two men rumored as potential Trump running mates are also co-sponsoring Warnock’s bill to make insulin more affordable. And he wants them to. “The pastor is always trying to increase the members in the choir,” he said with a smile.

This is the Warnock that Georgia voters are getting when he’s not up for reelection. But he may not be away from the campaign trail for as long as expected. Down the road, could he run for president or vice president? People want to know.

At the moment, that appears to be far from his thinking. While other rumored presidential candidates have ramped up their fundraising and political operations, Warnock has not. And after Biden’s disastrous performance in the debate against Trump, Warnock was among the first to defend him, including with an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

It’s a balancing act to vocally support national Democrats, even in times of crisis, and also do the incremental, often bipartisan, work that legislating requires.

“It’s really not complicated,” he said. “I actually enjoy getting things done.”