‘Sales job’: Warnock hits the road to promote federal budget law

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

WARNER ROBINS — As U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock praised a newly signed tax, health and climate change law under a rain-soaked pavilion, he was interrupted repeatedly by a handful of audience members — not by hecklers, but supporters shouting “thank you.”

The senator is racing to promote the package and other recent Democratic legislative victories as history-making achievements before Republicans and other critics of the far-reaching law define the narrative surrounding the measure first.

He’s hoping the wins in Washington buoy his November reelection hopes — and give him another way to counter concerns about high inflation — at a time when Georgia voters remain concerned about the wobbly economy and skeptical of efforts to address it.

Those concerns are why gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams highlighted the ambitious federal effort to fight climate change on the campaign trail in Dalton, and they are why down-ticket candidates praise federal subsidies to expand health care benefits during meet-and-greets across the state.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

And they explain why U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff reminded voters in Macon the measure was not just pie-in-the-sky rhetoric but concrete law: “This is not just an idea, this is not just a bill that’s been introduced. This is legislation that’s passed both houses of Congress.”

But the law arguably holds the most promise and peril for Warnock as he faces a tight reelection matchup against Republican nominee Herschel Walker, a former football star intent on turning the November vote into a referendum on President Joe Biden’s economic legacy.

It was the dual victories of Warnock and Ossoff in the January 2021 runoffs that flipped control of the Senate to Democrats and made it possible for Biden to achieve the cornerstone of his domestic policy agenda despite unified opposition from Republicans in Congress.

And now Warnock’s core argument to voters is that Democrats are delivering on the promises they made during that exhausting campaign to support Biden’s legislative agenda.

“If it feels like we were doing this not long ago, I dropped by Warner Robins to tell you that this is not an experience of collective déjà vu,” Warnock said. “I said to you in 2020 that elections matter, and we’re gathered here tonight to say that elections still matter.”

Republicans have quickly mustered their forces against the measure, eager to turn the tables on what Biden called the “biggest step forward on climate ever.”

They paint the package as chock-full of wasteful spending that will render the name of the measure — the Inflation Reduction Act — a joke.

Economists are divided on the law’s impact.

Moody’s Analytics estimates the bill will cause a modest reduction in inflation over 10 years, and an analysis by the Penn Wharton Budget Model said the bill would have almost no effect on inflation.

Republicans also criticize new funding for the Internal Revenue Service aimed at hiring more auditors to crack down on tax evasion, although Democrats have said that money will allow the agency to better enforce tax collections from corporations and high-income earners.

And they warn that a package of roughly $300 billion in new taxes on certain corporate stock repurchases and big corporations will end up hurting Georgians.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Like, do they not know things trickle down?” Walker said of the Democratic promoters of the law. “They don’t understand budgets. They don’t understand finance.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, eager to connect Abrams to high inflation and volatile energy prices, said Democrats are only making a tough financial environment worse.

Americans, the first-term Republican said, want the president and his allies to “put out the flames of their disastrous economic policies.”

“Instead,” he said, “they arrived armed with buckets of gasoline.”

‘Sales job’

With Congress in recess, Warnock kicked off his campaign bus tour in the shadows of Robins Air Force Base with a focus on his efforts to preserve Georgia’s military installations and support a new law that expands medical benefits for many veterans exposed to toxins.

But his remarks hinged on the new federal budget bill, which includes subsidies to curb prescription drug prices and a $35 monthly out-of-pocket cap on insulin for Medicare beneficiaries — a provision that Warnock long sought.

As the crowd cheered, the senator knocked Republicans for blocking a broader effort that would have also limited insulin costs for those with private health insurance.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“Apparently, they think they work for the pharmaceutical companies. I guess that’s who they work for,” Warnock said. “But I’m going to keep fighting until we cap the cost of insulin on private insurance as well.”

With some polls showing few voters know much about the new law, Warnock’s supporters say he must be aggressive on the campaign trail. Wilbert Bibbs, a Warner Robins retiree, worried that Democrats “won’t get credit for what they’ve done” to remake the economy.

“Warnock has got to do a sales job to let people know about the work he’s put in,” Bibbs said. “Democrats got slammed for the rising prices. Now they need to get the credit for what they’re doing now.”

Echoing Bibbs was military veteran Antuanette Davis.

“That’s the fighter we need for the fight we are in,” she said of Warnock. “But now we have to be aggressive. We have to emphasize that Democrats are fighting to bring down inflation and costs.”

For Warnock, that also meant talking about what wasn’t in the bill. Namely, funding to forgive student loan debt, a priority of Warnock’s since he attended Morehouse College on a “full-faith scholarship” — meaning he had no idea how he’d pay for it.

With Biden’s approval ratings hovering in the 30s in Georgia, Warnock is keen to demonstrate his independence from the president — and to show voters he’ll carry out his campaign pledges even if it riles up the White House.

“I’m continuing to say to the president of the United States that you need to do reasonable and reliable student debt relief and you need to do it right now,” Warnock said to rising applause. “To be clear — I know who I work for. I work for you. So I don’t mind telling the president that.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com