Warnock returns to U.S. Senate with busy agenda, high expectations

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

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

After he stepped off a plane from Atlanta and walked through one of Washington’s busy airports Wednesday, passers-by reportedly cheered and applauded newly reelected U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

The rock star treatment continued at the Capitol, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer greeted Warnock on the front steps to welcome him back. Inside the Senate chamber, colleagues gave Warnock hugs and slaps on the back as he participated in his first votes after earning a six-year term in office.

The Atlanta Democrat had told the hundreds of supporters who attended his election night party that he wouldn’t allow himself much time to savor his victory over Republican Herschel Walker. He needed to pivot back from candidate to sitting senator.

“Let’s celebrate for a little while on this mountain; let’s dance because we deserve it,” he said. “But tomorrow we go back down into the valley to do the work.”

Warnock will be sworn into office to start his new term in early January, but first he needs to close out the current session. With the Senate split 50-50, fellow Democrats had to work around Warnock’s absences during the four-week runoff campaign as they tried to pass legislation or confirm appointments where every Republican was expected to vote no.

The unsettled Senate race also slowed down deliberations on other pending issues, such as funding federal agencies and approving the annual defense policy package known as the National Defense Authorization Act.

Government funding runs out Dec. 16, and Republican and Democratic leaders disagree on whether to pass a short-term fix that expires in early 2023 or work out a longer agreement that would keep the bills paid through October.

The National Defense Authorization Act was approved by the House on Thursday after leaders agreed on a provision ending COVID-19 vaccine mandates for active-duty personnel. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus temporarily held up action because they wanted to use the bill as a vehicle to push forward with voting rights legislation, but ultimately that didn’t happen. The Senate could take a vote on the defense measure early next week.

With funding and policy issues slowed down by behind-the-scenes disagreements, the Senate focused on confirmations. Only a majority vote is needed to approve President Joe Biden’s nominees, meaning even if all 50 Republicans are present Democrats can still move forward with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tiebreaking vote.

But that means Warnock’s presence is needed, and he missed the majority of votes during the four-week runoff period.

But just the day after his victory, he was back on the Senate floor where the only votes scheduled were to advance Biden nominees. Between those votes, colleagues from both sides of the aisle offered Warnock handshakes, hugs and words of congratulations.

Starting in January, Democrats will have a true majority with 51 seats. That not only means fewer tiebreaker votes from Harris but that Democrats will get a majority of the seats on committees. Republicans have used evenly split committees and other procedural tactics for the past two years to hold up certain nominations, including one of Biden’s picks for the Federal Reserve Board.

Schumer said Warnock’s win is significant for Senate Democrats who will have more power and will help Biden achieve his goal of diversifying federal courts where judges serve lifetime appointments.

“There are more Black women on the federal bench now today than all the others combined before Biden became president and we got into the majority,” Schumer said Wednesday. “And they’re people who know what people’s lives are like. They’re not just corporate lawyers or prosecutors. They’re immigration lawyers and consumer advocates and legal aid people, public defenders. So the bench is looking more like America. Now it’s going to be easier.”

During his speech Tuesday night, Warnock also outlined his personal agenda for his first full term in office. He said he wanted to help build a stronger Georgia by passing laws that help farmers keep their businesses afloat, let essential workers earn livable wages and assist parents struggling to put their kids through college.

“I want all of Georgia to know, whether you voted for me or not, that every single day I am going to keep working for you,” he said. “I’m proud of the bipartisan work I’ve done, and I intend to do more.”

Leaders from a coalition of grassroots organizations that collectively knocked on 6 million doors for Warnock said Wednesday that they now expect to have a seat at the table with him. These organizations represent various constituency groups, including Black, Latino and Asian American voters voters and labor unions.

Hillary Holley, executive director of Care in Action, a political organization that represents domestic workers, said the group has a list of priorities that it hopes will get more attention after a successful showing in the midterms for Democrats.

“Now that we have 51 in the Senate, we’re going to come back,” she said. “We’re going to come back to the Biden-Harris administration, but we’re going to also tell Warnock: ‘Hey, here’s how Care in Action helped you win. So we really need to educate you on our demands and the policies that we need passed.’ ”

CASA in Action is a group that represents Latino voters, and Georgia State Director Luis Zaldivar said he is hopeful Warnock will work to advance immigration legislation during the final weeks of the current session. That is a long shot, but Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, and Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, have reportedly been trying to iron out new language that can be introduced.

“Warnock is going to have the opportunity now in the lame-duck session to give protections to ’Dreamers,’ ” Zaldivar said, referring to recipients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Biden called to congratulate Warnock shortly after the major networks and The Associated Press declared him the runoff winner Tuesday night but before he delivered his speech. White House staff later released video showing their chat, and you can hear Warnock apologizing for the noise as his family celebrated in the background.

“This will make it easier for us to get some things done,” Warnock told Biden.

“Sure it will,” the president replied. “I guarantee you it will.”