First in a four-part series
It was a seasonal early-spring Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Cherry blossoms were already in bloom after a warmer-than-normal late winter.
There was a certain energy in the air with thousands of people gathering in locations surrounding the Capitol related to the then-ongoing arguments before the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the 2010 health-care reform.
On the fourth floor of the Russell Office Building, it was business as usual in the office of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. The schedule on Tuesday mornings has Warner and staff in meetings with constituent groups heading into the twice-a-week closed-door Senate Democratic Caucus.
This particular Tuesday ended with Warner in another closed-door meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee. This particular closed-door affair is also off-limits to cell phones and comes against a backdrop of white noise that can literally turn one’s head to spinning.
Equally head spinning, Warner reveals in a sitdown interview back in his office, is figuring out where and how he fits within the culture of the United States Senate.
“If you had asked me three or four months ago, I thought I’d kind of figured it out. But there are still things that surprise me,” said Warner, who admits to having gone through “a little frustrating patch” over the past couple of months that gave him a “fresh taste of the institutional pressures” in the Senate that prevents work from getting done.
Off camera, walking to the caucus lunch, Warner expounded upon that, noting that Senate Democrats were meeting behind closed doors in one big room while Senate Republicans were meeting behind closed doors in another. Warner ran for the Senate in 2008 promising to use skills forged in his term as governor of Virginia to reach across the aisle to craft bipartisan solutions that would move the country forward.
Then the 2010 midterms happened, and emboldened Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats shut whatever momentum there had been from the first two years of the Barack Obama administration down.
That’s a concern to Warner, leaning on his experience in state government in Virginia, which has a part-time legislature that nonetheless does “pass a lot of stuff,” Warner said, “hundreds and hundreds of bills that a governor has to review,” it’s a different atmosphere, a far different atmosphere, in the United States Senate in 2012.
“There seems to be this kind of acceptance of, Well, it’s a presidential year, we’re not going to do anything. It’s really a very foreign concept to somebody who comes at this from the standpoint of being a one-term, four-year governor who, every day you didn’t get something done, you weren’t going to get (that day) back. Whereas there’s, I think, a sense here of, OK, we’re not going to get it done this year, maybe next year, if not, the year after,” Warner said.