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Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) head to a meeting with President Biden last week. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain navigate the legislative minefield of the next few months, they'll often turn to a moderate Democrat who gets far less ink than Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

The big picture: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has become a pivotal player in the multi-trillion-dollar negotiations that will shape the Democrats' electoral prospects, Joe Biden's presidency and the future of the country.

  • Warner was an effective negotiator in the group of 10 Republican and Democratic senators who compromised last week on a roughly trillion-dollar infrastructure deal blessed by the president.
  • And now he'll be the most powerful moderating force on the Senate Budget Committee.
  • That panel is led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and is expected to be the arena in which Democrats battle over their next dream: a multi-trillion-dollar deal on social programs paid for with an overhaul of the tax code.

Behind the scenes: Centrist Democrats and Republicans involved in the negotiations tell Axios that Warner is well-positioned for this dealmaking role.

  • Besides his committee seat, he's played a key role in previous bipartisan deals, including the COVID-19 relief package passed in December.
  • A Republican source in the room for the recent infrastructure negotiations said Warner's private-sector background — he's a wealthy former tech investor — has positioned him well to speak the GOP language on numbers and financing.
  • The source said Warner also lightened the mood in stuffy Capitol Hill hideaway offices by bringing along expensive bottles of wine.

White House legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell said the president was grateful Warner effectively argued against one proposed solution: raising the gas tax.

  • Warner also helped Democrats win the argument to use dynamic scoring to estimate the budget impact of the infrastructure package.
  • Last Tuesday, the group was fighting about whether to factor expected economic benefits into their costs.
  • Warner showed up the next day with a paper, co-written by one of the GOP's favored economists, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, arguing the case for dynamic scoring. The method made it into the deal.

Between the lines: Sanders wants to spend $6 trillion on a vast expansion of the social safety net. Many Senate Democrats see that number as exorbitant.

  • Several sources told Axios they'll rely on Warner as their proxy on the Budget Committee to pull Sanders back to a "Goldilocks" figure that would be tolerable both to progressives and centrists.
  • Legislative directors for moderate Democrats are already funneling information to his office.

Between the lines: Warner wouldn't say where he thought the sweet spot would be for these negotiations, but he did say Sanders' proposal involved too much spending with too little raised to pay for it.

  • "Bernie's got out, basically, a two-to-one (spending to pay-for ratio)," Warner told Axios. "I don't think I can go that high."

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Oct 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Democrats sense now or never moment on climate legislation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democrats and advocates pushing for big climate investments in reconciliation legislation will likely need to scale down their ambitions even as they emphasize the global stakes of the fluid Capitol Hill talks.

The big picture: Democrats and the White House face the tricky task of crafting a social spending and clean energy plan that will be significantly smaller than progressives have envisioned.

Updated Oct 5, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on workforce development

On Tuesday, October 5, Axios media reporter Sara Fischer, publisher Nick Johnston and executive editor Aja Whitaker-Moore discussed the value of workforce development in a rapidly changing job landscape, featuring Sen. Mark Warner, Rep. Alma Adams and Spelman College president Mary Schmidt Campbell

Sen. Mark Warner underscored the importance of investing in human capital and explained his recent efforts to include a worker training tax credit in the reconciliation package.   

  • On incentivizing companies to invest in their employees: “If I could wave my magic wand, I would create a new tax credit for businesses that invest in workers, and I would give them the bigger tax credit for low-income and lower skilled workers.”
  • On the increasing amount of jobs that require high-level skills: “We think about giving workers more freedom to choose a future career, but I do think we need to match that with a little better assessment of what kind of careers are out there, recognizing that not all careers are going to require four-year college degrees, but they are going to require additions beyond high school.”  

Mary Schmidt Campbell explained how Spelman College prepares students and adult learners to adapt to the contemporary workforce, additional steps the government could take to invest in skill development for workers, and how to incentivize employees to improve their own skills.  

  • On preparing students to navigate an uncertain job market: “It’s really imperative for those of us who are in the field of education to think about how we educate for the future. Whatever job exists now could potentially disappear in the next five years.”  
  • On how companies can inspire their workers to develop new skills: “I think it is a powerful incentive when a company says to its employees, as a matter of your employee benefits, just as you’re entitled to health care or dental care or vision care, we are also going to provide for you to be upskilled.” 

Rep. Alma Adams outlined how HBCUs are developing a talent pipeline for the future, current campus conversations illuminating students’ career concerns, and how to ensure students from community colleges also benefit from workforce development initiatives.  

  • On input from the HBCU community detailing their priorities for growth:  “I’m hearing that we need to upgrade our campuses, we need to make sure that we have the technology that’s appropriate to train this workforce. We want to make sure that we can attract not only good students, but good faculty and staff, and have the kind of research that is commensurate with what we need to do to make sure that we have not only a good workforce, but one that is sustainable.”
  • On why it is critical to upskill workers to meet marketplace demands: “We’ve got a lot of jobs out here. We don’t have many people who are prepared and trained to do them.”

Axios SVP of Events and Creative Strategy Kristin Burkhalter hosted a View from the Top segment with Pathstream CEO Eleanor Cooper, who emphasized the growing demand for workers with multifaceted digital skills. 

  • “Obviously there’s been a large growth in online education since the COVID pandemic, and we see that different learners from different backgrounds with different jobs to be done need different solutions. What we’re talking about here is solving the problems for individuals who face more barriers and more hurdles in the labor market, and those individuals need more than online videos alone.”

Thank you Facebook for sponsoring this event. 

Scoop: U.S. Chamber backs off BIF

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters. Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is withdrawing its support of the Senate-passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill just hours after Punchbowl News reported House Republicans were booting it from its strategy calls, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The Chamber's chief policy officer, Neil Bradley, announced the policy shift in a letter to its Board of Directors on Monday. The pretense for his decision: President Biden formally linking the "hard" infrastructure bill with the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package during a meeting with House Democrats on Friday.

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