Warner, undeterred by winter storm, visits firefighters

Posted: January 22, 2014

The Winchester Star

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., talks with city firefighters (from left) Rebecca Rogers, David Hughes, Lawrence Carpenter, Jeremy Greenbacker and Ryan Steele at the Shawnee Fire and Rescue Company on Valor Drive Tuesday. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — U.S. Sen. Mark Warner was planning to have an audience of 1,200 while in the city on Tuesday, but thanks to the snowstorm he had to settle for five.

The Democrat is on a five-day trip around the commonwealth, and was scheduled to talk to Handley High School students Tuesday morning.

With school canceled because of a winter storm, Warner instead went to Shawnee Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company on Valor Drive off Weems Lane, where he delivered doughnuts and talked to members of the combined volunteer and paid staff.

He also took time after meeting the firefighters to discuss issues going on in Congress.

“It’s important work you all do,” Warner told the firefighters. “[I] appreciate it. I would ask you what complaints you’ve got with Washington, but it would take all day. This stuff in Washington shouldn’t be this complicated.”

He said legislators have finally hammered out a budget, but a more comprehensive one will need to be done at some point.

President Barack Obama on Friday signed the $1.1 trillion spending plan that will keep the federal government open through September and ease up on some sequestration cuts, according to The Associated Press.

“The good news is we avoided the worst of sequestration,” Warner said after his meeting with the fire and rescue personnel, and before heading off to his next stop in Harrisonburg. “We had an overwhelming bipartisan vote on the budget.... It doesn’t still address the big issues — our underlying growing debt problem, which means both sides are going to have to give.”

The Republicans will have to give some on tax reform, and the Democrats on entitlement reform, he said.

“That’s where I’ve spent most of my efforts over the last four years,” said Warner, who is being challenged this fall by Ed Gillespie, who served as counselor to President George W. Bush and is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“I was trying to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get our country’s finances in place.’ I still believe the single best thing we can do for our economy is to get our country’s finances straight.”

Congress is still working to fix troubled spots in the Affordable Care Act, often dubbed Obamacare, he said. The act was one reason why Warner chose to visit a fire station.

“There was a concern that the health care law might apply to volunteer [fire and rescue workers], which would’ve been crazy,” Warner said.

He conceded the ACA is “an imperfect bill.”

“But, there are a lot of people now who had pre-existing conditions getting health insurance,” Warner said. “There are seniors getting the doughnut hole [gap in Medicare] filled. There’s preventive care being offered.

“The challenge is how do we keep the good, but fix some of the problems. If you go back to when Medicare started, or even when Social Security started, Congress never got it really right the first time.”

Portions of those programs had to be fixed, he said.

“My hope is that there will be a willingness on both sides to be willing to try to fix it,” Warner said.

He said his first term in office has involved coalition-building.

“I’m proud of the fact that every major piece of legislation I have worked on, I got a Republican partner,” he said.

Warner is part of a group of 16 senators from both parties who are part of the Commonsense Caucus.

The way to start healing rifts caused by partisanship is “by getting to know each other,” he said.

Dinners with 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats are a way to accomplish this.

“Once you eat with somebody and you find out about one another’s kids, it’s hard to call them a name the next day,” Warner said.

While he wasn’t naive coming into the Senate, Warner was still struck by how partisan politics push individual legislators to pick sides.

“We’ve got to find a way to back out of that,” he said.

His support of offshore drilling and the Keystone XL Pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas, and of reforming Medicare and Social Security was more in line with some Republican sensibilities, Warner noted.

He deflected any curiosity over a potential presidential run.

“My interest right now is seeing if we can make the Senate work better,” Warner said. “Neither party’s got all the answers, and somehow we’ve got to make it OK for people to compromise and find common ground.”

Nor did Warner have much to say regarding former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was indicted — along with his wife, Maureen — Tuesday afternoon on multiple federal counts involving gifts they received from former Star Scientific CEO Johnnie Williams. He said he didn’t know all the particulars of the investigation.

“I think there needs to be [ethics] reform,” Warner said before news of the indictment. “I found Gov. McDonnell a good governor to work with. I think he did a lot of good things for Virginia.”

The Shawnee firefighters seemed to enjoy Warner’s visit and the doughnuts — which they didn’t tuck into until after he left.

“I felt like he wants to reach out to us,” said David Hughes, a paid firefighter/technician.

“We’ve had some politicians living in Winchester, but how many of them actually came out to the firehouse?” paid firefighter Ryan Steele asked. “That makes a difference in my eyes alone.”

Rebecca Rogers, a volunteer probationary firefighter, noted Warner seemed surprised to learn that the volunteer side of the operation paid for the building and nearly all the equipment.

“I think he really realized how unique Winchester is by seeing volunteers and career people getting along,” paid probationary firefighter Jeremy Greenbacker said.

— Contact Sally Voth at svoth@winchesterstar.com