WASHINGTON D.C., DC — In an historic election, they changed the face of Georgia – and control of the U.S. Senate. Now one year into the job, they describe what it’s like on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff went one-on-one with 11Alive Anchor Shiba Russell, to break down the issues and talk about Georgia’s future.
They touch on topics including voting rights, bipartisanship, what they think are their biggest legislative accomplishments so far, and where, as the first Black and first Jewish senators from Georgia who changed the balance of power in the upper chamber of Congress, where they fit into history.
11Alive will air the special, Inside the Senate, on Sunday, Dec. 19, at 11 a.m. Be sure to watch it on 11Alive and you can stream it on 11Alive.com.
Below, read Shiba's conversations with the senators, broken into two sections apiece:
Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock
- Shiba: What do you consider your top two legislative wins?
Warnock: The day we passed the American Rescue Plan, one of my colleagues who’s been in the Senate now for a couple of terms, called me and thanked me for winning because had I not won, had we not gotten the slimmest majority in the United States Senate, we wouldn’t have passed the American Rescue Plan.
Some of our state leaders are digging in and refusing to expand Medicaid, but I’m not about to give up on this, which is why I fought for a fix to the coverage gap and Build Back Better. So in the Build Back Better bill, which we are going to get across the finish line, there is a coverage fix which will finally get the 646,000 Georgians who are in the coverage gap the health care, affordable health care, that they need and deserve.
- Shiba: I don’t think a lot of people understand what that gap means to low-income Americans, right? So there have been a number of hospitals that have closed because of this, that’s right? This non-Medicaid expansion?
Warnock: Right, so when we talk about the coverage gap, we’re talking about folks who are not poor enough to get conventional Medicaid, but they can’t afford a health care plan either – they’re in the gap. And yes, we’ve had 10 hospitals in Georgia to close in 10 years.
- Shiba: Is it mostly rural?
Warnock: All of those hospitals have been in rural areas, so it’s not making us splashy or the headline people are not here. It’s a drag on the healthcare systems of those rural areas, it’s a drag on the economy in areas where the biggest employer might very well be the hospital. And there’s just no reason why we haven’t expanded. It’s costing lives and money.
- Shiba: Is there anything else you want to mention as far as a big win?
Warnock: I fought for the expanded child tax credit. I keep talking about it because I think it’s so important. This is the largest tax cut for working families in American history - $300 per child per family.
- Shiba: Up to $300 right?
Warnock: Up to on average between $200-300 per child per month. And when you think about the fact that the average American has $400 in their checking account or their savings account, it makes a huge difference.
- Shiba: Growing jobs, improving economic opportunities for Georgians, that’s another big platform for you as well.
Warnock: I think it’s important that we put forward legislation that’s going to create jobs and strengthen the Georgia economy, which is why I’ve fought for rural broadband, both accessibility and affordability. I have fought for public transportation. I’m so committed to doing whatever I can for the people of Georgia that I’ll work with anybody on both sides of the aisle to get it done. Have you heard about the Cruz-Warnock amendment?
- Shiba: No
Warnock: When we were pushing forward the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, he got up and made the argument for the Cruz-Warnock amendment, and then I got up and I heard myself say something I thought I’d never hear myself say: “I’d like to associate myself with the remarks of Ted Cruz.”
But we got the amendment. When the rest of the chamber heard that they said, well, we got to pass that, and it passed. And it’s one step closer to getting this interstate built out. I think there’s an important lesson there, that there’s a road that runs through Texas that also runs through Georgia, runs through poor communities, rich communities, it runs in front of hospitals and places where people work. There’s a road that runs through our humanity and it traverses political and partisan lines, and my job as a U.S. senator is to do everything I can to point to that road that connects our collective humanity and to push forward legislation that’s good for everybody.
- Shiba: Your first speech on the Senate floor was about civil and voting rights, and here we are months and months later, two pieces of legislation, both of which you are an original co-sponsor that have yet to pass. Were you expecting this much gridlock on voting rights?
Warnock: As a result of me pushing hard on this, eight of us got in the room, Sen. (Joe) Manchin included, and we wrote a compromise bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. That legislation came as a result of my advocacy. We wrote the bill. We wanted to make sure that represented in the bill was the broad ideological spectrum of our caucus. So some of our most liberal members and some of our most conservative members were in the room and we wrote the bill together. And it's a compromise bill. What we've said to our Republican counterparts - offer as many amendments as you like. Tell us what you don't like. Tell us what you do like. Let's have a conversation. And still, they are refusing to have a debate about voting rights. And so, I think that time is running out. The voter suppression bills that we're seeing passed, these state legislatures all across the country are getting worse and we have a historic decision to make.
- Shiba: So let me bring it back to Georgia for a minute here. I’m sure you’ve been following the news about the Georgia GOP redrawing Georgia’s political maps.
Warnock: Yes, absolutely.
- Shiba: Republicans will likely gain an additional seat in the House. Some communities of color are being shifted to incumbent Democratic congressmembers, who are expected to battle it out to represent the same district. When you learn of everything that’s going on with the redrawing of Georgia’s political maps, do you think of the legislation here in D.C. and how it could have changed what’s happening in Georgia?
Warnock: Well, partisan gerrymandering and racial gerrymandering are one of the many, many ways that people suppress the vote. And what you're seeing in that provision - and many others, like the provision that allows state partisan actors to swoop in and take over a local board of election - they're trying to take democracy and turn it on its head, so that rather than the people picking their representatives, the representatives are now trying to cherry pick the people. That's what that's about. That's why they're drawing these crazy, long lines. What we've got to do is we've got to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and we've got to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Sen. Jon Ossoff
- Shiba: I know you're working on numerous pieces of legislation with GOP senators. How has that process been for you?
Ossoff: Look, I believe in bipartisanship. I think that Georgians - and more broadly, the American people - expect us as elected representatives to put aside our partisan disputes and come together to do what's in the best interests of the country. We passed the most significant investment in America's infrastructure in generations this summer, and we did it bipartisan - 68 senators.
I'm working with Republican colleagues to advance legislation to address the opioid crisis. I'm working with Republican colleagues to advance legislation that will reduce violence and crime and civil rights abuses in our prisons. I think we need more of that bipartisan spirit in Washington.
- Shiba: HBCU National Security Innovation Act - can you tell us a little about that one?
Ossoff: Yeah, I have been a champion for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Senate, secured $250 million for Georgia's HBCUs since arriving here. Another example of bipartisan work, I authored and introduced the bipartisan Cybersecurity Opportunity Act, which will help Georgia's HBCUs to build programs that will enable their students to pursue careers in cybersecurity and technology. And these are gems in our nation's education system.
- Shiba: Georgia has one of the highest utility bills for families in the country. So when you're working to advance your solar power legislation, trying to make it more affordable for working families to just, you know, solar power their homes - why do you think this is so important for American families? Does it really just come down to the bottom line, just making it more affordable to live?
Ossoff: Well, it's a win-win, and better for the climate. My legislation will help families and small businesses in Georgia to reduce their electric bills, and it will also protect our environment and our planet by facilitating this transition to greater use of renewable energy sources like solar. And look, a little-known fact is Georgia hosts the single-largest solar panel factory in the whole western hemisphere. So it's helping families and businesses lower their utility bills. It's saving our environment and it's building out an important industry for our state.
- Shiba: I know voting rights is still one of those two pieces of legislation this year that you're on board with that still has not passed. What is your reaction to the redrawing of district lines in Georgia?
Ossoff: I think it's concerning and not as a partisan matter, as a matter of national interest in the quality of our democracy. I have authored the Right to Vote Act, which is legislation that would establish the first ever affirmative right to vote for all U.S. citizens and give U.S. citizens a recourse in court if any one seeks to diminish that right - allowing, for example, Georgia voters to challenge policies that make it harder to vote. It should be about ensuring we have access to the ballot for every eligible voter, secure elections with integrity.
- Shiba: Does it spur you to push harder on voting rights legislation when you see what has happened with the redrawing of district lines in Georgia?
Ossoff: Well, look, when I see what the Georgia state legislature has done to make it harder to vote and to try to tilt the scales in especially runoff elections, that motivates me to continue to push for the voting rights measures that I've authored - the Right to Vote Act - the legislation that I authored to ensure that good Samaritan volunteers can hand a bottle of water to a senior waiting in line at a polling place when folks face long lines to vote, the legislation that I authored to protect election officials and election workers in polling places from threats.
We need to come together as a people and recommit to the basic principles of our democracy. Election law shouldn't be about advantaging one party or another.
Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock
- Shiba: How do you juggle your two young children - you have a 2-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter - and prepping your Sunday sermons for Ebenezer Baptist and your multitude of duties on Capitol Hill? I mean, you're on endless committees. I'm sure I've left something out here, but how do you juggle it all between D.C. and Atlanta?
Warnock: I got a few things going on. I like to stay busy, and my children are the pride and joy of my life. And one of the toughest parts of this job is that I do spend some days away from that, but they really are the reason why I do this job. I look into their eyes, I think about the kind of country I want to see them inherit.
And I recognize that there's a way in which my children are probably going to be OK. Their dad is a U.S. senator with every opportunity, but there's a deeper sense in which I know that my children won't be OK unless other people's children are OK. And so there's a way in which they, even as I guide them as a father, they're my North Star. They're the reason why I fought for the expanded child tax credit, the reason why I fight for health care, a reason why I put forward a bill to green our yellow school buses, provide alternative energy to strengthen the economy in Georgia and to be kind to the planet. So it's a lot, and I'll tell you, I preach most Sunday mornings still, the Ebenezer Church. And the reason I do that is because I want to remain grounded. I don't want to spend all of my time talking to politicians. I'm afraid if I do that, I might accidentally become one, and it's never been my intention to become a politician. I want to be a public servant.
- Shiba: Do you like when people refer to you as the first Black U.S. senator from Georgia?
Warnock: A few weeks after I won, yeah, I was standing outside in my yard, I think I went to get the mail or something, and I noticed one of my neighbors noticing me.
And he recognized that the senator lived in his neighborhood and I went back in the house and just a few moments later, I heard the doorbell ring. I could see through the camera that it was the neighbor that I had just seen. And so I went to open the door - 10-year-old Black kid, about nine or 10 years old. He'd gone and gotten his big brother and they were standing there and he was holding my picture and he was like, "I just wanted to meet you. Will you sign my poster and will you take a picture with me?"
- Shiba: And your influence in the next generation?
Warnock: Seeing that kid look at me and see that he too could be a U.S. senator made it all worth it.
Sen. Jon Ossoff
- Shiba: This time last year, you were being called the most prominent millennial running for the U.S. Senate, and now you're the youngest sitting U.S. Senator. How does age translate in the hallowed halls of Congress?
Ossoff: I think I do represent a younger perspective and a fresh voice. I came here determined to be a workhorse and to reach out and build relationships with Democrats and Republicans alike, to work across the aisle to deliver for Georgia families, to just focus on the basics that Georgians need to flourish - health, education, infrastructure. And so far, during my tenure in the Senate, I've been building those relationships and passing legislation that will improve our quality of life in our state.
- Shiba: How do you feel when people refer to you as the first Jewish U.S. senator from Georgia?
Ossoff: Yeah, of course, I'm OK with it. I mean, look, it was a historic milestone for my community. I think I'm the first Jewish senator elected from the Deep South since something like 1879. I was sworn in on a prayer book that belonged to the former chief rabbi of The Temple I attended as a young man, who had been an ally of Dr. King's and the Civil Rights Movement. Ultimately, you know, we're not defined by our religious or racial identities, and it's our common humanity.
- Shiba: What is a typical week like for you? How do you balance your time between D.C. and Atlanta?
Ossoff: We're based in Georgia. My wife, Alicia, is an OB-GYN doctor with Emory Healthcare. She works mostly in labor and delivery at Grady Hospital. And I'm back and forth, often I try to be in the state as much as I can, meeting directly with constituents while I'm here.
I try to buckle down and do as much work as I can to build the coalition necessary to advance that legislation, the bill that I wrote that's now become law to increase resources for transportation planning in rural Georgia and low-income communities, to help us reduce traffic gridlock and build out our infrastructure. My bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives a couple of weeks ago, to make it more affordable for families and small businesses to install solar panels on their roofs. All of this legislation is rooted in what I've heard from the people I represent, what they need. And when I'm in Washington, I'm working to advance those bills.