NRSC’s Misleading Attack on Warnock

An ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee makes two misleading claims about votes cast by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

  • The ad claims Warnock “voted with Biden to slash Medicare spending.” The bill seeks to cut costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate some prescription drug prices, not by cutting benefits.
  • The ad says Warnock “voted with Biden to cripple U.S. oil production.” The ad cites votes against two symbolic amendments proposed by Republicans during a 2021 vote-a-rama, but U.S. oil production has increased during Warnock’s time in office and is projected by the Energy Information Administration to rise to a record high in 2023.

The NRSC ad generally takes aim at Warnock for touting his bipartisanship. “Now he claims he’s bipartisan? Not exactly,” the ad’s narrator says, before making the claims about Medicare and oil. “And Warnock voted with Biden for huge spending that is fueling inflation. Look closely and you’ll see: Raphael Warnock votes with Joe Biden 96% of the time.”

According to a analysis, Warnock does, in fact, vote in line with Biden’s position 96.4% of the time. More than half of Democratic senators vote along with Biden’s position at an even higher rate. (By comparison, nine Republican senators vote in line with Biden’s position 50% of the time or more.)

But there’s more to bipartisanship than that. The nonpartisan Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index “measures the frequency with which a Member co-sponsors a bill introduced by the opposite party and the frequency with which a Member’s own bills attract co-sponsors from the opposite party.” By that measure, Warnock in 2021 ranked 18th among the U.S. senators.

The claim about Warnock voting with Biden for “huge spending that is fueling inflation,” refers to Warnock’s March 6, 2021, vote for the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief measure that included $1,400 checks to most Americans; expanded unemployment benefits; money for schools, small businesses and states. Back in June, we looked at the bill’s impact on high inflation, and economists told us that while it has been a contributing factor, Republicans have placed too much blame on it for rising costs.

Two other claims in the ad are more problematic.

Medicare Spending

It’s misleading to say the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August by Democrats (including Warnock) would “slash Medicare spending,” as if that means Medicare benefits would be cut. As we have written, the Inflation Reduction Act seeks to lower prescription drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate some prescription drug prices.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the Medicare provisions in an earlier version of the bill would reduce the deficit by about $288 billion over 10 years.

As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget explains, “While these policies do reduce the cost of Medicare, they do so by lowering prescription drug costs, not by cutting benefits. In fact, we estimate the policies as a whole would improve benefits by lowering premiums and out-of-pocket costs — including through a $2,000 annual cap on out-of-pocket costs.”

Oil Production

To back up its claim that Warnock “voted with Biden to cripple U.S. oil production,” the ad from the NRSC cites two votes on amendments that were part of a so-called Senate vote-a-rama on a budget resolution that paved the way for Democrats to move forward with a coronavirus relief package via “reconciliation” — meaning that the measure would not need Republican support. In all, legislators proposed 889 amendments, part of a marathon legislative process that is largely political theater. 

As the Washington Post noted at the time, “Even amendments that were adopted would not have the force of law. But they could still resurface in future political ads.”

And so here we are.

The first amendment cited in the NRSC ad was one proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Braun “[t]o establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to prohibiting the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency from promulgating rules or guidance that bans hydraulic fracturing in the United States.” The amendment passed 57-43, with several Democrats crossing party lines to vote for it, though Warnock was not one of them.

Braun boasted on his Senate webpage, “I successfully passed an amendment to prevent the Biden administration from banning fracking: to protect jobs, to keep America energy independent, and to keep us on a path to clean, cheap energy.” Never mind that Biden has said that he would not completely ban fracking, and that the Biden administration never followed through on Biden’s promise to end new fracking on federal lands. Roll Call described the amendment as a “symbolic” win and said that, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, it was stripped from the text in the final substitute amendment that was adopted.

The second amendment cited in the NRSC ad was one proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee “[t]o let Federal revenues reflect continued leasing of oil and gas on Federal lands.”

We couldn’t find any news stories in the Nexis database that mentioned the amendment. On his Senate webpage, Lee noted that it was one of three amendments he offered in the vote-a-rama and that it was aimed at “protecting jobs and royalty revenues created by oil and gas leases from new regulations designed to cripple the American energy industry.” When he introduced the amendment on the Senate floor, Lee noted the Biden administration’s early efforts to halt new oil and gas leasing on federal lands. He said, “This amendment would allow the budget numbers to reflect ongoing lease revenues that would go to the states and to the federal government.”

The amendment failed on a 50-50 vote along partisan lines, and Warnock was among the votes against it.

So neither amendment made it into the final legislation, yet oil production has not been “crippled” — as the ad put it — during Warnock’s and Biden’s time in office.

As we wrote in March, U.S. domestic production is still recovering from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the price of oil to plummet in early 2020, followed by a reduction in capital expenditures in the industry. Shortly after taking office, Biden ordered a pause in new leasing of federal land and water, which Republicans charged was hurting energy production, but that action was ultimately blocked by the courts. And in any case, the order did not restrict energy activities on private or state lands, where the vast majority of drilling takes place.

After banning new imports of Russian oil in March, Biden called on U.S. companies to increase production. In June, the U.S. held its first onshore oil drilling lease sales since Biden took office. A few days later, the Biden administration released a five-year proposal for offshore oil drilling, including in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

U.S. crude oil production averaged roughly 11.5 million barrels per day during the most recent 12 months ending in June, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data published in August. That was 1.6% higher than the average daily amount of crude oil produced in 2020 (but 6.6% lower than the daily average in 2019). In its Short-Term Energy Outlook released in early September, the EIA projected that crude oil production would average 11.8 million barrels per day in 2022 and 12.6 million barrels per day in 2023, “which would set a record for the most U.S. crude oil production during a year. The current record is 12.3 million b/d, set in 2019.”

In any event, experts told us Biden’s policies didn’t cause gasoline prices to spike after 2020. Rather, they said, when economic activity dropped off early in the pandemic, global demand for crude oil declined along with it, leading to a dramatic drop in the price of crude oil and gasoline, and, consequently, a drop in new spending and investments by oil companies. Then, as the global economy began to recover, and people began to resume their regular activities, global demand for crude oil increased rapidly while the global supply was not able to keep pace. Experts told us prices climbed even higher after Russia, one of the world’s largest oil exporters, invaded Ukraine in late February.

Warnock, the incumbent, faces Republican challenger Herschel Walker in the Nov. 8 general election. The Cook Political Report rates the race as a “toss up.”

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