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October 18, 2013

Donnelly forges bonds, reaches across aisle

Centrists find a way to bridge the gap, offer budget blueprint

INDIANAPOLIS — When Indiana’s freshman senator joined a small group of Senate centrists two weeks ago to quietly begin forging a plan to end the shutdown of the federal government and keep the U.S. from defaulting on its debt, he was convinced it was what his Hoosier constituents wanted him to do.  

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly still is, as he heads home for a long weekend that will include re-opening his state offices and watching his beloved alma mater, Notre Dame, take on its historic football rival, Southern Cal, on Saturday.

The Democrat Donnelly was part of a bipartisan group of 14 moderates who crafted a framework for the final compromise that was approved by the Senate and House Wednesday night that reopened the government and averted the default.

“This is precisely what the people of Indiana expect from me,” said Donnelly Thursday. “When I was elected, I told them this is what I would do: I’d work with everyone in the Senate, whether they were Democrat or Republican, and just use Hoosier common sense.”

Indiana’s other U.S. senator, Republican Dan Coats, voted for the measure that reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling, though he did so reluctantly.

“While I deplore supporting yet another short-term Band-Aid, the only thing worse would be a continued government shutdown, the United States defaulting on its debt obligations and the elimination of the spending reductions enacted by Congress in 2011,” Coats said in a statement released Wednesday.

Donnelly’s role as one of the 14 moderates who crossed party lines to find a solution to the stalemate first emerged two weeks ago, after a rare Saturday session for the Senate. On that first weekend of the shutdown, the speeches on the Senate floor were sharply partisan.  

The tone in the chamber infuriated Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who stormed the Senate floor to urge her colleagues to “stop fighting and start legislating.”

Donnelly and some other centrists heard the call. Donnelly had worked with Collins this summer on legislation to amend a portion of the Affordable Care Act. Collins pulled some other centrists into the conversation as well, including GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The group eventually included five senators like Donnelly, who are just in their first term in office. The Washington Post described them as “not the Senate’s usual impact players.” Donnelly, though, describes them this way: “We’re people who see the world through a common-sense view.”

The group started meeting, quietly, on a regular basis to see if it could come up with a way to break through the deadlock. “We’d leave politics at the door,” Donnelly said. “We decided, ‘Don’t worry about being Democrat or Republican.’ Instead, let’s just look at how do we get our nation out of this difficult spot.”

By last weekend, they’d come up with a blueprint to end the shutdown. It moved the debt deadline into next year, and included income verification provisions to prevent fraud in the Affordable Care Act. It also called for a budget conference between the House and Senate.

Senate leaders initially rejected the proposal but it jump-started a new round of intense negotiations that led to the final deal struck by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Donnelly said the blueprint drafted by the centrists didn’t include some of the “pork” that was later added on to the 35-page bill passed by Congress, including millions for a dam project on the Ohio River. “They were a few things put in the bill after we handed over the framework,” Donnelly said. “What we did was provide a framework for good governance.”

Those centrists’ efforts are now credited for averting what leading economists and business leaders said would have been a global economic crisis if the U.S. had defaulted on its debt. But during negotiations, their efforts weren’t completely embraced by congressional leaders who were trying to hash out their own plans, Donnelly said.

“At various times they all told us to mind our own business,” Donnelly said, adding: “There were other times they said: ‘You’re the only game in town; keep working on it.’”

Donnelly said he couldn’t get everything he wanted into the blueprint, including the repeal of the medical device tax that’s embedded in the Affordable Care Act and opposed by Indiana’s medical device makers. Nor could he get more flexibility for the military to deal with the mandatory sequestration triggered by a debt-reduction bill passed by Congress in 2011.

But those are fights for another day, Donnelly said. “This was the kind of situation where you do the best you can.”  

The rest of Indiana’s congressional delegation were split on their support for the agreement. Democrat Reps. Andre Carson and Pete Visclosky, voted for it.  So did Republican Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Young, who both issued criticisms of the agreement. The other five Republican House members from Indiana — Reps. Jackie Walorski, Luke Messer, Larry Bucshon, Todd Rokita and Marlin Stutzman — all voted against it.

Donnelly said he expects to hear from his constituents this weekend about his involvement in the deal that broke the three-week stalemate. “Hoosiers,” he said, “are always more than willing to tell me what they think.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden @indianamediagroup.com.

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