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October 17, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s Donnelly part of ‘The Middle’ that got deal done

TERRE HAUTE — Hanging out in the middle isn’t cool.

Its occupants don’t attract a captivated circle of listeners at parties, their comments don’t inspire hell-yeahs on Facebook, and they don’t pretend to always be right.

But they get things done. As the loud talkers and lion-sized egos carry on, folks in the middle quietly roll up their sleeves and get things done.

It took a group of 14 senators — all but one, Arizona’s John McCain, with little national name recognition — to steer the dysfunctional, messed-up Congress away from putting America on a collision course with an economically catastrophic government default. The coalition of seven Republicans, six Democrats and one independent met numerous times since Oct. 1, when a cluster of tea-partiers in the U.S. House forced a federal government shutdown and the possibility of a first-ever default on the nation’s bills over their demands to defund or repeal President Obama’s already enacted Affordable Care Act.

While others made noise, those 14 senators kept meeting … in the middle.

Finally, just hours before the deadline, the Senate leaders reached a deal to reopen the government and prevent a fiscal default, which economists widely warned would cause long-term damage to America’s economy and world credit ratings. The deal is temporary, less than perfect and irritating to those on the political extremes. It was necessary and the right thing to do, though. Their eventual budget deal featured most of the compromises reached on middle ground by those 14 senators. It funds the government until Jan. 15 and raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. It sets a Dec. 13 deadline for House and Senate panels to structure a long-term tax and spending plan.

After a couple of Hoosier members of the House tea party contingent uttered strange comments that became late night talk show punchlines in the past two weeks, it was refreshing to see a different Indiana congressman, Sen. Joe Donnelly, among those 14 lawmakers involved in those behind-the-scenes, bipartisan talks. Like other participants, Donnelly, a centrist Democrat and a freshman senator, had to compromise. He favored a repeal of the medical device tax in the health care act, which wasn’t included in the final deal, but got assurances the issue would be revisited in the December budget negotiations. Some wanted those December, January and February deadlines set earlier or later. The discussions were difficult, Donnelly said in a conference call Wednesday, and required pragmatism.

The sessions — conducted in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine — were not a forum for grandstanding in the style of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who led like-minded, hard-right conservatives in the House into the shutdown standoff.

“The easiest thing in the world is to be the loudest person in the Senate, the loudest person in the House, the person getting the most attention. But that doesn’t get anything done,” Donnelly told the media. “What gets things done is the relationships you have to work together to make our nation stronger. And you had 14 people in a room who trusted one another, who knew they could trust each other’s word, and who knew that their only goals were to try to make this nation stronger.”

The loose coalition included Collins and fellow Republican senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeff Flake and McCain of Arizona, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, along with Democrats Donnelly, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Maine’s Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, rounded out the group.

“The dynamics were, everybody basically left their political label at the door and worked non-stop,” Donnelly said. “It was negotiation where a number of people had different positions. Nobody got 100 percent of what they want, but the goal was to make sure our nation was protected.”

Another dynamic worth noting is that six — almost half — of those 14 negotiators were women. Only 20 members of the entire, 100-member Senate are women, though they constitute 50.8 percent of the U.S. population.

Donnelly said there are “no guarantees” the push-it-to-the-brink-over-Obamacare situation won’t arise again as the new, temporary deadlines approach. He’s “hopeful that cooler, wiser, more moderate heads will take a look at this and say, ‘Look, let’s create [economic] confidence. Let’s create jobs. Let’s create opportunity.”

Let’s hope the wiser, quieter voices remain right in the middle of the situation.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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