By Matthew Tully
His party is about to be tossed from power in the U.S. Senate, the result of a brutal election year for Democrats, but Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana smiled over a plate of eggs Friday morning and said that, for him, life in the minority offers quite an opportunity.
Why? Because the rules in the glacially paced Senate often require not a majority of votes, but 60 votes, for anything to move. So while Republican’s 54-seat majority might have the Fox News crowd all giddy, it won’t mean a lot without crossover votes from moderates like Donnelly.
“They are going to have to have at least six Democrats on everything,” Donnelly said as we talked at the City Cafe Downtown. “So I think I’m in a great position — in the middle.”
Shortly after the November elections, Donnelly said he approached Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the incoming majority leader, and told him that, “I am here to help you get things done.”
To be more specific, the lawmaker from Northern Indiana told me that this is what that means: “On the crazy stuff here or there, on either side, I’ll pass. But on the jobs stuff, on the common sense stuff, on the stuff we should all be able to agree is good for the country, I’ll be there. I just want to get things done.”
Now before my conservative friends fill my inbox with outrage at calling anyone to the left of Ted Cruz a moderate, let me be clear: Like other moderates, Donnelly votes most often with his own party. That’s not a sin (though some will disagree), and it doesn’t disqualify him from moderate status. Just as it didn’t disqualify his Republican predecessor, Richard Lugar.
Donnelly is a gun rights supporter, and he votes more like a conservative Republican on abortion issues. He’s a fiscal conservative in many ways, and he’s certainly no great environmentalist. But beyond the wedge issues, the true spirit of a moderate is about something deeper. It’s about a willingness to work with the other side to get things done and to accept the reality that compromise is usually the answer.
Lugar believed that and Donnelly, elected in 2012, believes that. And it would be nice if more lawmakers in Washington believed that; if they did, perhaps Congress’ approval ratings wouldn’t be as paltry as its list of recent accomplishments.
Of course, it’s easier to be a moderate when the politics of your state demand it. Politicians such as Evan Bayh and Joe Donnelly can win statewide; Elizabeth Warren could not. So Donnelly’s stance is both appreciated and a requirement of the job.
“For me, it’s about being in the position Hoosiers elected me to be in,” he said. “It’s about being in the middle and going (to Washington) and trying to support common sense, and not to worry about the parties.”
And, so, in what many have labeled one of the least productive congressional sessions in history, Donnelly ended the 2014 session with a significant first-term legislative victory. It’s significant because it could help a lot of people and because of what it symbolizes.
The legislation is named after an Indiana National Guard member named Jacob Sexton, a 21-year-old who committed suicide in Muncie in 2009. It seeks to give soldiers and veterans more support and encouragement in their darkest days and to proactively identify looming crises. It comes amid a flurry of reports detailing a disturbing and heartbreaking increase in suicides among service members current and former.
The bill will require mental health assessments each year for those in the service, and it calls for a federal report that will examine existing programs to see if they are working and, likely, to suggest new ones. It seeks to erase the unfair stigma that so often is tied to the decision to seek counseling.
“What has to happen,” Donnelly said, “is we have to show (service members and veterans) that this is not a sign of weakness. Part of the focus here is to make them know that there is nothing wrong with talking to someone.”
Not to get carried away, but the legislation’s success is a sign that, even in Washington and even in this toxic political era, things can get done. To get this done, Donnelly teamed up with a Republican, Roger Wicker of Mississippi. And he worked methodically to build support from a vast array of sources: military and health organizations, Democrats and Republicans, and veterans and family members of those serving.
“It was done the classic way things should be done out there,” Donnelly said. “With my Republican friend and I sitting down saying, ‘let’s get this done.’”
When portions of the original bill were spiked by more senior senators, Donnelly said he had a choice to make: He could either compromise and get most of what he wanted or let his legislation die out of political stubbornness, as many other bills have.
He chose compromise. It was a wise choice.
“That culture has been gone for a long time,” he said. “We’ve been in this period where people in Washington say they have to get everything they want or they are going to hold a press conference and stomp their feet up and down.”
That’s indeed been the way of Washington of late, but it’s gotten the country nowhere. And it’s a reminder of why Indiana was smart two years ago to send Joe Donnelly to the Senate.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/matthewltully.