There is little doubt that U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly is one of the more endangered incumbent Democrats in 2018, representing a state that gave President Trump a 19 percent plurality in 2016. So it was intriguing to watch him navigate the government shutdown demolition derby last week.
In a conference call with Indiana reporters last Tuesday, Donnelly affirmed his membership in the “Common Sense Caucus” or the “Mod Squad” of moderate bipartisan senators that emerged during the three-day government shutdown.
He succinctly summed up what he believes to be his marching orders from Indiana voters: “I was elected for work every day on the behalf of Hoosiers to do my job as a U.S. senator. Keeping the government running is our job. Over the past month I have voted consistently to keep the government open. I approached this job with the common sense we have as Hoosiers and I pledged to bring that to the Senate. That means working with Republicans and with Democrats to get things done and to solve problems.”
So there in a nutshell is Donnelly’s modus operandi, both in office and in the upcoming campaign. He found himself in the national spotlight twice over the past week. Late Friday afternoon, he signaled his willingness to break from Democrats to vote to keep the government open, saying, “Today we face a deadline to fund the government. It’s the most basic duty of Congress to keep our government running.”
Potential Senate challenger Todd Rokita took aim at Donnelly, saying Friday, “Typical Joe Donnelly. Joe only votes with Hoosiers when it doesn’t matter. He knows the votes aren’t there to pass this, so Schumer gave him permission to take a walk.”
When that deal imploded, Donnelly spent much of the weekend with the “mod squad” in Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ office, sometimes jammed with up to 22 senators that included everyone from West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.
“I met nonstop over the past several days with a bipartisan group of senators to craft a deal to end the government shutdown,” Donnelly explained. “This deal is the result of our work together. There was a group of bipartisan members before. What makes this work is that we trust each other. When you’re in a room and exchange ideas, you can solve problems.”
On Monday morning, when the log jam cleared after a weekend of coffee, doughnuts, potato chips and oranges, Donnelly said, “Like in 2013, I’m going to work with my colleagues in a bipartisan manner to reopen the government.”
Not only did Donnelly take Rokita’s needles, he took heat from the progressive left who portrayed Monday’s deal as a betrayal. “Today’s cave by Senate Democrats, led by weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats, is why people don’t believe the Democratic Party stands for anything,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago called the Dreamers Republican “hostages” and the GOP “kidnappers.” He said of Senate Democrats, “They caved. They blinked. That’s what they do.” But what they neglected to note that blame for the shutdown was somewhat evenly dispersed with a Politico/Morning Consult Poll putting it at 41 percent for Republicans and 36 percent for Democrats.
Donnelly responded to the criticism, saying that Monday’s deal secured six years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which assists 115,000 Hoosier kids and their mothers. It was funding Gov. Eric Holcomb had pushed for.
In striking the deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a carefully worded speech that it was his “intention” to address DACA and the Dreamers in February. Donnelly was willing to take him at his word. The Indiana Democrat noted that in a 2013 shutdown deal he helped broker, “I voted and the Senate passed with significant Republican support an immigration reform bill. We had 68 votes. The House never took it up. At some point Sen. McConnell and Speaker Ryan and President Trump have to decide they want to take care of this critical issue or not. These are real lives of real kids on the line.”
Donnelly added, “I can’t tell you what Speaker Ryan is going to do. If Speaker Ryan decides not to call this legislation up, he can explain that to the American people.” On Wednesday, President Trump sent more mixed signals, saying, “I think it’s a nice thing to have the incentive of, after a period of years, being able to become a citizen.”
In pushing a Dreamer deal, Donnelly said, pointed to one Hoosier: “One of them has a master’s degree in engineering from Purdue, and she works at Eli Lilly. Who wouldn’t want that young lady to stay in our country?”
The risk for Donnelly is if a Dreamer deal caves in February, a portion of his base is going to perceive him as gullible.
The danger for Republicans is that if a deal doesn’t get done, if President Trump continues to follow aide Stephen Miller and ignore overwhelming public support for a Dreamer deal (Politico puts it at 73 percent, a Washington Post/ABC Poll last fall put it at 86 percent), the optics of forcing tens of thousands of these folks — or “Hoosiers” as Donnelly calls some of them — out of America is going to be a wrenching and profound stain on the nation.
— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.