Imagine for a moment that Congress’ leaders, desperate to avoid legislative gridlock this fall, select two members from their opposite sides of the aisle to settle things.
These two would avert the risk of a government shutdown by finding compromises on the budget and the debt ceiling. They would push through vital measures like long-term highway funding and the defense bill and no-brainers like reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. They would see that hot-button, high-emotion issues like Planned Parenthood are considered separately instead of being allowed to jam the gears of unrelated, bipartisan legislation.
To fill those roles, there might not be two better choices than Indiana’s senators. They both have some strong convictions, but they also have experience and basic Hoosier common sense. Republican Dan Coats, a rock-ribbed fiscal conservative, and Democrat Joe Donnelly, a pragmatic progressive, both take hard stands on hard issues. But they play the game by the traditional rules.
"I’ve tried to take the approach that working together will get a lot more done," Donnelly said in a telephone interview Monday. "I’m the fifth of five children and we had two dogs, so I was seventh in line at the dinner table. To sit out and throw temper tantrums when you don’t get your own way makes no sense to me.
"Anybody who looks at cooperating with others as a point of weakness couldn’t be more wrong."
Then there is Coats. "When I went to the Senate in 1989, (Democratic Majority Leader) George Mitchell and (Republican Minority Leader) Bob Dole ran the Senate," he said in an interview Aug. 25. Since his return to the Senate five years ago, "it’s been somewhat fascinating to me to see how divided and partisan it’s become and the lack of coordination between leadership."
"George Mitchell was ultimately fair," Coats said. "Every senator in the minority had every opportunity to weigh in on every piece of legislation. If you made your argument and you won the vote, then it was attached to the bill. If you didn’t make your argument and didn’t win the vote, nobody said, ‘OK, I’m going to shut it down because I didn’t get my way.’
"That was how the Senate was designed to function," Coats continued. "But over time, it just seems to have evolved into ‘my way or the highway.’ "
Former Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar has made similar observations. A study released earlier this year by the policy center he heads attempted to measure the amount of across-the-aisle cooperation in which each member of Congress engaged.
"Of the last 10 Congresses," Lugar said in an interview earlier this year, "the 112th and 113th (2011-14) were by far the most partisan."
The study by the Lugar Center and McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University ranked Donnelly as the third most bipartisan current senator. Coats came in 87th.
But at this point, neither Donnelly nor Coats could be described as a down-the-line partisan. Indeed, each has gone against his own party on a key action this year.
Coats was one of only five Republicans who declined to sign Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s ill-advised letter to the leaders of Iran during the nuclear negotiations. Just before the August break, Donnelly was one of only two Democrats who joined Coats and the rest of the Republican Senate in a vote to defund Planned Parenthood.
And when they look toward the resumption of this session Tuesday, Donnelly and Coats sound equally determined to see their institution move past the extremists and obstructionists and pass essential legislation. They’re also anxious to see action on issues in which they take special interest.
Coats, whose "Waste of the Week" effort to illuminate government inefficiencies has gotten too little attention in a chaotic political year, would like to see Congress systematically address the issue of deficit spending. "Now we’re at $181/2 trillion and we were at $10 trillion just six years ago. That’s a long-term problem that hasn’t been addressed."
He would like to see a stronger focus on preventing nuclear terrorism. "I’m worried about something coming our way that makes New York (on 9/11) look like nothing," said Coats, who saw the war on terror from a unique vantage point as ambassador to Germany in the early 2000s.
Donnelly quietly nurtures bipartisan efforts to expand mental health aid to service members and veterans."We’ve made a promise, and we need to keep it," he says.
For two years, Donnelly also has been working with New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Indiana Republican Rep. Susan Brooks to pass a bill that would provide federal help to states like Indiana that are fighting an epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse.
Aware of Indiana’s particularly acute road problems, both Donnelly and Coats are anxious to see long-term highway funding become law.
The Senate passed such a bill this summer. But the House was unwilling to take up the bill before recess.
"We desperately need to get a highway bill passed," Donnelly said.
Coats’ voice rose in frustration as he spoke as though addressing House leadership.
"We sent you what we thought was a rational, bipartisan-supported, six-year highway bill to take the uncertainty out," Coats said. "When you contract a highway, you can’t just think well, within three months they’re going to shut down the funding. You’ve got designers and engineers. ... And it was dead on arrival at the House – and it’s the same party. You guys ever talk to each other?"
Indeed, Coats seems to have less patience with some of his Republican colleagues than Democrat Donnelly.
"I don’t know how we’re going to get it (all) done," Coats said of the fall agenda. "It seems like we’re careening toward more short-term decisions, which push off making those (long-term) decisions."
The U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty will be the first order of business.
Coats’ early skepticism about the negotiations has hardened into strong opposition. Recent revelations about the allies’ inability to inspect American Parchin, a secretive military base south of Tehran, provide definitive evidence that the treaty was a bad idea, Coats said.
Donnelly, who said he conferred with Lugar, former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton and military leaders before making up his mind, said he believes the nation has an obligation to its servicemen and -women to make every effort to avoid military action.
"Immediately after that (Iran debate)," Coats said, "we roll into the end of the fiscal year. We haven’t passed one appropriations bill, so that’s got to be wrapped into a so-called continuing resolution.
"There are a lot of contentious issues related to that," Coats continued. "And it’s possible they’ll say we’ve got to roll this over to Dec. 15, over to whenever, and do temporary funding, which doesn’t get to the way any business ought to function or the Congress ought to function."
Coats wants to see questions like the funding of Planned Parenthood considered on their own merits. With wild presidential campaign rallies already warping judgments on Capitol Hill, he fears that hardliners could try to shut the government down. Coats has seen that happen twice before – in the 1990s and in 2013 – "and neither of these has accomplished the goal."
"The stock market’s dropping a thousand points in one day. You’re going to shut down the government with the world on fire? You’re going to limit the military capabilities and send home non-essential people? It just doesn’t make sense."
Though his party is in the minority in Congress, Donnelly takes a more optimistic view. "I can tell you that there are a lot of senators whose wish is to get things done and to move this country forward," he said.
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.