By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Joe Donnelly has just arrived in the U.S. Senate, but already he’s talking about how eager he is to get out of the nation’s capital.
In a conference call with reporters before he was sworn in as Indiana’s newest senator Thursday, Donnelly said he’ll be traveling the state next week seeking the support of Hoosiers to help him forge a stronger role for what he called “the middle.”
“There is so much more wisdom back in Indiana than in Washington,” Donnelly said. “I’m the hired help. I work for everybody back home. It is my job to make the state and nation stronger for our children and grandchildren.”
Donnelly, 57, said the best way for him to do that job is to be part of the emerging “middle group” of moderates in the Senate that can influence their party caucuses and push for legislation of their own.
“We are putting together a very significant middle group,” Donnelly told reporters. “It’s been heartening to see how many folks on the Senate side have formed in the middle.”
Donnelly, a three-term U.S. congressman from South Bend, was elected in November after a running a campaign built on his reputation as a conservative Democrat who wasn’t beholden to his party’s leadership in Washington, DC.
He beat the much more conservative Republican in the race, Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who tapped into strong tea party support to topple six-term U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary.
Echoing a favorite slogan from his campaign, Donnelly told reporters he’s coming into the Senate, “not as a Republican or a Democrat, but as a Hoosier.”
What that means, he said, is that he’s committed to get past the bitter partisan divides that have gripped Congress in deadlock and lead to the high-drama, last-moment votes earlier this week to save the nation from falling off the “fiscal cliff.”
“I am really looking forward to working with senators on both sides,” said Donnelly, who joins the 54 other Democrats in the 100-member in Senate. His major goals, he said, are to pay down the national debt and create more jobs.
As a freshman senator, Donnelly lacks the seniority that would land him a spot in his caucus leadership. But he predicted his influence would come from the alliances he forms with a handful of moderate Democrats in the Senate, including incoming Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and longtime West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Political scientist Mike Wolf, who’s done research work on the partisan politics of Congress and teaches at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, said Donnelly could have that kind of influence.
“It’s probably easier in the upcoming Senate than in the past Senate and certainly easier than in the House,” Wolf said, adding that House members are more tightly controlled by party leaders and ideology.
Wolf said it won’t take long to tell whether Donnelly and his moderate colleagues have sway, since they’ll soon face potentially nasty fights over the federal debt ceiling.
Donnelly told reporters that he’s wary of the damage those battles could do. “Playing with the debt ceiling is a very, very dangerous thing to our credit rating and the world economy,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly also told reporters that he’ll model his tenure on other senators from Indiana, including Lugar and former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, and Indiana’s senior senator, Republican Dan Coats.
Donnelly said he’s reached out to all of them and Lugar if he could come to him for advice. “I asked him if I could give him a call every now and then,” Donnelly said. “He laughed and said he wouldn’t mind. He’s been a tremendous friend. He is a phenomenal role model.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.