Before he was sworn in Thursday as a new U.S. senator, Joe Donnelly said he looked forward to following in legendary footsteps left by Hoosier predecessors.
Three of those legends – former Sens. Richard Lugar, Birch Bayh and his son, Evan Bayh – escorted Donnelly on the Senate floor when he took the oath of office, which was administered by Vice President Biden.
Donnelly, a Democrat from Granger in St. Joseph County, was among four freshmen lawmakers from Indiana who took office Thursday as members of the 113th Congress. The others were Reps. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd, who replaced Donnelly in the House; Susan Brooks, R-5th, a Fort Wayne native who succeeded retiring Republican Dan Burton; and Luke Messer, R-6th, who replaced Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence.
In a conference call before taking his oath, Donnelly said he is joining an amazing Hoosier tradition of senators of the last half-century: Republicans Lugar, Dan Coats and Dan Quayle and Democrats Vance Hartke and the Bayhs.
We have had just a tradition of being a state where the senators that represent us are not extremists but are ones who are looked to by the entire nation to bring our country together, Donnelly said. And I hope to serve in that same role of not worrying about Democrat, not worrying about Republican, but worrying about doing whats right for our country.
Political scientists no doubt would dispute how moderate some of Donnellys forerunners have been. But Donnelly, 57, established himself as a centrist during six years in the House, and he said he is part of a political middle group that has begun emerging in the Democratic-controlled, 100-member Senate since the Nov. 6 election.
He mentioned fellow freshmen Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as members of that group.
Im not approaching this as a Democrat or a Republican but as a Hoosier. I just want to be a reflection of how people think back home, Donnelly said.
He defeated state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indianas general election after Mourdock beat 36-year incumbent Lugar in the Republican primary election.
Donnelly said he has been in touch with Lugar.
I have talked with him a number of times since the election and asked him if he wouldnt mind if I could give him a call every now and then, Donnelly said. He laughed and said he would love to be able to have a chance to do that. He gave me advice and wisdom.
Donnelly also has been in contact with Coats, who becomes Indianas senior senator after two years in office. Coats, 69, has plenty of experience, however – he was a senator from 1989 through 1998 after serving in the House.
Weve met, weve talked and really look forward to working together, Donnelly said.
Coats was to have been part of Donnellys escort for his swearing-in but missed the ceremony because of a family illness, according to an aide to Coats.
Donnelly is among 14 new senators. He said his goals are to reduce the $16.3 trillion national debt and a four-year string of $1 trillion federal budget deficits and to advocate for military personnel and veterans.
All House members were sworn in Thursday, including Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, who began his second full term after filling a vacancy in the last weeks of 2010.
The House consists of 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats, and two seats are vacant. The Senate consists of 53 Democrats, two independents who typically vote with Democrats and 45 Republicans.