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Red State Democrat Prepared To Work With Donald Trump On Trade

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Republicans may control the White House, House and Senate next year. The last one, the Senate, could give them trouble. That's because they hold a 52-seat majority, the slimmest of leads. And for bills that need 60 votes to win, that means winning over the hearts and minds of key Democrats open to their agenda. Rust Belt and rural-state Democrats who are up for re-election in 2018 will be go-to swing votes. Democrat Joe Donnelly is one of them. He represents Indiana in the U.S. Senate. Welcome to the program.

JOE DONNELLY: Thank you so much for having me with you today.

CORNISH: Now, to start, we want to note that you had high praise for Donald Trump for doing the Carrier factory deal. That's the deal that preserved a little less than half of the factory jobs that this company planned to send to Mexico. But Democrats really hammered Trump about this deal. So are you at odds with the left wing of your party already?

DONNELLY: Well, no. I think that the key to this is that we did have approximately 700 more folks be able to stay in their jobs. And that was a critical element of it. And what I've said is that I hope President-elect Trump will work with me and with the rest of the Senate to try to keep more jobs here in America. I mean, I want to make sure that everybody, when they get to the Christmas table, has a chance to tell their family, hey, I've been able to stay in my job. That's what the focus is. That's what we're trying to get Donald Trump to join in on.

CORNISH: Now, Republicans, particularly Republicans in the Senate, decided early on to essentially stand fast against President Obama. And that worked pretty well for them. Should Democrats become the party of no during a Trump administration?

DONNELLY: Well that seems pretty un-American to me - what they did. My job isn't to represent the Democrat Party or the Republican Party. It's to represent Hoosier families. I thought that was shameful behavior. And my job is to do what's right. And that's what I'm going to try and do.

CORNISH: You talked about Hoosier families. But Trump won your state by nearly 20 percent. So does it sound like they agree with his agenda? And what does that leave for you, as a Democrat in the Senate?

DONNELLY: Well, I think that the people in our state want to see more jobs, more opportunity. And they want to make sure that Washington listens to them. Look, I have an agricultural community that's second to none in the world. And every time they tried to move forward, it seemed the EPA was working against them in - turn after turn.

And so they've always said, we want clean water. But we want to be part of the solution. And so I think that was a message that the folks not only in my state but around the country - want people to listen to them and know that they're here, know that they have a lot to contribute and make our country stronger.

CORNISH: You mentioned concerns about the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. When you look at these cabinet choices by the incoming administration, which one are you worried about? Because there are Democrats who look at them and say, you've got picks who want to abolish the departments they may be leading, who want to roll back major Democrat-penned legislation like Obamacare. Which one do you think Democrats should challenge?

DONNELLY: I'm very concerned about the Tom Price nomination because he talks about privatizing Medicare.

CORNISH: This is for the Health and Human Services.

DONNELLY: Health and Human Services, yes. He talks about privatizing Medicare. You know, our seniors shouldn't have to check their stock balance before they can get knee surgery. And we're going to stand up for our seniors on this issue. I'm also very concerned about the nominee named today, Rex Tillerson, for secretary of state. I'm very, very concerned about the Russian connections that we're seeing, the potential damage to our national security and the lack of experience. And so I'm concerned about both of those. I think that General Mattis is a good choice in Defense, though.

CORNISH: You know, when you were first elected back when you're elected in the House, it was with Blue Dogs, right? There was, like, a whole coalition of red-state Democrats. That's been decimated.

DONNELLY: I'm a proud Blue Dog, absolutely.

CORNISH: Now you're here in the Senate with, again, just a handful of other Blue Dogs. This is not a group of Democrats that's growing. Can Democrats regain the ground that they've lost with voters in states like yours?

DONNELLY: When we talk to them about issues of importance to them, when we talk to them about their family and making sure that we can have better skills training for their kids to get good jobs - that we can try to keep jobs here in America rather than seeing them go overseas - that we'll fight for our friends and neighbors. We'll fight for the people of Muncie and Richmond and Evansville. When they hear...

CORNISH: But you don't think Democrats have been doing that up until this point?

DONNELLY: Well, not when we've had trade deals that have ship jobs overseas, absolutely not. What we need to do is stand up and fight for our people in our states.

CORNISH: Senator Joe Donnelly is a Democrat from Indiana. Thank you for speaking with us.

DONNELLY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.