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South Bend Tribune - Reaching Across State Lines and Party Lines

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Location: Washington, DC

South Bend Tribune - Reaching Across State Lines and Party Lines

By JACK COLWELL, Tribune Columnist

Crossing a state line for some purposes brings charges of violating federal law. But crossing the state line in Michiana for a bipartisan purpose could bring passage of federal law.

So say the two congressmen representing Michiana -- Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, from Indiana's 2nd District, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, from the adjoining 6th District of Michigan.

Their ire over treatment of service personnel wounded in Iraq, the location of their districts and their preference for the center of the political road has brought them together as co-sponsors of legislation and as friends.

"I've been fortunate to have a friend like Fred Upton," says Donnelly. "We work as a team. We don't care about the 'R' or 'D' part of it."

Upton, in his 11th term, ignores the oft vicious partisanship in the House and efforts already by the National Republican Congressional Committee to target Donnelly for defeat, in praising "the very good job" that Donnelly is doing as a freshman congressman.Upton was angry on a flight back to Washington early in March as he read a Newsweek magazine cover story about long delays in benefits and inadequate treatment for service personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center already had been reported by the Washington Post.

"Our veterans deserve better," says Upton. "They're all heroes."

As Upton thought of what to do about "this outrage confronting our vets and their families," he recalled that Donnelly was a new member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the committee with jurisdiction over any legislative remedy.

When they talked, Upton found a willing co-sponsor. Donnelly also was furious about the situation, especially after a March 5 trip to Walter Reed with Congressman David Davis, a Tennessee Republican, to see firsthand the conditions at the infamous Building 18 -- peeling paint, leaks, holes in walls, mold infestations. By then, at least, patients had been evacuated.

Donnelly says they noticed another facility that looked to be in disrepair, Building 11. They asked to inspect it."That's not on the tour," their official escorts protested. "We told them, 'It is now,'" Donnelly relates. They went in and were shocked.

Many service personnel still were housed in Building 11. There, too, they found mold, peeling paint, rusted pipes in living areas, broken bathroom ventilation systems and antiquated heating and air conditioning units.

The indignation of Donnelly and Upton was channeled into legislation. They introduced a bill to shift the burden of proof in the cumbersome, bureaucratic claims process and award a disabled veteran a median benefit until determination of the actual amount.

"Let's face it, the current system is broken," Upton said in committee testimony for the bill. "It is shameful to hear that after our brave sons and daughters have sacrificed so much ... in Iraq and Afghanistan, they encounter endless delays in their efforts to receive assistance."

Upton cited an average of 177 days to process a claim and 657 days to handle an appeal.Donnelly, testifying for the first bill he introduced, said veterans pay a price "both emotional and financial" for the bureaucratic delays.

They have high hopes for passage of the measure, which received favorable responses across party lines.

Upton and Donnelly work together on other legislation and efforts to capture congressional attention for Michiana needs.

One reason they have hit it off so well is that both are political centrists.

Donnelly is a member of the Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative and moderate Democrats in the House.Upton is a member and a founder of the Tuesday Group, a coalition of centrist House Republicans.

Both groups seek fiscal restraint.

For example, Donnelly says, the Blue Dogs intend to seek accountability for expenditures in Iraq, while still adequately funding the troops. He said the target will be the billions wasted there on construction projects paid for but never completed, squandered on failed projects and lost due to corruption. He cited the inability to account for billions just plain missing.

Both congressmen have firmly supported funding for the troops. Both also express concern about blunders that seem to have lessened chances for peace.

They don't always vote together by any means.Even when they both break from party lines, that doesn't mean they're on the same side. Donnelly was one of only 16 Democrats to vote "no" earlier this month on easing restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and Upton was one of only 37 Republicans to vote "yes" as the bill passed 247-176.

With the proximity of their districts, the similarity of their centrist approaches and their friendship, they likely will be together many more times in crossing the state line and party lines.
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