By A.B. Stoddard - 04/09/14 06:27 PM EDT
Last week, as Republicans questioned the administration’s new ObamaCare enrollment numbers and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attacked the Koch brothers on the Senate floor, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) celebrated a triumph, when a bill he has been working on with Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) for two years passed out of the Senate Finance Committee unanimously. The idea of his legislation — giving startup companies access to the research and development tax credit — getting approved made Coons “so excited I can hardly stand it,” he said before the vote.
While gridlock and partisanship go into overdrive in an election year, Coons is continuing his quiet mission that has made him fourth among all senators writing bipartisan bills, according to govtrack.us, the government transparency website. In only three years, Coons has doggedly built working relationships resulting in cowritten and cointroduced bills with nearly half the Senate Republican Conference.
The senator who won Vice President Biden’s Senate seat in an infamous battle that saw two-term governor and former nine-term Rep. Mike Castle ousted in a GOP primary by Christine O’Donnell has avoided the spotlight after making political history by defeating the Tea Party-backed O’Donnell in a year that was a Republican rout.
When he arrived in Washington, Coons was urged by a Delaware friend then living in Florida to reach out to fellow freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), with whom, Coons joked, the only thing he had in common was that they each owed their elections to the Tea Party. A conversation in 2011 in which both men conceded they hadn’t read the other party’s jobs platforms led to the creation of the AGREE Act, one of a half-dozen bills Rubio and Coons have partnered on to boost job creation, competitiveness and access to college education, and to modernize the national lab system. Adrienne Arsht, the mutual friend of each senator, was delighted when in February 2012, she received a video message of them together singing “Happy Birthday.”
Coons is surely a loyal Democrat, and has even criticized the Koch brothers in fundraising letters, but he pours most of his energy into his bipartisan relationships with more than 20 GOP senators on legislation that ranges from helping businesses to victims of child abuse to pulmonary fibrosis.
As a socially liberal but fiscally conservative pro-business Democrat, Coons also believes his policy positions best represent Delaware. After all, for 30 years, the First State chose Republican William Roth and Democrat Joe Biden (both of whom Coons interned for on Capitol Hill) to serve together in the U.S. Senate. Coons said he has worked with many Republicans with whom he “vigorously disagrees” on social issues because they have easily found common ground on other matters. He fears partisanship in Washington has long-term, far-reaching consequences that are felt around the world.
“We are hurting ourselves in our global leadership responsibilities by being so intransigent, and by having a small minority on the right and left really dominate the agenda,” he said.
Arsht, who introduced Rubio and Coons, said she knew they each had the good of the country at heart. “Why be surprised when two human beings get together and do the right thing?” she asked.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.