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Coons Knows Manufacturing Push Needs GOP Support

Coons is one of the leaders of the Manufacturing Jobs for America effort. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Chris Coons has started a matchmaking service.  

No, not a dating app. The Delaware Democrat is working with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., to spearhead an effort to bring together Republican and Democratic senators interested in manufacturing jobs — and he's even discussed the subject in a one-on-one meeting with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  

For now, Coons told CQ Roll Call in an interview that came as part of a significant media campaign to promote the effort, the focus will be on gathering ideas from Senate Democrats and collecting support within the caucus, before looking to find Republican co-sponsors and build bipartisan partnerships.  

"How I view Manufacturing Jobs for America is initially, a way to gather the best ideas that Democratic senators have that relate to manufacturing in any way," Coons said. "Try and get them all kind of in one place at one time, socialize them within the caucus, strengthen them and then help with matchmaking, with finding Republican co-sponsors and then through that process with finding ideas that should have the attention of Majority Leader McConnell and his floor staff as potentially enactable bills."  

Coons and Baldwin highlighted the renewal of their Manufacturing Jobs for America effort at an event last month at Union Station. The Third Way-sponsored event also featured the perhaps unlikely pair of Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez and National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons.  

Coons said he met with McConnell for the first time a few weeks ago, at the majority leader's request.  

"Part of it was just a little getting to know each other. We are the only two former county executives in the Senate," Coons said. "The conversation with Mitch McConnell was predominately about his interest as an institutionalist, and as the majority leader, in identifying bipartisan bills that really could pass and that the president would sign, and I found that hugely encouraging."  

(A McConnell aide said he has been generally reaching out to all of the Senate Democrats.)  

The connection between former county executives may be obscure, but Coons said he had studied the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County in Kentucky as Wilmington and New Castle County, Del., have had similar debates over the years.  

"Now that there is a minority that is willing to work together, rather than the minority in the last Congress that was I think largely dedicated to obstructionism, I'm happy to take that extended hand and begin saying, here are some ideas," Coons said, leaving unsaid that Democratic leadership would pin much of the dysfunction on McConnell himself. "I specifically referenced the manufacturing universities bill."  

That's a measure that has a bipartisan list of co-sponsors, with Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire leading it on the GOP side. The proposal would help academic engineering programs meet the needs of modern employers, to help provide a properly equipped workforce.  

"This legislation will help our students acquire the skills they need to meet the demand for the high-paying, manufacturing job opportunities in New Hampshire, while giving our universities more tools to spur innovation and use cutting-edge technology to grow this vibrant sector of our economy," Ayotte said in her statement on the bill's introduction.  

Manufacturing-related measures like that one already have bipartisan support, but the linchpin of the MJA campaign might be in finessing proposals from Democratic senators in ways that Republicans could sign on to, lead through relevant committees and get in the queue for McConnell to even ponder for floor consideration. That might mean steering clear of provisions favored by labor unions or other groups traditionally supportive of Democrats.  

"He's a big fan of regular order, as am I," Coons said of McConnell.  

"I'm not sure there is a strongly Democratic or Republican way to improve highways and bridges and tunnels, and I'm not sure there really is a Republican or Democratic way to strengthen vo-tech schools and community colleges and skills alignment," Coons said in the interview.  

Coons said some of what he's doing is just making connections between Democratic colleagues and groups with whom they might not always find common ground, such as NAM. He also echoed some of what Baldwin said at the Third Way event, where she said the goal was to go beyond just the initiatives of any particular senator.  

"I would just observe about individual politicians that we tend to try to highlight our own work-product, and one of the things about MJA is that we can talk about these ... collection of measures as the congressional effort, the Senate effort to really make its mark in promoting manufacturing across the United States," Baldwin said at the April 29 breakfast.  

"I truly believe that you cannot have an economy built to last if you don't make things, and I think there was probably a time when there was a belief that you could. That if we invested in, you know, various sectors of the economy that seemed to be growing, that we could have a U.S. economy built primarily on financial and service sector jobs," Baldwin said. "I don't believe that, and I come from a state which competes vigorously with the state of Indiana for the hallmark of being the top manufacturing state in terms of percentage of our workforce engaged in manufacturing."  

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