U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently stood in the Senate chamber to urge Republican House members to pass the Senate's version of a highway bill, the latest in a series of tense Congressional standoffs between the parties.
The House passed only a 90-day extension of a highway spending law, another sign that in a hyper-polarized Congress, the business of governing has become intensely divided. Bipartisan measures like the highway bill were once virtually assured of passing.
But Klobuchar's appearance on the floor was characteristic. A first-term Democrat, she has managed to skirt the political minefield, largely avoiding the political cheap shots of cable TV. Instead, she goes out of her way to talk up her work across the aisle — wooing the business community even as she largely votes with liberal leaders of her party.
As the most popular politician in Minnesota, a state that is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, Klobuchar is in a strong position to fend off any of her three would-be Republican challengers. They include former state Rep. Dan Severson, Minnesota Army National Guard Capt. Pete Hegseth and first-term state Rep. Kurt Bills of Rosemount.
She is more popular in the state than many incumbent senators are in theirs, a rare feat for a first-term senator. She credits her bipartisan approach to legislating.
"Nearly two-thirds of my bills are bipartisan, that I led," she said. "We managed to get support and we passed a number of bills."
ACROSS THE AISLE
Among her major accomplishments are quickly securing funds to rebuild the Interstate 35-W bridge after it collapsed in 2007, passing legislation to improve swimming pool safety and helping create national health standards for exposure to formaldehyde in wood products.
Some of those Republican co-sponsors include conservative stalwarts such as U.S. Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and John Cornyn of Texas.
Klobuchar also has developed a close working relationship with Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota.
Although Klobuchar was named the 34th-most liberal senator in the most recent rankings by the National Journal, by comparison, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a fellow Democrat, is ranked 13th.
Political analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report calls Klobuchar a centrist. But Duffy said Kobuchar is not likely to make herself the deciding vote on high profile, high stakes bills anytime soon.
"I think that in this current political environment, you probably don't want to be the person who seals the deal on these controversial issues because it sort of makes you a target whether you have voted with the majority of your constituents or not," Duffy said.
Klobuchar has largely voted with the Democratic leadership in the last five years, casting votes in favor of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill to impose limits on the financial industry; ending the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that effectively required gays and lesbians to hide their sexuality; the federal health care overhaul and the federal stimulus bill.
That's been enough to keep supporters on the party's left wing happy, said Klobuchar's 2006 campaign manager, Ben Goldfarb.
These days, he runs Wellstone Action, the group that tries to elect candidates in the tradition of liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone.
"If you look at what are the big things that have happened where there was a decisive moment of truth where you have to choose sides, she chose right," Goldfarb said.
Even those with a history of backing Republicans have been drawn to Klobuchar.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairman of the Carlson Companies, the Minnetonka-based travel conglomerate, did not give money to Klobuchar's 2006 campaign. Instead, she contributed to Klobuchar's Republican opponent, Mark Kennedy.
But these days, Nelson said she's an enthusiastic supporter of Klobuchar's, in part because of the senator's work on promoting foreign tourism to Minnesota and the United States.
"Amy immediately understood and understood that this industry was not only a key but could be an essential piece to the recovery," Nelson said.
Nelson was also won over by what she described as Klobuchar's gracious behavior when St. Paul hosted the Republican National Convention in 2008.
After the convention ended, the organizers held a party for people who had worked there.
Suddenly, in walked Klobuchar.
"I mean she was probably not the person we most expected to have come," Nelson said. "But there she was, bounced into the room, up on the platform and said, "I just had to be here to thank you, it was a great moment for Minnesota."
Klobuchar also has won friends by championing the medical device industry, which employs about 30,000 people in the state.
Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, said Klobuchar has been a very effective senator who is attentive to the needs of the state's business community.
George, who calls himself a political independent who has supported candidates from the two major parties, said that if Klobuchar is re-elected, it will be a boost for the state in part because Minnesota hasn't had a two-term senator since Wellstone died in 2002.
"I think it's important that we have that continuity because that's how you get seniority on committees," George said. "That's how you take over more responsibility, have more influence and frankly win the confidence of your fellow senators."
In Klobuchar's view, being business-friendly is also about good jobs and economic competitiveness.
"We have to talk to businesses and work with them to figure out how do we best spur more jobs and better jobs in our state and across the country," she said.
A criticism that is sometimes directed at Klobuchar is that she backs small-potatoes legislation that makes fixes to consumer regulations or a rule that is getting in the way of a local business, rather than taking on bigger, more complicated issues.
Klobuchar said sometimes the small stuff adds up.
"These things can be very nitty-gritty, but the results are huge," she said. "If you can make things easier for businesses to create jobs and still keep that safety standard in place, you've accomplished something big."
All of that attention to business has helped Klobuchar fill her campaign coffers.
She's sitting on a $4.6 million war chest, far outpacing the three rivals for the Republican nomination.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said Klobuchar's votes for the health care bill and support for higher taxes show that she's not really business-friendly.
"I think part of it is that she benefits by who's she's not," Shortridge said. "Look, she's not Al Franken. And so to a certain degree, people look at her in comparison and think how much worse it could be."
Shortridge said Klobuchar hasn't explained her record well enough to voters and once she's forced to, the GOP could capture her seat.
But Duffy, the political analyst, said Klobuchar's challengers aren't well-funded nor are outside groups spending any money in the race.
"I do not see any political will out of Republicans to target this state," Duffy said. "I think they believe that Klobuchar has really solidified her position."
Although Klobuchar emphasizes her good relations across the aisle, it's clear that Republicans' frequent use of the filibuster to tie up the Senate has frustrated her.
Last year, she was part of group of first-term Senators who sought to change some of the Senate's rules to make it harder to filibuster legislation.
In the end, their efforts resulted in only minor changes, but Klobuchar's political mentor, former Vice President Walter Mondale, says that's still progress.
"She has done better in that miserable Senate than most people there," Mondale said.
Klobuchar broke with Mondale on an issue close to his heart — a bill he helped author in the Senate more than 30 years ago called the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that protects the St. Croix River.
To many on both sides of the river, that legislation was holding up a planned replacement for the rusting Stillwater Lift Bridge.
Klobuchar helped push legislation through both houses of Congress to build a new bridge over the river even as Mondale opposed it.
"I still think it was a mistake but it doesn't diminish my respect for Amy or my enthusiasm with which I support her," Mondale said. "It's just something we disagreed on, those things can happen."
Klobuchar said even though it is campaign season, she has got a busy legislative agenda for the rest of the year.
"The medical device approval process has to be improved. Tourism, we're finally getting changes there," she said. "It's the fifth-biggest industry in our state, so we can allow more foreign tourists to visit, spend 5,000 bucks at the Mall of America and then go home. That's a pretty good deal."
Klobuchar also hopes to send a message to Minnesota voters that sending her back to Washington is also a pretty good deal.
At least for now it looks like she has got the money and momentum to do it.
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