Washington — 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 votes with leaders of her party.
As the most popular politician in Minnesota, a state 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.”
Working across the aisle
Among Klobuchar’s major accomplishments are quickly securing funds to rebuild the Interstate 35W 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.
Political analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report calls Klobuchar a centrist. But Duffy said Klobuchar is not likely to make herself the deciding vote on high profile 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 past 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.
But 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.
These days, Nelson said she’s an enthusiastic supporter of Klobuchar, in part because of the senator’s work on promoting foreign tourism to Minnesota and the United States.
“Amy immediately understood that this industry was not only a key but could be an essential piece to the recovery,” Nelson said.
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 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.”
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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 sometimes directed at Klobuchar is that she backs small-potatoes legislation that makes fixes to consumer regulations or a rule that’s 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 Chair 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.
Listen to Minnesota Public Radio in Winona at 101.9 FM.