By Bill Salisbury
Sen. Amy Klobuchar was a popular guest at a welcome-home ceremony for about 200 soldiers last weekend in Brooklyn Park.
Maj. Gen. Richard Nash, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, introduced Klobuchar to the audience as a "tireless advocate for Minnesota service members and their families."
Lt. Col. Brian Bobo, commander of the 134th Brigade Support Battalion, praised her for leading a successful effort, along with Republican Rep. John Kline, to pass a law ensuring the troops received the leave benefits they were promised before they deployed to Kuwait.
"She's always there for us," Bobo said.
Klobuchar shrugged off the praise, suggesting she was just doing her duty.
"You have shown us what it means to love your country," she told the soldiers.
The event was vintage Klobuchar. The energetic first-term Democratic senator seems to be anywhere her constituents need a hand.
She helped 28 Minnesota car dealers keep their businesses when automakers threatened to close them.
After an Edina girl died after a swimming pool accident, she got a law passed to protect children from unsafe pools.
Klobuchar sponsored a ban on lead in children's toys and has helped hundreds of Minnesota families bring home adopted children from overseas. She's pushed legislation to prevent shortages of vital medications, helped small businesses sell their products overseas and promoted tourism by speeding up processing of
Her campaign lists 100 ways she's "getting things done for Minnesota."
"Great," says her Republican challenger, state Rep. Kurt Bills. In a classy acknowledgment, he gave her credit for protecting consumers and providing good constituent services.
"But where has she been on the big issues?" Bills asked.
He criticized her for being part of a Senate majority that has failed to pass a budget in three years and didn't pass a single appropriations bill this year.
More important, he said, she doesn't have a plan to address what he calls the biggest threat to the nation's security: mounting federal deficits and debt.
Moreover, he added, the deficit-reduction bill she voted for calls for automatic spending cuts that, along with looming tax increases, could push the fragile economy over a "fiscal cliff" and back into a recession if the president and Congress don't act by the end of the year.
DEFICITS AND THE FISCAL CLIFF
In three debates with Bills, Klobuchar has said she has voted for $2.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years to reduce the deficit.
She was referring to the 2011 Budget Control Act that cuts programs by more than $1 trillion and established a House-Senate deficit-reduction committee to come up with another $1.2 trillion in spending reductions. To motivate that panel to reach a compromise, it set up a "sequestration" process that would automatically start cutting budgets starting Jan. 1.
Bills accused Klobuchar of voting to create the fiscal cliff.
She outlined the debt-reduction steps she supports in an interview and in written responses to questions.
"I believe the way to reduce our debt without setting our country back or causing a sharp contraction to our economy is to take a balanced approach, which means both spending cuts and revenue increases," she said.
In addition to the $2.2 trillion in spending cuts she voted for, she called for extending the Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000, while letting them expire for wealthier taxpayers. She said that would generate about $700 billion in higher taxes over 10 years.
She also advocated allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices for seniors, which she said would save $240 billion. And she proposed eliminating some tax breaks, including subsidies for oil companies and capping the home mortgage interest tax deduction to the first $500,000 of a house's value.
Her overall goal is to reduce the debt by $4 trillion over the next decade.
Klobuchar said she didn't just vote for the debt-reduction package; she was one of 14 senators who refused to lift the debt ceiling unless Congress created a commission to tackle the debt problem. That panel, she said, laid the framework that she expects Washington to use to fix the problem.
She hopes to steer clear of the year-end fiscal cliff by returning to Washington after the election and hammering out a bipartisan agreement for another $1.2 trillion in cuts.
"My goal would be to negotiate how those cuts will be made over the next few months, instead of having them made automatically," she said. "I believe we should stay and negotiate through the holidays if that is what it takes to come up with the best solution for our economy."
She acknowledged everyone would feel "some pain" from the cuts and tax increases she supports. But she said the Republican plans that Bills has endorsed would impose the "biggest burden" on the middle class by requiring seniors to pay more Medicare costs, cutting other services and shifting tax burdens away from the wealthy.
"If people feel there's going to be some shared sacrifice, I think they're willing to be part of it," she said.
Minnesotans have gotten to know Klobuchar well. The affable 52-year-old started showing up at DFL Party gatherings across the state even before she was elected Hennepin County attorney in 1998. She has visited all 87 Minnesota counties every year since she was elected to the Senate six years ago.
Her Minnesota roots run deep. Her grandfather was an underground miner on the Iron Range. Her father was a Minneapolis sportswriter and popular columnist for decades. Her mother taught elementary school.
Klobuchar grew up in Plymouth, graduated magna cum laude from Yale and got her law degree from the University of Chicago.
She returned to Minneapolis to launch her law career in 1985, representing business clients for two big law firms for 14 years before she became the chief prosecutor in the state's most populous county.
She married John Bessler, an attorney, author of several books and authority on capital punishment. They have a 17-year-old daughter, Abigail.
After two terms as Hennepin County attorney, Klobuchar was the first Democrat to jump into the Senate race when then-Sen. Mark Dayton announced he would not seek re-election in 2006. She raised more than $9 million for the race, emphasized a tough-on-crime record as a prosecutor and beat Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy, 58 percent to 38 percent. She is the first woman to represent Minnesota in the Senate.
She started her first term by focusing on consumer-protection legislation, such as the swimming pool and toy safety bills. She landed a seat on the Agriculture Committee and pushed policies friendly to Minnesota farmers.
She positioned herself as a get-it-done centrist who reaches across party lines instead of ranting about opponents.
Even though fellow Sen. Al Franken is a former comedian, Klobuchar earned a reputation as Minnesota's funniest senator with a self-deprecating sense of humor. For example, she had guests howling at a 2009 Washington dinner when she quipped: "I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends -- true story! ... I know that is the record in the Senate, but in the House, it's held by Barney Frank."
But 2009 also marked a turning point for her.
"The big moment that changed my life was the combination of the (economic) downturn and being Minnesota's only senator" from January to July during the Franken-Norm Coleman election recount, she said.
With the economy racing toward collapse, President Barack Obama and Congress enacted a package of tax cuts and spending to stimulate recovery and also bailed out banks and shored up the U.S. auto industry.
"We were on the edge of a cliff and had no idea where the country was headed. We had to make tough decisions," Klobuchar said. She voted for most of Obama's economic initiatives while trying to protect the interests of Minnesota banks and auto dealers.
The threatened collapse "changed everything," she said. "I became singularly focused on working on the economy and jobs."
She helped craft an auto bailout bill that she contends saved 28 Minnesota car dealerships.
"Senator Klobuchar was very instrumental in helping us get our dealership back. She took up the cause and led the fight," said Karen Carlson, vice president of Main Motors Chevrolet Cadillac in Anoka, who called herself a conservative Republican.
Klobuchar said she is focusing on promoting exports, expanding post-secondary education opportunities, cutting government red tape for business and encouraging more domestic energy production.
Although she cooperates with Republicans on some issues, she is a reliable Democratic vote. Last year, she voted with her party leaders and with Obama 92 percent and 95 percent of the time, respectively, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis.
But she isn't a far-left Democrat. The National Journal ranked her 2011 voting record as the 34th most liberal in the Senate -- just outside the top one-third.
Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said that during her first term, Klobuchar has worked hard, built coalitions, found issues where she can get results and paid close attention to the needs of Minnesotans.
"She's a model first-term senator," he said.
In their book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," Ornstein and co-author Thomas Mann describe Congress as hyperpartisan and dysfunctional.
Asked if Klobuchar shares the blame, Ornstein replied, "She's a problem solver," not one of the obstructionists who are throwing monkey wrenches in the works.
With a big lead in the polls, Klobuchar appears to be cruising toward a victory. That status and some recent out-of-state campaign appearances have prompted some pundits to speculate that she might run for president in 2016.
Is she thinking about the White House? "No," she replied, "I like my job, and I want to keep working for the people of Minnesota."
Bill Salisbury can be reached at 651-228-5538. Follow him at twitter.com/bsalisbury and facebook.com/PioneerPress Politics.
HOW THEY DIFFER
Sen. Amy Klobuchar and her Republican challenger, Kurt Bills, strongly disagree on four votes she cast on big economic issues. Here's where they stand:
AFFORDABLE CARE ACT
Bills: The Obama administration's health care overhaul law increases taxes, imposes penalties on workers and small businesses that choose not to buy health insurance and subsidizes middle-class families that don't need government help. He says Washington shouldn't create entitlement programs before it makes Medicare and Social Security solvent.
Klobuchar: The health care legislation makes needed reforms, such as closing the "doughnut hole" for seniors' prescription drugs, allowing young people to remain on their parents' plans until age 26 and ensuring people with pre-existing conditions have access to health insurance. She adds that she successfully fought for changes to ensure Medicare would stop penalizing states such as Minnesota that provide high-quality, low-cost health care.
WALL STREET REFORM ACT
Bills: The so-called Dodd-Frank bill is another bailout that codifies "too big to fail" into law for large banks and guarantees rewards for financial institutions that take excessive risks.
Klobuchar: The law protects consumers from such unfair practices as predatory lending, closes loopholes that allowed risky investments and reins in reckless trading in the unregulated, over-the-counter derivatives market that helped trigger the 2008 financial crisis.
TROUBLED ASSET RELIEF PROGRAM
Bills: TARP, the program Congress approved in 2008 to rescue U.S. banks, is costing taxpayers money, picks winners and losers, and vastly expands the role of government.
Klobuchar: With the nation's financial system on the brink of collapse, the Bush administration program was necessary to prevent an economic disaster. She says more than 75 percent of TARP funds have been repaid with interest, and most economists agree it helped avert a catastrophe.
Bills: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act poured money into questionable programs when the nation was already deeply in debt. It paid a hefty price for the few jobs it created and spent money that eventually must be paid back.
Klobuchar: One-third of the program was tax cuts that 95 percent of Americans benefited from, one-third went to state and local governments that were dealing with their own budget crises, and one-third was awarded for roads and other infrastructure. Minnesota received $4.1 billion, with a large share of the money spent on education and transportation.