Klobuchar sees positive start in Senate
WASHINGTON - Amy Klobuchar belongs to the most elite political club in the country and yet she occupies a "double-wide" trailer in a courtyard.
The temporary Capitol Hill space didn't seem to bother Minnesota's new U.S. senator as she sat in her small personal office with bare walls.
"I got my pillow from Minnesota," Klobuchar offered, pointing to a folksy throw pillow.
Klobuchar and her staff eventually will move into more lavish space, so there was no need to outfit the cramped temporary quarters.
And there was even less time to do so.
In her month as a senator, Klobuchar has been hustling from legislative hearings to Washington receptions, from high-profile news conferences to the Senate chamber for votes.
"There is definitely a lot of excitement in the air. It makes it very positive," Klobuchar said in an interview.
"There's a pretty focused agenda going on here," she added, "and we haven't seen anything like that in Washington for years."
Like many Democratic candidates across the country, Klobuchar hammered away on topics like the Iraq war, energy issues and ethics reform during her campaign last year to replace fellow Democrat Mark Dayton.
Those issues then dominated discussion on Capitol Hill from the moment Democrats officially seized control of both houses last month. Klobuchar's first Washington news conference came just days after she took office when she joined Democratic leaders and fellow freshman lawmakers to introduce a package of ethics reforms.
Klobuchar's first legislative hearing came in the Senate Agriculture Committee, on which she and fellow Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, serve. In an ornate committee room packed with onlookers, she jotted down notes as experts discussed the future of renewable energy.
"I think for getting something done on energy (independence), ag is a great place to start because it brings interests together," Klobuchar said, noting that committee is among the least partisan in Congress.
Later this year, Congress will write new federal farm policies. Klobuchar wants new agriculture legislation to include "strong" crop price supports for farmers and a permanent disaster relief program. She is following the lead of North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, both Democrats, on disaster relief policy, which faces opposition in the Bush administration.
The most divisive issue on Capitol Hill, however, is the Iraq war. Klobuchar began her term by continuing to call for a different war strategy that relies more on political and diplomatic solutions and no further deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq.
"I truly believe we need to stop this escalation of the war," Klobuchar said in the interview. "We're just going to have to look at the proposals to see what the best way is to do that without hurting our troops on the ground."
On the opening day of Congress, Klobuchar was led from a Senate office building to the Capitol in a well-planned escort with her family, Dayton, Coleman and Walter Mondale at her side.
Mondale, a former U.S. senator and vice president, predicted Klobuchar will find success in her new role.
Klobuchar, who once interned for Mondale during his term as vice president, did "a lot of serious homework" as she prepared for office, the elder Democrat said.
"She's listened to what Minnesotans want, so she's ready," Mondale said in an interview. "She's gotten good committees, like agriculture and environment, where she can deliver and where her kind of talents and energy can make a difference."
Minnesotans elected Klobuchar because she campaigned as a moderate Democrat, but her early actions indicate an alignment with the "far-left wing" of her party, Ron Carey said.
Carey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said Klobuchar hasn't demonstrated much of an independent streak.
"She can prove me wrong, and I hope she does," he said.
Dayton said Klobuchar will fare better in the Senate than he did. Most of Dayton's six years was spent in the Senate minority.
"She'll be effective from Day 1. Being in the majority is certainly a big advantage," Dayton said. Klobuchar gained the respect of many senators even before she was sworn in, he added.
"She'll be a very successful senator, no doubt," he said.
Some issues Klobuchar supports haven't attracted as much attention as ethics reform or efforts to lower health care or college tuition costs. She wants to see Congress work toward requiring mental health parity.
Minnesota Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Republican, and other lawmakers are pushing for a measure that would require health insurers to provide equal coverage for mental and physical illnesses.
The initiative was championed by the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.
"Everyone pledged they were going to get it done after he died, and then it never got done," Klobuchar said.
In addition to passing a new farm bill and other legislative issues, Klobuchar jokingly added something else to her to-do list.
"One of my goals for the year is to fly in Collin's plane," she said, referring to 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson, who pilots his own small plane. Klobuchar was supposed to join Peterson for a flight during the 2006 campaign season, but she was advised not to because of bad weather that day.
Not all of Klobuchar's time was spent working on legislative issues as she began her term. A former Hennepin County attorney, Klobuchar rubbed elbows with a former legal-circle friend during a dinner for senators and the Supreme Court.
"Chief Justice (John) Roberts' wife was a friend of mine from Minnesota, so we sat with them," Klobuchar said.
"She was at a law firm in Minneapolis for a few years and we got to be good friends," she recalled of Jane Sullivan Roberts, adding they hadn't seen each other in years. "We're going to have lunch."