Article by: Brian Bakst , Associated Press Updated: October 20, 2013 - 2:30 PM
Seeking an opportunity to slice through the political bitterness clouding Washington, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar did what felt natural a few weeks ago: She organized a bipartisan potluck at her apartment. All but a few of the 20 female senators came.
Many of those women regrouped last week to help engineer a deal that reopened the federal government and averted a debt crisis, and all 20 female senators backed it. To Klobuchar, it marked a triumph for moderates at a time when those at the poles seem to dictate what gets done.
Her involvement also was another sign of how Klobuchar, a Democrat now safely ensconced in her second term, is stepping out after a somewhat cautious first six years. She's in demand for Democratic Party events in other states, shows up frequently on national television and pushes to reassert a political middle willing to embrace compromise and avoid insults.
"We have an American public that has just said 'I've had it, this is the last straw,'" Klobuchar said. "That's a sea change."
Klobuchar cruised to re-election in 2012, and there are whispers of a presidential campaign if former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton passes on a 2016 run. Klobuchar deflects such talk.
Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said carving a centrist niche, as Klobuchar appears to be attempting, is difficult for politicians with broader ambition because of powerful ideological bases in both parties.
"You can't be unacceptable to the extreme parts of your party and yet you can't be owned by them either," said Maslin, who worked for several presidential candidates including former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. "You can't play a purely centrist game and get away with it if that's all there is because at some point the base is going to say, 'What's in it for me? Is this a person I can trust?'"
Despite having more than 15 years in Minnesota politics, Klobuchar largely has been overshadowed at home by higher-wattage political figures, including tea party star Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Gov. Jesse Ventura and Sen. Al Franken.
Klobuchar's role in resolving the recent budget impasse was as a member of the self-styled Group of 14 — seven Republican senators, six Democrats and an independent. They were instrumental in forging the deal to end the shutdown and raise the country's debt ceiling while committing to future negotiations on longstanding fiscal issues.
In the weeks to come, she's on the conference committee trying to hash out a deal on an overdue farm bill. She's also working with Republicans to jumpstart stalled talks on an overhaul of the nation's energy policy.
Klobuchar proudly notes that two-thirds of bills she's lent her name to have had bipartisan sponsors. At the same time, she's strategically tended her Democratic roots. She visited Iowa in August for a local Democratic Party fundraiser, headlined another party function in Pennsylvania last month and spoke at a major Ohio dinner in June.
In her Iowa speech, Klobuchar railed against "obstructionism and extremism holding us back" and "the 24-hour TV shout-fest" that she thinks feeds gridlock. She wove in personal details, telling of her dive into politics in the 1990s as a new mother lobbying for passage of a state law making insurers pay for longer hospital stays for women after giving birth.
What impressed Dean Genth, the vice chairman of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats, was Klobuchar's willingness to stick around for 45 minutes after her speech to shake hands and pose for photos.
"She was committed to making sure she talked to everyone who wanted to speak with her. That's rare even in the political world," Genth said. "That goes a long way with impressing Iowans."
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Klobuchar popped in on meetings of delegates from states with early presidential primaries. Her "Follow the North Star" political action committee has churned out contributions, including $5,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party last fall.
At 53, Klobuchar is among the youngest senators. In a recent speech, she spoke with relish about being carded at an airport bar while dining with a fellow senator. The tale fit perfectly with her folksy sense of humor. The senator scored laughs from a trucking industry conference last week when she described lugging her vacuum cleaner from home so she could personally keep her Senate office tidy during the 16-day government shutdown.
And about that potluck?
Klobuchar served a chicken dish to go along with the rice casseroles, salads and shipped-from-Alaska salmon that fellow senators brought. It was the type of relationship-building event that Klobuchar thinks will pay dividends.
"These are friendships that can make a difference," she said. "It's how things used to work in Washington when people trusted each other."
Plus, she said, the leftovers lasted her into early October. "It was a way to get by during the shutdown."