Star Tribune

By Hunter Woodall

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar says Joe Biden "could have spent six months" trying to negotiate the partisan political divide on the expansive COVID-19 relief bill.

But in the words of Minnesota's senior senator, "the country couldn't wait that long."

"He needed to get the money out to make a difference," Klobuchar, a Democrat, said in an interview after the president officially signed the legislation Thursday.

Klobuchar said her "number one focus is getting us through and out of this pandemic, bar none," which Democrats hope the $1.9 trillion stimulus package will help achieve. But she's also looking ahead on infrastructure, including access to broadband, and says spending there would help Minnesota, given the hit to rural areas during the pandemic.

Her effort to bridge the digital divide, alongside House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, is dubbed the "Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act."

The two prominent Democrats had joined together on an earlier version of the legislation last year that failed to become law after it passed the House in a larger package. Klobuchar's office says of the more than $94 billion in the bill, $80 billion would be steered to roll out the much-needed infrastructure for high-speed internet across the country.

While South Carolina and Minnesota have many differences, Klobuchar notes that both states have rural communities where broadband is lacking. To the senator, such a significant investment could create better outcomes in areas like education and health.

"It would mean that all Minnesotans would have access to high-speed internet instead of just some of them," Klobuchar said. "And it would mean that it would be much easier to have a small business in rural Minnesota."

And the president's keen interest in infrastructure at large has the Minnesota senator feeling like odds have improved. For Democrats, winning bipartisan support on the passage of major legislation can be a challenge. No Republicans voted for the final version of the relief package that Biden signed into law. Whether or not the tenor could change on legislation like the broadband bill is yet to be seen.

"This has tended to be bipartisan in the past," Klobuchar said of the issue, pointing to a different legislative broadband effort where North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer is a cosponsor. "While this bill isn't right now, I have other bills that are, like one with Cramer for $2 billion."

Asked about the legislation, U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach noted in a statement that within her vast Seventh Congressional District "more than one in five farms lack access to high-speed internet."

"I am happy to work with whomever else is willing to make rural broadband infrastructure a priority, because it should be," the Republican first-term lawmaker said.

As things stand, the nation's broadband infrastructure is "unequal," said Klobuchar, who is also co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus.

"Your access to internet should not depend on your ZIP code," Klobuchar said.

# # #