By Larry Bivins
Times Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — Sen. Amy Klobuchar got a reality check in her transition from chief law enforcement officer for Hennepin County to rookie member of the United States Senate.

“I ran an office of 400 people. We would say we wanted a new program in place. I’d talk to a few police chiefs, and we’d get it done,” Klobuchar said during a recent interview in her Senate office. “It’s not that easy in Washington.”

Still, Klobuchar, 49, seems to have mastered how to navigate Senate procedures, protocol and partisanship.

In her first three years on the job, the Democrat has developed a reputation as an adept senator who puts Minnesotans first. During that time, she’s become Minnesota’s senior senator, and for eight months, she was its only senator.

“With all the rancor, partisanship and hot rhetoric thrown around Washington, it’s not easy for new members to cut through the fog and make a difference,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “But Amy has managed to do that. She’s been an energetic, tireless advocate for the people of Minnesota from Day One.”

The Plymouth native sits on five committees — Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry; Commerce, Science & Transportation; Environment & Public Works; Joint Economic; and Judiciary — and chairs the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Children’s Health.

Whether negotiating legislation to ban lead in toys, authoring legislation to boost pool safety, negotiating to reduce taxes on medical devices or pushing for reforms in Medicare payments, Klobuchar said she has maintained a “Minnesota focus.”

She’s proud of being named Legislator of the Year in December by the Minnesota Automobile Dealership Association for her efforts to aid local dealers threatened with closure by General Motors and her help in fixing problems with the Cash for Clunkers program.

But Klobuchar cites passage of the pool safety bill and its signing by then-President George W. Bush as her crowning achievement. She drafted the measure after 6-year-old Abigail Taylor was seriously injured by a pool drain and later died.

“Her dad and mom would call me every two weeks,” Klobuchar said. “My proudest moment was being in the cloakroom in the Senate and being able to call Scott Taylor and tell him that this pool safety bill had passed and that the president was signing it into law.”

Midway through the 111th Congress, Klobuchar already has surpassed the legislative output of her first two years in office.

She was the chief sponsor on 81 bills and amendments last year — 11 were adopted in some form — compared with 56 in the 110th Congress. She was a co-sponsor on more than 100 additional measures.

“She’s been extraordinarily active in only three years in the Senate,” said Kathryn Pearson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “She’s definitely a serious legislator and someone who has potential to be in Senate leadership.”

Klobuchar fought to have several amendments included in the Senate health care reform bill approved Dec. 24.

Among the provisions she sponsored were a measure to make it easier for small businesses to purchase health insurance with tax credits, and one that seeks to reduce costs by rewarding value instead of volume in health care treatment.

But there have also been disappointments. Klobuchar said she was most disturbed that she wasn’t able to get a drug importation bill enacted.

“I’ve been working hard to try to get some of the cheaper drugs in from Canada,” she said. “I think they’re very safe, and I know it would bring the cost of health care down by $20 billion, and it makes me mad we were not able to get that done.”

Klobuchar spent the first six months of last year pulling double duty on constituent services as Minnesota’s only senator while Al Franken’s 2008 election victory was being contested.

“We had eight times the number of calls with no extra staff,” she said. “Under the Senate rules, while the recount was going on, we couldn’t get extra resources. We got volunteers and interns and kept up as best we could.”

For the year, Klobuchar’s office handled 8,355 constituent cases and responded to more than 130,000 letters from Minnesotans, according to her staff. She also hosted 1,777 Minnesotans at her weekly “Minnesota Morning” breakfasts.

“She delivered great results,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “Minnesotans are fortunate to have her fighting for them in Washington.”

At times, she has gone her own way. She voted with the majority of her party 89 percent of the time last year, compared with an average among Democrats of 91 percent, according to Congressional Quarterly’s annual vote analysis.

Klobuchar’s sense of humor isn’t to be outdone by Franken, who was a professional comedian before becoming a senator.

She drew enthusiastic laughs last February at a Washington Press Club Foundation gathering when she joked about having ex-boyfriends as campaign donors.

She’s scheduled to be a keynoter at this year’s National Press Club presidential inauguration on Jan. 30.

Reflecting on her first three years as Minnesota’s first female senator, Klobuchar said her guiding principle has been that she’s in Washington to serve Minnesotans.

“Nothing is too small,” she said. “Minnesotans always had a belief that if you put people that care about the right things in government and really want to do their jobs, that government can get things done.”

If there’s one thing she would change about how Congress operates, she said, it would be getting rid of “silly little rules” that hold things up.

Klobuchar has been described by The Washington Post as a “rising star.”

Kay Wolsborn, political scientist at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, agrees.

“She’s an up-and-comer,” Wolsborn said. “I’ve been really impressed. I don’t think she has any vulnerabilities at this point. Even a Republican would be hard-pressed to find something to pick on.”

Additional Facts

The Amy Klobuchar file
Name: Amy Klobuchar.

Age: 49.

Born: May 25, 1960, in Plymouth.

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Yale University, 1982; law degree from University of Chicago, 1985.

Religion: Protestant.

Family: Husband, John Bessler; one child.

Home: Minneapolis.

Career experience: Lawyer, 1985-1998; Hennepin County prosecutor, 1998-2006; U.S. Senate, 2007-present.

Committees: Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry; Commerce, Science & Transportation; Environment & Public Works; Joint Economic; Judiciary.

Source: The Almanac of American Politics, 2010