Klobuchar Steps Toward National Stage

The Minnesota Democrat's profile is on the rise, especially after Monday's CNN health care debate.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (left)
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Sept. 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar was quiet earlier this month as a wave of fellow senators mentioned as potential presidential candidates signed on to a universal health care bill.

A dozen allies and Democratic strategists said that was classic Klobuchar: She’d speak out when ready.

That moment came Monday as the Minnesota Democrat joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, the architect of the “Medicare for All” bill supported by a third of the Democratic caucus, in a debate with two Republican senators over the future of health care. Klobuchar condemned the last-ditch effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while proposing a bipartisan solution to fix it.

“When you hear that there’s only two choices here—that’s not true! There is another choice,” she said, distancing herself from Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy, while also backing away from Sanders’s single-payer plan.

Since President Trump took office in January, Klobuchar has focused largely on election-protection efforts, recently cosponsoring a bill with Graham that would amend the National Defense Authorization Act to include better protections at the polls, for example. But she’s tended to stay away from issues within her own party that could be polarizing, insiders said.

“She’s not a knee-jerk politician,” said Ken Martin, chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “She’s not going to jump to a position just because it’s a popular position.”

The 16 Senate Democrats who support Sanders’s bill include Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand, who were all in the top eight of The Washington Post’s ranking this month of 15 possible Democratic presidential candidates. Klobuchar didn’t earn a mention.

Often described by allies as a “state-centric” senator, Klobuchar has been to a few states outside of her own in recent months, visiting Iowa multiple times and Wisconsin in recent weeks. And while she generally attracts less media attention than even her fellow Minnesota senator, Al Franken, that is starting to change.

Cosmopolitan, for example, profiled Klobuchar with a nearly 2,000-word spread. “Currently, I am happily focused on Minnesota,” the two-term senator, who is up for reelection next year, told the magazine.

Her Monday appearance could be the most significant step toward capturing national attention—and perhaps one that could set her apart from other Democrats who may seek higher office in a couple of years.

“I believe politics is about making people's lives better,” she said.

Klobuchar declined to comment about her specific objections to Sanders’s bill, but she has worked with progressives on health care before. In January, she joined Sanders in a fight that would have allowed the country to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. Last month, she sponsored a bill that would give Medicare, instead of pharmaceutical companies, the power to negotiate drug prices for seniors.

Klobuchar “would be stubborn enough not to be railroaded into supporting this thing,” Jim Manley, a former longtime Senate aide, said about Sanders’s bill. “I know her well enough to know that she’s going to want to figure out the details before signing on the dotted line.”

Sanders’s bill details a “universal Medicare card” that would be used for a variety of health care services in the country, ranging from routine doctor and hospital visits to reproductive care and substance-abuse programs. Now that the Graham-Cassidy bill has been defeated, Sanders has promised to continue to push his plan, even though it has no chance for approval.

The bill could become a significant issue in the 2020 presidential primaries. Still, some argue that Klobuchar’s decisions over which policies she tackles play into her political strategy.

“She’s very guarded about her ‘brand,’” said Democratic operative Darin Broton, who’s known Klobuchar for 15 years.

In Congress, a big part of that brand is bipartisanship, with defense policies often earning support from Graham and Sen. John McCain. And the first female senator from Minnesota boasts an approval rating of 72 percent.

But Broton noted her “cautious” nature and decision not to support Sanders’s plan rubs “many activists and progressives the wrong way.”

Sean Bagniewski, an Iowa strategist who knows Klobuchar from a fundraiser he hosted for Hillary Clinton last year, called the bill “a litmus test” that automatically establishes credentials for the progressive wing of the party.

Still, at the Iowa fundraiser, Bagniewski recalls attendees asking Klobuchar about her plans for the next presidential election. “There’s so many people here who want her to look at higher office,” he said.

Harris, Warren, and Gillibrand have captured national attention for “resisting” Trump. Gillibrand made headlines by voting against each of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, while Harris has been a vocal critic of the president’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last month. More recently, Harris was the first to publicly support Sanders’s health care bill.

In contrast, Klobuchar’s waiting for moments like Monday to hammer at a specific policy could become her calling card.

Recalling the Clinton fundraiser, Bagniewski remembered one other thing about Klobuchar: “We were speaking and all of a sudden Amy Klobuchar ran through the door. She can really come into a room last-minute, unannounced, and really draw attention.”

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