Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has taken on a weighty task in recent weeks. She's a key player among a bipartisan group of senators that is striving not only to break through Washington's gridlock on immigration and set a much-delayed 2018 federal budget. It's also trying to revive a long-lost Senate norm — deliberative, bipartisan lawmaking.
Klobuchar deserves home-state applause for her exertions, in part because she and the other two dozen or so participants in the self-styled Common Sense Caucus are hearing plenty of less appreciative noise. Immigration advocates and others on the left panned that caucus for ending the Jan. 20-22 government shutdown without first obtaining a guarantee that legal status would be granted to "dreamers," the young undocumented immigrants raised in this country.
What the bipartisan caucus won instead was a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the immigration issue would come to the Senate floor sometime in February for genuine debate. They also got a chance to keep working toward agreement on a new budget, rather than more of the short-term measures that keep federal agencies in perpetual limbo. The latest such continuing resolution expires on Feb. 8.
Those might sound like small victories to Americans who believe that real debates precede most major Senate votes and that budgets are routinely set each year, as was the case through much of the Senate's 229-year history. But today, McConnell's concessions could represent a breakthrough. The latter-day Senate pattern has been a rigid partisanship that produces gridlock whenever the majority caucus' position cannot advance without minority-caucus votes. Senate leaders have been unwilling to cede control of major legislation to a group like the Common Sense Caucus for fear that it would put their own positions at risk — as well it might. McConnell's concession to Klobuchar's group is not as small as its critics claim.
Neither is Klobuchar's involvement without political risk. While polls suggest she's in good standing with Minnesota voters as she seeks a third term in this year's election, her willingness to compromise with Republicans could be a minus with Democratic primary voters and donors if she opts to pursue the presidency in 2020. It's telling that she's the only Democratic senator regularly named as a presidential prospect who is playing a leading role in the Common Sense group. The others are keeping their distance and in some cases taking potshots. That makes Klobuchar's efforts all the more praiseworthy. "We are trying to get to the point of moving forward as a Senate that's operating in a normal way," she told an editorial writer last week.
Through two terms, bipartisan lawmaking has been Klobuchar's personal norm. It's why in 2016, she ranked first among 100 senators in the number of bills signed into law. Historically, it's also been a Minnesota norm, as the fruitful Senate records of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Dave Durenberger attest. If Klobuchar and the Common Sense Caucus can create a new model for advancing controversial legislation, they will stand in that distinguished line. Minnesotans in both partisan camps who understand the value of a functional U.S. Senate should be rooting for their success.