WASHINGTON - When voters swept Democrats into majorities in Congress in 2006, expectations ran high that the victors would seek to end the war in Iraq or at least set a timeline for withdrawal.
Not for lack of trying, neither has happened. Lacking enough votes to make bills veto-proof or even, in some cases, to overcome filibusters in the Senate, Democratic attempts to tie war funding to withdrawal dates have faltered every time.
That failure has been the central frustration for Sen. Amy Klobuchar and other freshman Democrats, marring what has otherwise been, for the Minnesotan, a satisfying first year in office.
Just before the holidays, Klobuchar helped pass a huge omnibus budget package that included $70 billion in unrestricted war funding after measures that would have conditioned the money on troop withdrawal were voted down.
Because the bill contained hundreds of millions of dollars for Minnesota, including $195 million to replace the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge, Klobuchar couldn't easily vote against it.
"In the end there were a number of things in that bill, not just the bridge money, that were very important," she said. "I would have liked to have the [withdrawal] deadlines in there. ... But we will go on to fight another day."
Klobuchar has faced criticism from the left for that and another temporary war funding vote that she said reflect her concern for American troops.
Jennifer Umolac, a Minnesota progressive activist with an organization called Impeach for Peace, doesn't buy the troop argument. She said progressives were also "furious" over Klobuchar's Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) vote in August that temporarily gave the government the ability to intercept domestic American phone calls.
"The bottom line for me was that it was pretty clear we sent our representatives to D.C. with a mandate to end the war in Iraq, to protect our civil liberties and to hold the people accountable who have made this mess," Umolac said.
Dissatisfaction among antiwar liberals doesn't pose a critical political problem for Klobuchar, especially since she's in her first year of office, said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor who specializes in Congress.
"As a new Democrat, she's not going to be the one specifically forging policy on Iraq," Pearson said. "These votes can be explained in such a way that she can remain critical of Bush's handling of the war while still voting to fund it."
Several opinion polls have shown Klobuchar with approval ratings exceeding 60 percent among Minnesotans as a whole.
Frustrated by delays
Klobuchar said she has been "slightly surprised" by how long it takes to get things done in Congress, especially the Senate, where what she calls "arcane rules" allow the minority and sometimes even a single senator to block legislation.
"That one guy is able to hold things up is insane to me," Klobuchar said.
Despite the obstacles, Klobuchar has scored some successes, gaining national attention for leading initiatives on lead in toys, pool safety and a "cell phone bill of rights."
Chris Murray, legislative counsel to Consumers Union, worked with Klobuchar on the cell phone measure and said she hasn't been afraid to stand up to moneyed interests or take on controversial issues.
"She's definitely emerging as a leader on consumer issues," Murray said, praising her focus as a lawmaker on "actually getting the job done."
Minnesota Republican Party spokesman Mark Drake said Klobuchar mostly has been a reliable liberal vote.
"She's been a rubber stamp for [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, and she hasn't done much," Drake said. "People would like to see someone who's going to support tax cuts, expanding opportunities for health care. We haven't seen her act on those issues."
But August's bridge collapse also thrust Klobuchar into the national spotlight and showcased her amicable relationship with fellow Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican. The image of both senators standing in solidarity in front of the rubble was an important sign of unity, Pearson said.
"The fact that they're publicly willing to work together to such an extent shows some degree of seriousness about using bipartisan cooperation to help Minnesota," Pearson said.
Klobuchar and Coleman have joined together on a number of issues, including veterans education benefits and funding for the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
"It's good for Minnesota to work together," Coleman said. "The beauty of this relationship in the Senate is that you can disagree on a single issue, but you can go back and work together on 97 percent of the stuff."
'We have to keep pushing'
Though Democrats were unable to get the president to commit to an Iraq timeline, Klobuchar said the past year was not a total waste on the war front. They incorporated Iraq Study Group recommendations in law, demanded more accountability and made war funding last for shorter periods so Congress could continue to revisit the issue.
Going forward, Klobuchar said, Democrats will persistently press for a change in course.
"We have to keep pushing it," she said. "People give lip service to it, they say they don't want to spend $12 billion a month anymore, that they want to bring our troops home, but they don't vote that way.
"I think it's a good thing to keep up the debate and just push and push on these votes."
Nina Petersen-Perlman • 202-408-2723