Bills, Klobuchar meet in U.S. Senate candidate forum in Duluth

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and her challenger, Minnesota Rep. Kurt Bills, R-Rosemount, may not agree on much, but they do agree on the need to fix a dysfunctional Congress. The two participated in a candidate forum Tuesday at the Duluth Pl...

Bills and Klobuchar
Challenger Kurt Bills (left) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., take part in a U.S. Senate candidate forum Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, at the Duluth Playhouse. (Steve Kuchera /

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and her challenger, Minnesota Rep. Kurt Bills, R-Rosemount, may not agree on much, but they do agree on the need to fix a dysfunctional Congress. The two participated in a candidate forum Tuesday at the Duluth Playhouse sponsored by the News Tribune editorial board and the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

"One of the most frustrating things for me since I got to Washington is the gridlock that we've seen there," Klobuchar said.

Bills, a high school economics teacher, said neither party can afford a go-it-alone approach to governing any longer.

"Neither side will ever have the majority they want to move forward with their agenda. So we have to send an independent voice, someone who has looked into the eyes of kids for 15 years and answered their questions. Somebody who has the fortitude to carry things to the Senate floor. Somebody who understands the constitutional underpinnings of the U.S. Senate, the highest deliberative body in the world, and what it should be and what it hasn't been the last few years and specifically, the last 10 years," he said.

But Klobuchar questioned whether Bills' ideology would lead to compromise, given his support for a budget proposed by Sen. Paul Rand, R-Ky., that would make deep cuts in Social Security and "end Medicare as we know it in two years," she said. Rand proposes a 17 percent across-the-board flat tax, with capital gains and dividends exempted.


Klobuchar said the Paul budget and another proposed by vice presidential candidate and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would deliver tax cuts to high-income taxpayers at a time when the nation can ill afford them.

"I think we need people who can get real results, who work in the middle and are willing to get things done," she said, suggesting Bills had aligned himself with extremists.

Bills objected, saying: "I don't understand why my opponent, who is so well-liked in the state and has supposedly such huge polling numbers, would have to attack me and call me extreme? I'm a public school teacher. How extreme is that?"

Bills described himself as "a guy who has watched as our elected bodies, Republican and Democrat, have taken our country to this point. Now I want to stand up and do something about it and I get called extreme. I think that's extreme."

Turning the tables on his opponent, Bills said: "I think what's extreme is to not author a budget. I think what's extreme is to not offer solutions. In six years, our national debt has doubled, the unemployment rate has doubled, and my housing value has been cut in half."

Klobuchar said she has consistently backed a mix of spending cuts along with revenue increases.

"I supported and voted for the last compromise, which was the Budget Control Act, which was $2.2 trillion in spending cuts --more than we've seen in decades. That is what is happening right now in this country. It's not going to be easy, but we are going to have to make some spending cuts," she said.

Klobuchar remains optimistic the nation's budget woes can be cured.


"I believe you can't balance this budget on the backs of people who can't afford it, and that's the middle class and the most vulnerable among us," she said. "But what I do believe is there is a way forward on this debt, and that is why I have worked with a group in the middle. We have about 50 senators -- half Democrats, half Republicans --and we're working together on the debt commission."

Bills suggested Congress members simply should step up. "We don't need another debt commission. No more commissions. We already have a debt commission. It's called Congress. If Congress would just do its job."

"It's not a hit on Republicans or Democrats. It's a hit on the system as a whole. We've gone 1,237 days without a budget, specifically a budget out of the U.S. Senate. That can't happen. We need people to work together," Bills said.

Klobuchar said she has a demonstrated history of coalition building.

"Nearly two-thirds of the bills I have led have been with Republican co-sponsors," she said. "I have proven that I am willing to work with people across the aisle to get things done. Courage in the next few years is not going to be standing alone in the middle of a great debate giving a speech. Courage is whether you're willing to stand next to someone you don't always agree with for the betterment of this country."

Bills said he finds Klobuchar's attacks on the Paul and Ryan budgets a ironic.

"What's terrible is that the other side doesn't have a plan," he said. "There is no plan. There is no budget. That is wrong from a fiduciary standpoint. You can talk about all the bipartisan bills you've been on from here to eternity, but if you haven't passed a budget and if you don't pass a budget within the next couple of weeks -- the fiscal cliff is going to happen."

Klobuchar said she aims to eliminate Bush-era tax cuts for households with annual incomes of more than $250,000, a move that would reduce the national debt by more than $750 billion. She said she also wants to end oil subsidies currently expected to cost the nation $40 billion over the next 10 years. Klobuchar also supports negotiating the prices of prescription drugs for Medicare Part B, yielding en estimated $200 billion in the next 10 years


She contends that if Congress works together, the nation's debt can be trimmed by $4 trillion in the coming decade.

Bills pledged to bring a pragmatic problem-solving approach to Congress and predicted he could help negotiate "a great compromise."

"Even though I am a staunch conservative, when it comes time to vote to put this country forward, I'll make that vote," he said. "And I'll make it not for my party but for all the kids I've taught.

"We're going to have to have another great compromise in this country. And we are lacking this year and in this country the people to put forward to have the debate and have the discussion as to how to do that. Our country is in an absolute solvency crisis."

Bills said he, too, has demonstrated an ability to work with people of different political stripes. He cited his work on a recent budget compromise with Gov. Mark Dayton, as well as his support of legislation proposed by now-retired Iron Range Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, that would increase mining and timber revenues off of school trust lands.

But Klobuchar questioned how much a friend of Minnesota's Iron Range Bills could be, having voted twice in the Minnesota Legislature to raid the Taconite Economic Development Fund.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
What To Read Next
Get Local