THE APPROPRIATE PRIORITIES…. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) took a refreshing attitude this week about the nature of lawmakers’ responsibilities.

In a profile in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Tuesday, the Missouri Democrat, who was elected just three years ago, offered some uncommon candor on life in the Senate and her frustration with the way Washington works.

“I’m very frustrated with some of the habits around here,” she said. “What happens around here is that so many people are more focused on getting everybody to love them and getting re-elected than they are on solving the really hard stuff. Because when you solve hard stuff, you make people mad.”

As she reassesses how to spend the second half of her first term, McCaskill said she is going to focus more on a top priority — government accountability — and less on 2012. “I’ve just kind of decided that, hey, I’m just going to do this, and Missouri’s hard, so there’s a chance, you know, that I won’t get re-elected. And if I don’t, that’s OK. It’s not the end of the world.”

That certainly seems to reflect healthy priorities. Tackling big issues and solving big problems is, by its very nature, politically risky. Lawmakers who fear for their political lives much prefer to steer clear of controversial votes that may anger constituents — it’s more important, the argument goes, to keep power than to use it. McCaskill is articulating a more constructive approach to congressional service.

I just hope she means it. In December, McCaskill said she thinks lawmakers should focus less on “getting everybody to love them” and more on “solving the really hard stuff,” even if it “makes people mad.” But in November, the same McCaskill said tackling climate change legislation may need to be pushed off indefinitely, because, “After you do one really, really big, really, really hard thing that makes everybody mad, I don’t think anybody’s excited about doing another really, really big thing that’s really, really hard that makes everybody mad.”

So, which is it, exactly? Does McCaskill think lawmakers should “solve hard stuff,” regardless of the consequences, or does she think lawmakers should take it easy and steer clear of challenges that are “really hard” and that “make everybody mad”?

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.