By STEPHEN OHLEMACHERWASHINGTON (AP) a¿¿ Caterpillar Inc. executives defended a tax strategy Tuesday that has saved the manufacturing giant billions in U.S. taxes. They got support from Republican senators, including one who said the company deserves an award. Caterpillar has avoided paying $2.4 billion in U.S. taxes since 2000 by shifting profits to a wholly-controlled affiliate in Switzerland, according to a report released by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Levin chairs the Senate investigations subcommittee. On Tuesday, Levin grilled Caterpillar executives and their accountants at a hearing on the company's tax strategy. "Caterpillar is an American success story that produces iconic industrial machines," Levin said. "But it is also a member of the corporate profit-shifting club that has transferred billions of dollars offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes." Julie Lagacy, a Caterpillar vice president, was adamant that the Peoria, Ill.-based manufacturer follows all tax laws. "We pay everything we owe," she told the subcommittee. Caterpillar got support from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who questioned why the subcommittee was even holding the hearing. "I think rather than having an inquisition, we should probably bring Caterpillar here and give them an award," Paul said. "You know, they've been in business for over 100 years. It's not easy to stay in business." Paul said Caterpillar and its accountants have an obligation to shareholders to minimize their taxes. "It is a requirement that you try to minimize your costs. So rather than chastising Caterpillar we should be complimenting them," Paul said. Caterpillar is the world's leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, with sales and revenues last year of nearly $56 billion. The company says it has increased U.S. employment by 13,000 jobs since 1999, growing to nearly 52,000 workers last year. The company says it has 118,000 employees in 21 countries. In the U.S., it has 69 manufacturing and logistics facilities in 23 states, and dealers from coast to coast.