Clinton's quiet path to power
In Senate, she focuses on arcane details and working with Republicans.
After two years of quietly mastering the folkways and arcana of the US Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton is taking a higher profile in world's most exclusive legislative club.Skip to next paragraph
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If any Senate colleagues still think of New York's junior senator as first lady, they're not talking about it. Out, too, is speculation about hairstyles, clothes, marriage, or the scandals that have dogged her years in public life.
What counts in the Senate is her capacity for work - and working with others. As a relative newcomer, she recently was given the chairmanship of the Democratic Steering Committee. "Very seldom in history have we seen a freshman senator rise to this kind of position so fast," says John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
While she insists that her top priority is meeting the needs of New Yorkers, she is also helping Democrats craft a strategy to retake the Senate, and, perhaps, setting up a presidential run of her own in 2008. But what has most surprised Capitol Hill watchers is her ability to work with some of the toughest GOP partisans in the Congress, despite a reputation - rivaling that of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy - as the liberal that conservatives most love to hate. "The importance of building relationships among colleagues, of trying to create coalitions behind the issues that you are championing, was not something I ever had much insight into until I was elected and started serving in the Senate," she said in an interview.
Recently, she began working with House majority leader Tom "the Hammer" DeLay (R) of Texas on the crisis in foster care. (Mr. DeLay was the lead voice on Capitol Hill pushing for the impeachment of Bill Clinton.) She's reaching out to former critics, such as Sen. Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio, as well as to senators she has campaigned against, such as Peter Fitzgerald (R) of Illinois.
Working with GOP Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, she helped pass the first bill out of the 108th Congress, a $7.2 billion extension of jobless benefits. Her unexpected amendment to increase the final deal surprised Senator Nickles and new majority leader Bill Frist on his first day managing the Senate floor. "It was unfortunate. I thought we had an agreement," said Nickles, who later dubbed the flap a "little misunderstanding."
Few freshmen ever arrived on Capitol Hill with as much political capital - and potential liabilities. A prodigious fundraiser, she is lionized by the Democratic Party's liberal base, but highly distrusted by many conservatives and others in the electorate.
As a former first lady, she also has a national base, special perks, and a level of media attention that risks attracting the one thing that most freshmen senators try scrupulously to avoid: the resentment of colleagues.
It's a problem she thought through carefully before setting foot in the Senate, friends say. "She is following the pattern of the Senate 'workhorse' to not upstage the other Democrats in the Senate," says political scientist Alan Schechter, an adviser from her days as an undergraduate at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. "It's quite clear that many wanted to force her to take a more public role than she did at the outset. She's doing it more now."
As the new chair of the Democratic Steering Committee, Mrs. Clinton is reviving ties between Democrats and the party's base outside of election cycles - a technique honed by House Republicans in the 1990s. In recent weeks, she has organized meetings with activists in civil rights, education, and the environment to work on legislative priorities.
"She's been a huge influence since the day she arrived," says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut. "Her main interest has been to marshal outside resources to try to help us think through these things. Republicans, to their credit, have been willing to do more of this."
She's proposing a new think tank for Democrats, while also raising at least $832,000 for party candidates. That's more money than anyone on Capitol Hill has brought in, with the exception of the minority leaders in the House and Senate. Both efforts could be useful for a presidential bid down the line.
Also unusual for a freshman, she has attracted an exceptionally experienced staff. "Part of the reason she has been able to recruit such a world-class staff is that she has a national reputation," says Charlie Cook of the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "People will work for less than they could make off Capitol Hill, because they're working for her."