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.
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."
There have also been glitches along the way. Her late arrival at an early meeting of women senators was noted (and not repeated). So were the special demands of her security detail, which since have been toned down. Early ventures into legislating on health care, such as a bill requiring drug manufactures to test their products for safety for children, didn't make it out of committee in the 107th Congress.
Still, colleagues on both sides of the aisle say they appreciate her intelligence, energy, and attention to detail. A senior Senate official describes her as the most likely successor to Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia as the resident expert on arcane procedure, which can be useful in pushing or impeding action on the floor of the Senate.
Many also value the prominence her participation can give a bill. "Her presence allowed this issue to have a profile we were unable to have without her national profile," said Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, at a briefing last week on a proposal to help local police departments clear their backlogs of unanalyzed DNA evidence in sex crimes. Clinton is a cosponsor.
She's also beginning to register some tough votes that could be decisive down the line. Most notably, she voted for the resolution giving President Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, a resolution she stands by today despite strong antiwar sentiment among many of the party faithful. She describes that vote as the hardest she has ever had to make.
"I want this president, or any future president, to be in the strongest possible position to lead our country in the United Nations or in war," she said on the floor of the Senate before the Oct 10 vote.
"Hillary's dilemma is whether you can balance the liberal wing of the political party and still appeal to the broad political center," says a senior Republican staffer on the Hill. "Her husband was able to do that, but she is so identified with the party's hard-core base that she may be unable to do the same."
Conservative critics, to be sure, are never likely to stop using her as a pincushion. They chide her for being a "social engineer," among other things, who would give government too much power. "She is intent upon seeking the power to tell the rest of us how we ought to live our lives and seeks power so she can force her views on us whether we like them or not," writes David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, in that group's 2000 book, "Hillary Rodham Clinton: What Every American Should Know."
In the interview, Clinton describes her work in the Senate as "very intense," including 12 to 15 hour days and constantly changing schedules. "I used to sit on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and wonder why the Senate was always going into recess, until in my first year I realized how intense the pressure was," she says.
If she has gained a new perspective about the Senate, many in the upper chamber may have a different view about her. Few people still ruminate about her personal and political troubles in the White House. If there is any speculation at all - about the marriage, the gifts, the pardons, the conspiracies - it's usually, as befits the chamber, tempered and respectfully well off the record.
Clinton's personal style has evolved, too. While capable of raising rafters at gatherings of the party faithful, her star power is well under wraps in the Senate. She often defers to colleagues, speaks in a studied, low key way, and distributes praise lavishly to anyone connected with a project, whatever the side of the aisle.
The big security details that colleagues once feared might be so disruptive have not occurred. She can be spotted anywhere in the Capitol, including at the greasiest spoons, talking to anyone. "I don't know why I should be talking to a [Dallas] Cowboys fan," she calls out to a workman in the Senate basement, who laughs.
She has learned to play off her reputation as a polarizing figure in many parts of the country. In joint appearances with prominent conservatives such as majority leader DeLay or Senator Nickles, she makes a point of praising the quality of her GOP colleagues, always adding something like, "...and I'm reluctant to say that because I am sure that will hurt him in ... [Texas or Oklahoma.]" It's a sure laugh line.
In a Senate where most words are scripted by staff, she speaks without notes and with a grasp of policy minutiae. "I've always been intrigued by the Senate, and admired many of the people who have served there. As a little girl, I was very interested in Margaret Chase Smith [Republican senator from Maine], who I thought was a real trail blazer," she said.