Clinton got along with GOP in Senate

March 22, 2008 7:32:50 PM PDT
Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in the Senate before she had even surrendered the title of first lady. An anything-but-typical freshman, she surprised skeptics with how well she fit in to a chamber where reputations are usually built over decades.

She didn't big-foot colleagues. A junior senator in the minority party, she put her head down and went to work.

She sought out the longest-serving senator in history, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, to receive a tutorial on the art of legislating, even though he had been an outspoken critic of her husband during the impeachment debate.

She waited her turn to speak, and when she did talk, it was clear she had done her homework.

By most accounts she was seen as a serious legislator who tended to her state's interests. She was re-elected in 2006 in a cakewalk.

But there is no blockbuster legislation with her name on it. No soaring oratory still rings in the ears.

Some campaign promises went unfulfilled, notably her promise to create 200,000 jobs in upstate New York.

Her vote to authorize the Iraq war and other moves toward the center caused liberals to grouse that she had betrayed her roots.

And the skills that make for a successful junior senator are not necessarily those that shout presidential leadership.

Citing the "cumbersome" rules under which the Senate operates, Clinton told an Associated Press reporter last year, "I'm somebody who just gets up every day and tries to push that decision a little bit further every day."

For all her hard work, she brought baggage to the Senate that could not be shed.

Clinton points to her role in putting together $20 billion in aid for New York after the Sept. 11 attacks as one of her greatest Senate achievements.

Yet when the deal was in danger of falling apart, Clinton stepped aside during final negotiations and waited outside the office of then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., for fear her presence would inflame the opposition.

"She will always be a lightning rod," said former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who has endorsed Clinton's presidential rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Nonetheless, Daschle gives Clinton good marks for her years in the Senate.

"She surprised people," Daschle said. "There was a lot of skepticism among many of her colleagues about the degree to which she would be a team player. ... She was sensitive to that concern and tried to address it."

Clinton built unexpected alliances with Republicans.

Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a moderate who was dean of New York's Republican delegation, remembers Clinton's inviting herself over to discuss common goals shortly after she took office in 2001.

"You have to understand the significance of that," Boehlert said. "No senator, even the most junior senator of the minority party, ever comes over to the House side for an initial meeting with a House member, no matter how influential. They summon a House member to the upper body."

The two later worked together to successfully reverse a Pentagon proposal to close a military installation in Rome, N.Y. Saving the jobs at Rome and another upstate military base are accomplishments that Clinton cites as evidence of her effectiveness as a senator and as fruits of her position on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close friend and ally of GOP presidential hopeful John McCain, remembers working with Clinton for three years to provide better medical coverage to members of the National Reserve and Guard serving in Iraq.

Graham, who had been one of the most active senators in pushing the impeachment of President Clinton, remembers an awkward moment when the former first lady decided to attend a news conference he had scheduled to announce the health care legislation. The moment quickly passed, though, and Graham and Clinton used their odd-couple pairing to create a high-profile team that eventually prevailed.

"Obviously, being former first lady, she draws a lot of attention," says Graham. "She's very good at making sure that people don't get lost in the shuffle."

Republicans, in turn, were often pleased to be in the spotlight that teaming up with Clinton guaranteed.

Clinton joined the Senate equipped with one of the best fundraising lists in Congress. She put it to use by creating a political action committee, Hillpac, that could help other Democratic congressional candidates. The PAC's most generous election cycle was 2002 when it contributed $837,000 to federal candidates.

For all of the good will that Clinton cultivated, there still were strains and perceived slights.

Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican who has since become an independent, recalls appearing at a news conference with Clinton and other senators where Clinton went off the subject to entertain a series of questions about an unrelated New York matter.

"That was a bit disrespectful of busy colleagues," said Chafee, who has endorsed Obama. "She seemed to enjoy that we had to stand there on the stage with her."

Overall, Clinton has been endorsed by 13 Senate Democrats, Obama by 11. The rest have remained neutral.

Daschle said her experience - both as senator and first lady - works against her in some ways.

"It's harder, when you have the experience that Hillary and I have had over the past 20 years, to overcome the expectation that you've become a hard-core partisan," he said. "That makes it harder to bring people together."

Even though Clinton was able to win over a number of Republicans in Congress, Daschle said, "I don't think she'll ever have the capacity to do so across the board around the country."

Obama, who sought out Clinton for advice when he began his own Senate career four years after she started hers, makes a virtue of his newness to the ways of Washington and tries to turn Clinton's experience into a liability. His campaign points to her failure to work for universal health coverage during her Senate years; her failure to deliver promised jobs to upstate New York; and her failure to work to reduce the influence of lobbyists.

Clinton, in her first speech to the Senate, said that she had learned "the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done." She seemed determined to avoid the overreaching that had doomed her health care efforts as first lady.

In the Senate, her work on that issue was cautious and more narrowly targeted: at members of the National Guard and Reserve, for example, and workers whose health was impaired by working at ground zero after the 2001 attacks, and at increasing regulation of prescription drugs for children.

Clinton promised to be "pretty New York-centric" early in her Senate term, and she secured boatloads of federal "earmarks" to finance home-state projects, opening her to criticism of pork-barrel spending. She requested 261 earmarks in the current budget year alone, according to the private Citizens Against Government Waste. The group gives her a lifetime ranking of just 10 percent on cutting wasteful spending. Obama's lifetime rating is 22 percent.

"New Yorkers are happy she brought home the dough," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant. "She is perceived as someone who works hard for the state, who stands up for issues of importance to New Yorkers, and who cast her lot trying to create jobs for upstate New York."