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Hillary Clinton suits up for Senate team

At orientation, the senator-elect talks of building consensus.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000

[AP photo]
Sen.-elect first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., walks with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., on Capitol Hill Tuesday during a round of orientation tours.
WASHINGTON -- She walked past the shouting reporters with less acknowledgment than you would give a crazy man raving on a street corner. Her stiff-upper-lip smile never wavered, and you could almost see the gears grinding in Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton's brain:

"I must not upstage my Democratic colleagues. I must not upstage my Democratic colleagues. I must not upstage . . ."

Tuesday was a test of sorts for Clinton, who in January will join an institution often described as a body of 100 towering egos. And none of them, truth be told, is exactly doing cartwheels over her entrance.

The problem is that this controversial, historymaking first lady is one of the most famous women in the world. And senators are worried that Clinton will suck away their precious life force: that noisy knot of notepad-and camera-wielding reporters they crave to hear nipping at their heels as they walk the marbled halls.

"She's aware of the potential for being out front on everything," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who fielded a call from Clinton last Sunday. "I mentioned to her (she should) come in and show how dedicated she is to New York and work within the Senate."

The first lady is on Capitol Hill this week for new-senator orientation and organizational meetings with Democrats. She will be sworn in Jan. 3 to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.

Clinton took pains to portray herself as a team player in her only contact with reporters Tuesday.

"I'm absolutely hoping to build relationships and create consensus with every senator," she said. "I expect to be working very hard to learn a lot, because there's a lot to learn."

She appeared with Sen.-elect Jon Corzine, D-N.J., whose presence before the Hillary-hungry media horde seemed to underscore Clinton's desire to share the glory.

"Sen.-elect Clinton has been very gracious about how she's operated within the (Democratic) caucus today," Corzine said. "She said it best today: She wants to be a workhorse, not a show horse."

Republicans seemed irked by the presence of a woman many view as the embodiment of Democratic evil. "She's a senator, and she'll be treated accordingly," Republican Trent Lott, the majority leader, snapped.

The Senate is relatively open to reporters, who are free to stop lawmakers as they walk to and from meetings or back and forth from the Senate chamber. This tradition has given rise to a unique form of status: the press scrum.

The larger the scrum of reporters that forms around a senator, the more important he or she is. Some senators can always count on drawing a scrum. These are people like Lott or Democrat Tom Daschle, the minority leader.

Other senators are more seasonal attractions. When he was running for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996, for example, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm always drew a large scrum. Now, his appearance draws nary a yelp from the press pack.

Clinton kept her head down all day as reporters shouted questions to her in the halls. But for reporters, even getting close enough to be ignored was difficult; Secret Service agents trailed her everywhere, while Clinton frequently ducked out the back doors of meeting rooms to avoid the press.

As a soon-to-be-former first lady, Clinton is entitled to Secret Service protection for life. Reporters had feared that the service would try to close normally accessible hallways in the Senate, restricting the press' access to all senators as well as Clinton.

But the Secret Service says its agents will try to limit disruptions. "We visit the Capitol regularly with protectees," such as the president and foreign dignitaries, said Jim Mackin, a spokesman for the Secret Service. "This is not something new to us."

Yet the security surrounding Clinton already has created bad feelings. When the first lady's car arrived Tuesday morning at the Senate, an officer grabbed the arm of a press gallery staffer and roughly told him to clear out. The staffer, who is an employee of Congress, responded with a curse.

When she is sworn in as the junior senator from New York, Clinton will instantly overshadow the senior senator from New York, fellow Democrat Charles Schumer, one of Washington's most notorious camera moths. And her work on health care and education issues might encroach on the turf of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

On such issues, hers will be the sound bite that makes the news and the first person newspaper reporters go to for a quote.

This may mean only frustration for reporters, though, as Clinton seems to need the press less than the press needs her. A Senate press gallery memo, for instance, raised the hackles of reporters under orders to chronicle her every move Tuesday.

"Mrs. Clinton has requested that she not be followed by the press," the memo said.

But the first lady's spokesman disassociated her from the edict.

"Our office didn't issue anything," Howard Wolfson protested.

One of nine new Democrats and two new Republicans, Clinton appears likely to end up on the Banking, Education or Foreign Relations committee.

Committee assignments are decided by seniority, and Clinton will rank fourth from last among Senate Democrats in the 107th Congress. Seniority is determined by such factors as whether a senator previously served in the House.

The most senior Democratic freshman will be Bill Nelson of Florida, whose six terms in the House, from 1979 to 1991, put him at the top of the list. Among the four Democratic freshmen who have never held office, Clinton ranks top because she represents the most populous state.

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