Hill on the Hill : So far, so good


December 16, 2001

Sen. Hillary Clinton,
here yesterday, has
impressed even
political foes
in her first year.

- Rob Schoenbaum

About this time last year, Hillary Rodham Clinton was mired in a swamp of stories about missing furniture, ill-advised pardons, influence trading and even her own flat hair. But when the Senate adjourns this week - ending Clinton's first year as New York's junior senator - the much-criticized former first lady will head home for the holidays knowing she has worked her way back onto solid ground.

Her young congressional career has taken a remarkable turn for the better from the outlook Clinton faced at her inauguration on Jan. 3. Her work ethic and understanding of her job have earned her praise from many quarters - and both sides of the aisle.

Like many on Capitol Hill, Clinton closed her Senate year primarily coping with the fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And it is her efforts in securing aid to rebuild New York that have left a strong and lasting impression among her colleagues.

"I'd make her my cleanup hitter," said Sen. Harry Reid, the soft-spoken but powerful No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

"She's articulate, has good sense, and she's a team player."

Republicans, including avowed opponents of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, also credit Hillary with a solid start in the Senate.

"We obviously disagree most of the time," said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). "But she's had a successful year. It appears that she knows her job and does it well."

Clinton became the first first lady to serve in the Senate when she was voted in by New Yorkers with a 54 percent share of the vote over Republican rival Rick Lazio's 46 percent.

As she paused last week to reflect on her historic first year, Clinton said she never had expected to become so close with so many GOP senators.

"It's been easier than I expected because I genuinely have positive feelings about many of my colleagues," said Clinton, who revealed she meets almost weekly for private prayer sessions with mostly Republican colleagues.

Despite rubbing shoulders almost daily with right-wing members that have long hunted those from the Clinton clan, Hillary says she holds no grudges.

"I'm a very forward-looking person. Life is short. If you look back and get mired in the past, you can't move forward," she said.

In the tradition-bound Senate, freshmen lawmakers typically content themselves with learning their way around and getting to know all their colleagues in the first 12 months of their six-year terms.

After eight years in the White House, Clinton skipped that and went straight to business.

Her worksheet over the past 12 months shows winning a passage of amendments on President Bush's education legislation that would recruit and retain more teachers and principals. She also wisely climbed aboard a successful campaign-finance bill and won changes to a bankruptcy bill and determinedly killed the Bush appointment of Mary Sheila Gall to run the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But many of Clinton's goals remain unmet. She still seeks greater economic development for upstate New York, a ban on racial profiling, a nursing recruitment bill, federal security at nuclear power plants and new health coverage for kids.

"This year has been a tremendous challenge, but I intend to work as hard as I can for the people of New York in the rest of my term," she said.

In her first 12 months, Clinton also has not been afraid to reach out to the GOP, cutting deals with conservative members and directing her fire at Bush - not Republican senators.

But Clinton's best move over the past year may have been one she made at the very start.

She hired quality staff packed with White House veterans and others who worked for her as first lady. The strategy could have backfired if her appointments had proved to be payoffs for old friends. But that's not been the case.

Instead, Clinton's staff of 35 has been widely praised for its knowledge of the executive branch of government and extensive contacts. Clinton also has been able to tap former Clinton administration officials to help her direct aid to New York.

It's been a hardworking team approach that has made any comments about hair now seem so irrelevant and passť.

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