Can Hillary Readjust to the Senate?

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Susan Walsh / AP

Senator Hillary Clinton

Correction Appended: May 28, 2008

The day after the Florida recount was brought to an abrupt end in 2000 by the Supreme Court, Connecticut Senator and former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman was back at work in the Senate. "It was very important to me to come right back to work, I think it was my nature, but I think it was a lot of people's nature," Lieberman said, standing just off the Senate floor last week as his Republican colleague Bob Bennett happened to pass by.

"He's one who made the adjustment in about 30 seconds. There're some who had a little bit more difficulty coming back," said Bennett, a Republican who represents Utah. Looking archly at Hillary Clinton, just steps away, he added: "There're some still walking around like President in exile."

Clinton's brief departure from the campaign trail up to Capitol Hill last week was a jarring reminder of what awaits her if, as most expect, she fails to win the Democratic nomination. As she weighs her return to the Senate, Clinton is in the uncomfortable position of being the focus of even more scrutiny and speculation than when she entered the chamber in 2001. Still relatively junior in terms of party seniority and with no committee chairmanship power base in sight, Clinton must adjust to a deliberative body where 17 of her colleagues openly supported her rival — and still others might feel she has divided the party by dragging out the race.

Many have speculated that Clinton, as a sort of consolation prize on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, might make a good Majority Leader. But those doing the speculating clearly don't understand the way the Senate works. Not only is majority leader actually a tedious, behind-the-scenes managerial position, but the current holder of that position, Harry Reid of Nevada, is a lot more popular in his party than outsiders realize, and his chief deputies, Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer, have their own ambitions. Senators want a leader they can call at any hour with complaints — in other words they want a referee, not a superstar. "The Senate needs to work on an hourly basis, a lot of labor-intensive work, and it's a major shift when you've been operating at a certain altitude to come back and get involved in the nuts and bolts of the Senate literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and that's what [being Majority Leader] involves," said Senator Chris Dodd, who himself recently returned from the presidential field and is one of the 17 who endorsed Barack Obama.

Dodd and Senator Joe Biden, another former Democratic presidential hopeful, both took solace in their respective committees upon their returns. Dodd, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, was immediately swamped by the subprime mortgage crisis. "I haven't had a moment to dwell on" the Presidential race, Dodd joked. Likewise, Biden, who heads up the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been busy with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hosting General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker last month for hearings. "You could not pay me, under no circumstances would I want to be majority leader," Biden said with a chuckle.

The vast majority of presidential wannabes who return to the Senate end up like Dodd and Biden, choosing a legislative, rather than leadership, path — satisfied with presiding over your own fiefdom as head of a committee, or sponsoring a major piece of legislation, rather than logging favors and whipping unruly members into line for votes. "The leadership track is one that is almost so all-consuming it's pretty hard to devote the attention to other committees that otherwise become a big part of any senator's life," said Tom Daschle, a former Democratic Senate majority leader and an Obama supporter.

Celebrity politicians have often had a hard time winning Senate popularity contests. West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, for example, wrested Ted Kennedy's No. 2 slot from him in 1971 in part because of Kennedy's fame. "Byrd shocked everyone by defeating Kennedy," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "Why? Other Democratic senators saw Kennedy as a national figure who would use the Senate post as a platform for his own ambitions, while Byrd was viewed as a Senate-based persona who would spend his time and energies making senators' lives work well. Nothing's changed. Senators want a leader who will serve their own interests first."

Byrd had such strong credentials in the Senate that six years later he beat party celebrity Hubert Humphrey, former vice president under Lyndon Johnson and 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, to become Senate Majority Leader in 1977. Byrd did so after running for President himself the year before, but he ran only in his home state, and acknowledged at the time that he was more interested in leading the Senate than the country. Aside from Byrd, the longest serving senator in office, no other former Democratic candidate in recent history has won a leadership role in the Senate. "I don't see Senator Clinton taking a position in the formal Democratic Party leadership in the Senate, but instead using her committee positions and public stature to play an important legislative and political role," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Reid and Durbin's positions are secure and Clinton's comparative advantages do not connect well to their jobs."

Kennedy, who unsuccessfully challenged Jimmy Carter for President in 1980, channeled his energies into legislation upon his return to the Senate, becoming the most prodigious lawmaker of the past half-century. "There's a transition, obviously, moving from a candidate for the presidency back to the Senate, but I loved the Senate before I ran," Kennedy said. Like Kennedy, Clinton has had the advantage and curse of a high public profile since entering the Senate as a former First Lady in 2001. Returning to the Senate now after having won millions of votes and raised hundreds of millions of dollars, Clinton could bring attention to a legislative agenda, such as health care, that few senators can match. "A leadership role to transform health care in America would be a natural for her," said Stephen Schneck, a political science professor at Catholic University in Washington. "Given her skills and organization on health care, it is easy to imagine that she'd be able to build a strong coalition of support on the Hill for this and within the Washington policy environment — even possibly bringing in some Republicans."

First, though, Clinton has some fence mending to do with her colleagues. And, ultimately, she may decide it's not worth it, Sabato said. "Clinton may be restless in the Senate," he said. "She came tantalizingly close to being the most powerful person in the world. Being one of 100 in a body that is half the Congress is a poor substitute. Losing presidential candidates have a hard time readjusting, as John Kerry can attest." Though as Clinton is proving in this Presidential race, she is likely to stick around the Senate a lot longer than most people expect.

The original version of this article incorrectly reported that Robert Byrd became Senate Minority Leader in 1977. In fact, he became Senate Majority Leader that year.