When Hillary Rodham Clinton made a rare stop in the Senate last week, she spoke from a lonely outpost at the end of the Armed Services Committee dais, eight empty chairs emphasizing the gulf between her and real Senate power at the chairman’s spot.
It was illustrative of the inflexible senatorial math that will fix Mrs. Clinton’s place in Congress should the Democratic nominating fight play out on its present course. While she has received millions of votes, stirred thousands of Americans at rallies, made hundreds of appearances and is just scores of delegates short of her goal, defeat would still return her to the Senate as No. 36 out of 49 Democrats.
But the seniority arithmetic is only the beginning. There is also the personal challenge of returning to a club where more Democratic members, some quite pointedly, favored Senator Barack Obama and spurned her. For Mrs. Clinton, who has spent years cultivating friendships and raising money for colleagues, that had to hurt. Though the Senate is a place where rival lawmakers daily work side-by-side, this family feud was more public and pronounced than usual.
'What goes around, comes around'
“You haven’t seen this before,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska who sought the presidency in 1992 only to return to the Senate after the nomination slipped away. “In politics, what goes around, comes around.
“I would guess it will be easier for Joe Biden to get Hillary Clinton to support his bill than it will be for Chris Dodd,” Mr. Kerrey said, referring to the Delaware senator who stayed neutral after leaving the White House race and the Connecticut senator who did not.
At a minimum, Mrs. Clinton would face an adjustment in exiting the high-energy, applause-filled, rapid-fire atmosphere of a presidential race and re-entering the meandering Senate, where power, status and legislative accomplishments take years or even decades to attain.
“There is a little bit of a period of time where you have to get over the hustle bustle of the campaign,” acknowledged Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who also returned to the Senate after falling out of the White House race in 1992. “There is a little decompression there.”
Of course, Mrs. Clinton could still avoid a resumption of a full-time Senate career if Mr. Obama, No. 39 in party seniority, falters in these final days of the primary season. And then there is that talk of a vice-presidential slot — though that prospect may be even more remote after Mrs. Clinton’s remark last week about the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, which highlighted fears about Mr. Obama’s safety.
Were Mr. Obama the one to suddenly find himself back in Congress, it would no doubt be personally crushing but somewhat different in the senatorial sense. Mr. Obama, of Illinois, is only 46, and he began the campaign as a decided underdog against Mrs. Clinton. Though it would be unwanted from his perspective, more years in the Senate could help him plug some holes in his legislative résumé while pointing to his next opportunity.
Aides to Mrs. Clinton said a transition back to Senate life was not a chief concern at the moment. “Senator Clinton is focused on running for president and being the nominee,” said a spokesman, Phil Singer.
Yet even if she is once again principally the junior senator from New York, a case can be made that her campaign has strengthened her Senate hand. She is now an even more firmly established national figure in her own right, with a defined and substantial following, one of the few in the Senate who can make that claim.
Her standing will enable her to command attention even though she might lack a clear Senate platform. She will be sought after as a campaign resource (and, should she choose to settle scores, can shun requests from those who did not help her).
“Anyone who thinks she will return to the body in a weakened condition does not understand the nature of politics,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a close ally of Senator John McCain, who is proof that losing a presidential primary race is not the end and can even be the beginning.
Relatively junior status
Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, recovered from a stinging presidential primary loss in 2000 to become a Senate force by leading a bipartisan coalition able to control the balance of power on tough issues like judicial nominations. He used his stature as a springboard back to the presidential fray.
But Mrs. Clinton’s relatively junior status limits her options in the Senate. She is pretty far down the ladder on her committees, denying her a chairmanship, the most potent source of influence and bargaining chips in the Senate give-and-take.
Allies have said the Senate leadership should carve out an important niche for her, but that is not easy since any position could come at the expense of a more senior member. Top Democratic officials say the party leadership is not considering any special spot, though lawmakers would not rule out some accommodation if she sought one.
But talk outside the Senate of Mrs. Clinton becoming majority leader is considered truly fanciful within the Senate, where it has also provoked unspoken irritation at the image of Democrats waiting for Mrs. Clinton to swoop in off the campaign to guide her waiting colleagues. Not to mention the fact that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the current leader, does not seem to be going anywhere.
“I wouldn’t imagine Senator Reid is anxious to give up being majority chairman,” said Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska and a backer of Mr. Obama.
Even if Mr. Reid were to change plans, others who have been tending the Senate’s business while their colleagues seek the presidency might have something to say about that majority leader job. They include Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a supporter of Mrs. Clinton who is for the second time running the Senate Democratic campaign committee.
Mrs. Clinton could adopt the model of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, after he lost the nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1980, and try to become a superior legislator, an approach that could play to her policy strengths. But Mr. Kennedy, who learned last week that he had a malignant brain tumor, built his expertise on years of experience and longstanding relationships of the sort that Mrs. Clinton does not yet have in the Senate.
'She is policy driven'
Colleagues, hedging that the nomination fight is not over, say Mrs. Clinton will no doubt be a major force in the Senate even if she has no formal role.
“She is a such a professional, and she is policy driven,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. “She knows that to accomplish the things we want to accomplish, we will have to work together.”
Ms. McCaskill was one of 17 Senate Democrats to endorse Mr. Obama, compared with 13 for Mrs. Clinton, who had a substantial head start on her rival until Iowa. The others have not taken sides publicly. Mr. Obama’s advantage has been a surprise, given the prominence of the Clintons in party politics. It has the potential to create some friction in the close confines of the Senate, where snubs and paybacks are an art form.
“If so, only briefly,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and strong ally of Mrs. Clinton, playing down any tension. “There are a lot of people around here who are very serious political grownups who know people have to take sides in races and then go on to the next thing.”
Former Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who made an unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination before leaving the Senate, recalled that he was welcomed back like an absent member of the family. He offered this advice:
“Whichever candidate doesn’t make it to the next step should take a deep breath and dive deeply into their Senate business,” he said. “That is the best way to make the conversion.”
This article, Clinton Could Face Uneasy Return to Senate, first appeared in .