Clinton and Her Odd Policy Bedfellows
Senate record offers hints into her future dealmaking style
She teamed up on social policy legislation not once, but twice, with lawmakers who tried to impeach her husband. She paired with a potential presidential rival on a health care bill. She joined a leader of Capitol Hill’s culture wars on a child welfare measure.
Hillary Clinton’s operating style in the Senate involved partnering whenever possible with Republicans — and the more conservative, the better.
While building a voting record slightly left of the Democratic center, Clinton cultivated a cache of bipartisan relationships in search of consensus on relatively small-bore matters. As much as any other high-profile politician in recent times, she used the “odd bedfellows” gambit to cultivate a moderate side.
It’s a feature of her long career in public life that’s been largely overlooked during her second run for the presidency, eight years after stepping aside as the junior senator from New York.
[Related: Clinton Adviser: Schumer Was ‘So Happy’ She Left the Senate]
In part, that’s because not all that many lawmakers saw the behavior up close. For those who eye term limits as a cure for the Capitol’s dysfunction, these numbers may surprise: The 115th Congress will include no more than 43 senators and 175 House members (40 percent) who were also in office in 2008.
Put another way, even if no lawmaker loses re-election, fewer than half the members will have experience with any administration beside the departing one. And only that group will have ever known Clinton, who served from 2001 until early 2009, as a congressional colleague.
Her balky patch in the late primaries notwithstanding, polling now reveals Clinton as the person likeliest to win the presidency. But most of those responsible for advancing, modifying or rejecting her program — in both parties — would have to take it on faith that her lawmaking style has been more collaborative and calibrated than antagonists assert.
In the Senate, Clinton tended to prefer the same incremental approach to policy making that her husband succeeded with as president. She eschewed the sort of frontal assault on the Washington status quo that raises the public profiles of many senators — and which many presidents attempt in their early months in the White House.
And when deals got done, she was willing to stay away from exultant news conferences so others could claim pride of authorship — and her Republican collaborators could parse out information about Clinton’s involvement only as it suited them.
In her first term, Clinton and Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, then viewed as a top-tier GOP presidential prospect for 2008, teamed up to push into law new requirements for health care professionals to use electronic records. She paired with Tom DeLay of Texas, the House leader most emphatic in his pursuit of Bill Clinton’s impeachment just a few years earlier, on efforts to overhaul the foster care system.
She worked with the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, on studying the impact of media on children — infuriating her allies at gay rights groups, who viewed him among the most homophobic people in Congress.
She collaborated with Utah’s Robert F. Bennett on legislation that might combat flag burning without violating the First Amendment, and with New Hampshire’s John E. Sununu on a bill to require automakers to put devices on SUV tailgates preventing small children from being backed over when cars are in reverse.
Two of her best-known, if modest, bipartisan achievements were in consort with senators who remain in the senior GOP ranks.
She teamed with Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (who as a House member helped lead the impeachment prosecution) to sponsor the 2004 law providing National Guard and reserve members subsidized access to the military’s health care system if called to active duty, regardless of whether they were deployed.
She and Pat Roberts of Kansas worked on legislation to distribute flu vaccines more efficiently, which led to similar provisions in a 2006 law to improve the nation’s responses to public health emergencies.
Some of her GOP partnerships were forged out of parochial necessity. She corralled plenty of House Republicans from the New York metropolitan area to get the most federal help possible for the economically rattled region after the Sept. 11 attacks. A few years later she worked closely with Rep. Tom Reynolds of upstate New York, then the chairman of the House GOP campaign operation, to keep the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station off a roster of military bases to be closed.
Sometimes her feints toward the GOP were more about good politics than altering policy.
As a national candidate for the first time, Clinton in early 2008 endorsed a variation of Sen. John McCain’s call for a temporary reprieve from the federal gasoline tax. The proposal by that year’s GOP nominee wasn’t going anywhere, but embracing it still buttressed her effort to run as the moderate alternative to Sen. Barack Obama.
Not every Republican who worked with Clinton came away with good feelings.
She and Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma engineered a deal in early 2003 extending federal unemployment insurance benefits, diffusing a potential political problem for President George W. Bush just as his re-election season was beginning. But Nickles never publicly forgave her for trying, just before the vote on their compromise, to get the Senate to pass a more generous package instead. He said he’d been the victim of a bait-and-switch. She said it was an honest misunderstanding at the staff level.
Many on the right allege that Clinton duped congressional Republicans into partnerships as part of a complex scheme to prevaricate about her own liberalism. Some on the left lament that by spending so much time cozying up to the GOP she squandered the chance to become a true progressive provocateur.
As with so much else about Hillary Clinton, she’s calibrated her career such that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.