Hillary Goes Up The Hill

The honeymoon was over before it began. For years, ever since her health-care plan took a nose dive, Hillary Rodham Clinton has tried to rebuild her relations on Capitol Hill, toiling behind the scenes as she discreetly collaborated with members of both parties to push legislation on bankruptcy reform, foster care and adoption. But last week the First Lady learned firsthand that the Senate may be more of a street fight than a policy seminar. "I tell you one thing," said Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott, "when this Hillary gets to the Senate, if she does--maybe lightning will strike and she won't--she will be one of 100, and we won't let her forget it."

In the closely divided new Senate, the First Lady--the first presidential spouse to win elective office--will be more of a lightning rod than ever. With her hard-earned triumph over Rep. Rick Lazio, Mrs. Clinton established herself as a political figure in her own right, a legitimate successor to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. On election night, standing in front of her husband and her daughter, the First Lady told supporters, "We started this great effort on a sunny July morning in Pindars Corner on Pat and Liz Moynihan's beautiful farm, and 62 counties, 16 months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits later, because of you, we are here." Though her historic victory was partly eclipsed by the chaos in the race for the White House, she will no doubt have a high profile in the new Congress; at her first official press conference, she had to quash speculation about her own presidential prospects. By late last week she became one of the first to call for scrapping the Electoral College. "There's no room she'll walk into where she won't have the most voltage," says one former administration official.

It may not be easy for Bill Clinton to adjust to life as a political spouse; at Hillary's victory party in Manhattan, the First Lady shrugged off his embrace to bask in the moment on her own. But politics has always been the glue that holds the couple together; friends say the campaign only further cemented their bond. For the president, his wife's success was sweet solace on an otherwise topsy-turvy election night. When Al Gore reached the Clintons in their New York hotel suite early Wednesday morning, he joked with the president about the unpredictability of life and congratulated the new senator on her win. While the president tried to remain above the fray in public, he privately pondered Gore's postelection strategy. Hillary, meanwhile, turned her attention to more mundane matters--staffing her new office, mulling committee assignments and finding a home in Washington.

Not even uncertainty about the next resident of the White House could dampen the mood in Hillaryland. The magnitude of Mrs. Clinton's 12-point win stunned even her most optimistic aides. "I don't see how you can have Hillary win by that margin and have anyone talking about Clinton fatigue," says one. Hers was the only race where the president was allowed--even invited--to meddle. The president had a direct line to pollster Mark Penn, media consultant Mandy Grunwald and strategist Harold Ickes. Clinton rarely attended meetings--aides were relieved when he ducked out of debate prep because he made Hillary nervous--but he was never out of the loop. On the election-night helicopter ride from Chappaqua to New York City, the president marked her speech with his left-handed scrawl. Later at the Hyatt, the two huddled backstage making last-minute edits.

But it was Hillary's own dogged campaigning that finally won the race. Month by month, Hillary grew more confident, overcoming early stumbles. Her relentless stumping from Cheektowaga to Central Park eventually blunted the carpetbagger carping. Even in the final week of the campaign, Mrs. Clinton was dialing the mobile phone in her van, still trying to line up one more endorsement.

Like the president, Hillary was also lucky in her enemies. First, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the race, plagued by personal scandal and a cancer diagnosis. Then the youthful opponent the Clinton camp dubbed "Little Ricky" proved an ineffective campaigner. When Lazio attacked Mrs. Clinton during their first debate--even invading her space by marching over to her podium--women balked. In a bid for the state's large Jewish vote, he hammered Mrs. Clinton for kissing Yasir Arafat's wife and accepting campaign donations from controversial Muslims. The race grew even uglier after GOP phone calls hinted that Mrs. Clinton supported terrorists like those who'd bombed the USS Cole.

Still, some of Hillary's friends wonder whether she's prepared for what lies ahead. Mrs. Clinton hopes to forge consensus, but Republicans may have other ideas. "What better foil, what better archenemy, what better bogeyman than Hillary Clinton?" says one GOP Senate aide. When she backed legislation as First Lady, even Democrats like Ted Kennedy wanted to keep her involvement sub rosa: having Hillary Clinton as a cosponsor seemed like the kiss of death. Now senators in both parties may resent her ability to draw the klieg lights. Mrs. Clinton's advisers insist she'll do her homework and keep her head down.

Bill Clinton may not be fully prepared for what lies ahead, either. Friends joke that he'll be working as movers descend on the West Wing. Though Clinton's plans aren't firm, he expects to write a book, teach at his presidential library and travel. He'll have to bring in bucks, too: the Clintons owe more than $4 million in legal fees. That tab could rise if prosecutors indict him for perjury or if he is disbarred in Arkansas. Few expect the Clintons to spend much time in Chappaqua. While they may land a pad in Manhattan, what they'll really need is a place on Capitol Hill.

Hillary's win could be a foothold for her husband in a city he can't bear to leave behind. "Her winning is his platform to come back to town," says one former aide. The ex-president won't be allowed in the Senate cloakroom, but, says Sen. Tom Daschle, "we fully expect he'll be visible and involved." Politics has always been a family affair for the Clintons. But as the president likes to say, for the first 26 years it was his turn. Now it's hers.