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Clinton Returns for Act II

She may not be the Democrats’ nominee for president, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) received a reception suitable for the party’s standard-bearer when she returned Tuesday to the Senate for the first time since losing the presidential nominating battle to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Everyone from Senate Democratic leaders to reporters, photographers and interns thronged Clinton as she rejoined the ranks of Senate Democrats nearly two and a half weeks since suspending her campaign and 18 months after beginning it.

The contrast between her celebrity status and her relatively low-ranking position as the junior Senator from New York was on full display, as the former first lady basked in the spotlight while insisting that she was simply going to go back to work for “the greatest state in the country.”

On the one hand, Clinton asserted that she has returned to pick up the comparatively humdrum legislating she left behind. “I am rolling up my sleeves and getting back to work,” she said. “My role is to be the very best Senator I can be.”

On the other hand, she re-entered the Capitol in dramatic style, ascending the marble steps on the Senate’s East Front rather than taking the “Senators Only” elevator to attend the Democrats’ weekly policy luncheon. A welcoming committee of Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) initially shielded her from reporters.

After the lunch, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and the rest of the Senate Democratic leadership escorted Clinton out to a swarm of reporters eager to find out what Clinton plans to do next. But Reid, perhaps unwittingly, gave a glimpse of Clinton’s future — one in which she would be just another Senator.

“Sen. Clinton here is going to have a lot of time in the next five months to answer a lot of questions. She’ll be happy to take your questions now, but this isn’t going to be a long, drawn-out affair,” Reid said.

Some Democrats suggested that Clinton is not destined to become a Senate wallflower just yet.

There are plenty of failed presidential candidates who returned to the Senate. The last Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), came back and heads the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. But Clinton’s role is a matter of great speculation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of Clinton’s staunchest allies, said Clinton will surely continue to play a role on the national stage.

“She has the bully pulpit of a presidential candidate who did very well — she almost won,” Feinstein said. “She’s a strong figure for the future. That’s what’s important. She will be very, very effective.”

Her policy prowess might be the only way she can remain relevant in this year’s presidential campaign, given that the unlikely scenario of Obama choosing her as his running mate.

“I am not seeking any other position,” Clinton said. “It is not something that I think about. [The vice presidential pick] is totally Sen. Obama’s decision, and that’s the way it should be.”

If Obama doesn’t embrace her as his No. 2, Clinton has no shortage of fans among her Democratic colleagues. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) described the standing ovation from fellow Democrats that Clinton got during the lunch as “very enthusiastic, almost wildly enthusiastic.”

Addressing her colleagues, Clinton stressed the importance of the Senate’s work and called for party unity going into the November elections, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said.

“It was the kind of pep talk you would expect,” Nelson said. He noted that Clinton told Democratic Senators that “what she learned on the campaign trail is that it’s even more important to do the work that we do here.” He added, “She said she was going to work hard to elect Barack Obama president. I assume that means for the next several months that she’ll have some sort of travel schedule.”

Clinton told reporters that she is focused not just on Obama’s victory but also expanding the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Clinton will address the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday morning.

“I’m just hoping that we’ll have a very significant victory this November,” she said. “We have been unfortunately stymied by the stalling tactics and the disagreement by the Republicans about what is best for our country.”

Many Democrats said her re-engagement into Senate policy matters would be welcome because of her understanding of policy and feeling for compromise.

Asked about her future beyond merely returning to her Senate duties, Feinstein said Clinton doesn’t need new titles or leadership roles because she already has a following and the stature to serve on the national political stage.

Landrieu agreed: “She is such a team player, and I don’t think she gets enough credit for that.”

This week, Clinton will have plenty of opportunities to put those qualities on display. Though she missed the first vote of the week on Tuesday, she’ll no doubt be on hand as the Senate attempts to sprint into the July Fourth recess by passing an Iraq supplemental spending measure, a warrantless wiretapping bill and housing legislation before the end of the week.

“Before she left, she was regarded by many senior Democrats as a workhorse, not a show horse — somebody who put in the time, learned the issues and did a good job,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “She still has all that going for her.”

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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