As a Senator, Hillary Clinton Got Along With the GOP. Could She Do So as President?

Democratic presidential nominee worked across the aisle on noncontroversial issues

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., at a 2005 press conference where they launched a bipartisan Senate Manufacturing Caucus. (CQ Roll Call/File Photo)
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., at a 2005 press conference where they launched a bipartisan Senate Manufacturing Caucus. (CQ Roll Call/File Photo)
Posted September 26, 2016 at 4:57pm

(First appeared in CQ Magazine on May 16, 2016.)

It looks increasingly likely that voters this November will have a clear choice. In Donald Trump, they’d have a true Washington outsider seeking to upend the way of doing business in the capital. In Hillary Clinton, a creature of Washington, they’d have a politician with a lengthy government resume and an argument that her experience would enable her to grease the wheels of government after years of gridlock.

Clinton will say — indeed she is already saying — that she is best equipped to repair the breach that widened between the legislative and executive branches during the Obama years. Her comments during an Iowa campaign stop earlier this year are typical: “When I was in the Senate, of course I had to work with Republicans. I think every piece of legislation, just about, that I ever introduced had a Republican co-sponsor.”

The statement was false, but there was a grain of truth in it. Clinton, who served as New York’s junior senator from 2001 to 2009, worked across the aisle on noncontroversial issues and sought to convince her colleagues to take small, left-leaning steps. Her incremental approach won over many Republican skeptics and she compiled a modest record of accomplishment.

If she takes the same approach as president, it won’t be the revolution promised by Trump or by her Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator. But prominent Republicans and Democrats believe it could help restore a working relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill that has been in tatters since President Barack Obama pushed through his health care law over the opposition of every Republican in Congress in 2010.

Clinton’s antagonists during this fall’s campaign will surely pillory her as a big government liberal with ambitions to expand the welfare state, grow the government and centralize control over the economy. But beyond her failed effort to overhaul the nation’s health care system as first lady in 1993, there is little evidence that she holds such ambitions.

In the Senate, she left behind good will in unexpected places. “I would think Sen. Clinton would have a lot more respect for the institution than Obama did,” says Don Nickles, an Oklahoman who was the Senate Republican whip during Clinton’s first two years in Congress and overlapped with her for four. “I would expect she would advance liberal positions in a lot of areas, but I would also guess that she would be a person that would ultimately come back to Congress,” in contrast to Obama, who turned to executive actions to pursue his goals.

Nickles is not the only one.

‘Easy to work with’

“I found her to be easy to work with, smart and willing to reach agreement on complicated issues,” says Judd Gregg, the former New Hampshire senator. And Gregg believes her “approach to governing, of seeking principled compromise” could break the logjam between the Congress and White House.

Thomas M. Reynolds, who was a Republican representative for a swath of western New York during Clinton’s time in the Senate, remembers their working relationship fondly. “She has the skill set and the ability to be more of a dealmaker than what I’ve seen from President Obama,” he says.

It’s telling, given the opposition that Republican senators have mounted to Obama’s Cabinet appointees — a level unprecedented in the history of the United States — that Clinton won confirmation as secretary of State by a vote of 94-2. Only Republicans Jim DeMint of South Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana voted no and neither questioned her qualifications for the job.

Then again, that was then. If elected, Clinton would face a Congress that, just eight years after she left it, is a much more partisan place. CQ’s annual analysis of voting patterns shows that partisan voting — in which a majority of one party parts with the majority of the other — has been at or near record levels throughout the Obama years.  

Most of the senators with whom Clinton worked are now gone. She’d have to find common cause with a more conservative GOP caucus. The comments Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made at a March GOP presidential debate are representative of many current Republican senators’ views. Cruz said Clinton just doesn’t understand the problem in Washington: “Hillary Clinton says she’ll cut waste, fraud and abuse, [and] if only we had smarter people in Washington, that would fix the problem. You know what? That is the statement of a liberal who doesn’t understand government is the problem.”

A less civil place

Anecdotally, Washington feels like a less civil place now, too. That’s debatable. President Bill Clinton was impeached, of course. But during the Obama years, Washington witnessed Republicans in Congress stonewall a Democratic president like never before: shut down the government, nearly force Obama to default on the country’s debts and block a Supreme Court nominee.

There was South Carolina GOP Rep. Joe Wilson heckling the president, shouting, “You lie!” in the middle of a presidential address. And there was the rise of uncompromising, conservative factions in the Republican Party, first the tea party and then the Freedom Caucus, which tossed a House speaker for his willingness to compromise.

“It was a different era from what we see now,” says Reynolds.

Hearing Republicans say nice things about Hillary Clinton, as some are now, would have seemed unlikely in January 2001, after Clinton defeated then-Rep. Rick A. Lazio in the New York Senate race. But she knows how to change the storyline. To win, she had to overcome charges of carpetbagging, and she beat Lazio handily.

Yet many people thought she would have lost had then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani stayed in the race. Giuliani withdrew the prior May to seek treatment for cancer.

A war could have ensued between congressional Republicans and Clinton and there were threats of one. Days after her election, Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi sought to put her in her place. “I tell you one thing,” he said, “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.” 

Karl Rove, the Republican political consultant who’d helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore for the presidency, reportedly asked GOP senators not to co-sponsor legislation with her.

Indeed, Bill Clinton’s presidency was not marked by an excess of bipartisanship, and Hillary Clinton, rebuked for her health care bill, investigated for her business dealings, and forced to defend her husband as Republicans moved to impeach him, entered the Senate with a target on her back. Just three years before, she’d complained of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get Bill Clinton.

Methodically disarming

But during the course of her first term, she worked methodically to disarm Republican colleagues who expected to battle with her. Reynolds, who’d served as a surrogate for Lazio in the campaign, recalls meeting with her a few months into her first term. “We got off to a very good start,” he recalls.  

In contrast to Obama, who has struggled to build personal relationships with congressional Republicans, Clinton did it naturally. Gordon H. Smith, an Oregon Republican whose office was near Clinton’s in the Senate, recalls how she comforted him in 2003 after his son Garrett committed suicide.

“I was in the well of the Senate, had just cast a vote, and Hillary approached me and asked to walk back to our offices together. We walked around the Russell Building several times talking about my son, the difficulty of raising children in this confusing time and the state of mental health law in our country. She revealed to me by that unselfish outreach her humanity and her decency,” he says.

The following year, Clinton helped Smith enact a law named for Smith’s son, to screen teenagers for depression, and later helped promote Smith’s 2007 book, “Remembering Garrett.” After Smith was defeated by Democrat Jeff Merkley in the 2008 election, Clinton and then-Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. were the only Democratic colleagues to call to offer consolation. “I will never forget that,” says Smith, who now heads the National Association of Broadcasters.

Clearly, her rapport with Smith was built on genuine compassion. But Clinton also understood the importance of personal relationships in getting things done.

“Damn few members of Congress will turn down an offer of a cup of coffee or glass of wine or to watch a movie or just to have a discussion at the White House,” says Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who retired from the Senate after five terms in 2010. “I believe she really understands the value of that.”

More junior Democrats, such as Colorado’s Ken Salazar, who was elected in 2004, said she’d served as a mentor. And he said the relationship they forged continued when both joined Obama’s Cabinet, Clinton as secretary of State and Salazar as Interior secretary. They worked together, for instance, on the 2012 agreement with Mexico opening up sections of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, and with other countries bordering the Arctic Ocean on setting policy related to climate change and resource extraction there.

A 2006 profile in The Atlantic describes how Clinton stunned GOP colleagues by showing up one day in 2001, shortly after being sworn in, for their weekly prayer meeting. Then-Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas was so moved by her appearance that he asked her to forgive him for having hated her. Clinton became a regular at the meetings and partnered with most of the regulars there on legislation.

Taking small steps

In her maiden speech as a senator 15 years ago in February, Clinton described how her failed effort as first lady to convince Congress to pass a sweeping overhaul of the country’s health care system had changed her. “I learned some valuable lessons about the legislative process, the importance of bipartisan cooperation, and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done,” she said.

She modeled her approach on that of her Republican predecessor, Alfonse M. D’Amato, who was known as Sen. Pothole for his attention to constituent service during three Senate terms from 1981-99.

Reynolds and Clinton worked together to get the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus off the ground, and Reynolds credits Clinton with convincing a Pentagon commission in 2005 not to close the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, one of the area’s largest employers. “She takes strong pride in that,” and justifiably, Reynolds says.

A 2007 review of appropriations data by the Los Angeles Times found that Clinton had won more than $2.3 billion in earmarks for home-state projects during her first seven years in office. And an analysis of 2008 earmarks by Taxpayers for Common Sense, an advocacy group that opposed them, found that Clinton was prolific, securing $346 million in project funding, the 9th highest tally of any senator that year. In doing so, Clinton almost always teamed with colleagues in making her requests.

These seem like small things, says her former Senate deputy chief of staff, Kris Balderston. But they were part of a governing philosophy. Much of Clinton’s earmarking was aimed at helping a depressed upstate New York economy. “Small changes can add up to big deals, particularly if you’re targeting them in one area,” Balderston says. “All those incremental actions create a vision and for her, in many ways, upstate New York economic development was a laboratory for her manufacturing policy, or her new technology policy, or her immigration policy.”

Clinton flattered Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who was the caretaker of Senate rules until his death in 2010, for asking him to tutor her on them. Notably, Byrd had sunk her health care proposal in 1993 by refusing to add it to a Senate budget reconciliation bill.

She was one of six Democrats to take home a “golden gavel” in 2002 for presiding over the Senate for 100 hours, a tedious assignment usually shunted onto junior members.

Important contributions

Smith recalls her regular attendance at hearings of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which he chaired. “It’s a B-level committee at which usually I and the ranking member were the only ones who showed up,” he recalls. “Hillary showed up regularly and was prepared and made important contributions.”

Her workaday approach won over colleagues on both sides of the aisle who had figured she would upstage them. “They thought she would come with a national agenda and spend a bunch of time showboating in front of the cameras,” recalls Blanche Lincoln, the former Democratic senator from Arkansas. “She wasn’t the person they thought she was.”

Even so, in her presidential bids, opponents have used Clinton’s legislative record against her. “There’s not a major bill I know with Hillary’s name on it,” Biden said in December 2007, when the two were facing off in the Democratic presidential primary.

Politifact, the fact-checking website then co-produced by CQ, found the statement “mostly true.” Republicans are taking up that cudgel this year. “As a senator, I think she passed, she has her name on three laws in eight years,” former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush said last year.

The initiatives Clinton spearheaded in the Senate were mainly small and noncontroversial. But they were also, often, bipartisan.

Perhaps most famous was her partnership with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who teamed with her on a 2003 amendment to a supplemental spending bill that permitted National Guard and reserve troops to buy insurance policies in Tricare, the military health care system. Graham, as a House member in 1998, was one of the impeachment managers who urged the Senate to remove her husband from office for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

After the amendment was approved with ease, they held a press conference. “I think it’s because people were so awed and shocked by us working together that they just basically threw up their hands, you know, and said, ‘OK!’” Clinton said.

The two went on to work closely on military issues and to travel together to Iraq.

And during her eight years in the Senate, Clinton worked with a number of other senators still in office. She teamed with Pat Roberts of Kansas on a bill to better distribute flu vaccines, and with Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma on 2001 legislation to expedite payments to families of public safety officers injured or killed in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Susan Collins of Maine were her partners on a 2006 bill to improve respite care, and she collaborated with Johnny Isakson of Georgia and John McCain of Arizona on a 2008 auto safety law.

Still, a senator working with colleagues of the opposite party on small-bore issues is not the same as a president getting a Congress led by the other side to work with her on major ones.

“I don’t know what incentive they’d have to work with her,” says Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Many Republicans would prefer to have nothing happen than be accused of compromising. It could make them vulnerable in a primary.”

Indeed, Graham’s statements on Clinton have turned harsher in the 2016 presidential spotlight. Graham said on May 6, “I absolutely will not support Hillary Clinton for President. She represents the third term of Barack Obama, and our nation cannot afford to continue those failed policies at home or abroad.” He also said he “cannot in good conscience support Donald Trump.”

Too polarized?

Skelley contends that the country is too polarized to hope for any détente between the parties.

And liberals have questioned whether Clinton can adopt the approach she did in the Senate and hope to achieve anything worthwhile. Bryce Covert, economic policy editor at ThinkProgress, an arm of the Center for American Progress, argued earlier this year in a New York Times op-ed that because Congress is so polarized, “it’s all but inevitable that on the big policies that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders agree the country needs to enact, a Republican-controlled Congress — or even one with partial Republican control — won’t lift a finger.”

Many Democratic primary voters, in casting ballots for Sanders, have shown they don’t believe Clinton is an ambitious enough liberal. On the other hand, among many Republican voters, she remains bound by the image created during her push for the health care overhaul in 1993 and her subsequent work as a go-between for her husband with liberal groups. If elected, many still expect a crusader to emerge.

In the Senate, she was more partisan than the average Democrat, siding with her party on votes that divided the majority of Democrats from the majority of Republicans 96.5 percent of the time. The average Democrat in those years sided with Democratic colleagues 88 percent of the time.

She also was a bit less likely to support then-President George W. Bush when he made his position on a Senate vote known. She sided with Bush 49.3 percent of the time, while the average Democrat was with the president on 53.4 percent of such votes.

‘The liberal wing’

Nickles says that even before this campaign “she was already on the liberal wing of the party.”

Others say the campaign has moved her so far leftward that it could undermine her ability to work with Congress. “My sense of her campaign is she’s had to chase Bernie to the left to a point that is unnecessary and very counterproductive,” says Smith, who otherwise would place Clinton at “center-left” on the ideological spectrum.

Balderston, who now heads PR firm FleishmanHillard’s Washington office, says the “problem-solving pragmatist” will re-emerge as president. He adds: “The bottom line is she is a public servant who wants to get stuff done.”

The campaign ahead is bound to be nasty. But whereas it’s seemed at times that Obama holds grudges against Republican adversaries, perhaps forgoing chances to cut deals with Congress, Clinton has shown an ability to let just about anything roll off her back.

Clinton’s success in winning over GOP colleagues bore fruit in her 2006 re-election bid. No serious Republican opponent ran and she crushed former Yonkers mayor John Spencer by 36 percentage points.

It was a Democratic sweep that year. The party won the House and Senate. “A Democratic candidate in a blue state had the wind at their back,” says Reynolds, who ran the House Republicans’ campaign committee during that cycle. But he credits Clinton as well. “She brought what has now been modeled by many statewide candidates. They are emulating her listening tour,” he says. “Her ’06 race was exceptionally strong because she enjoyed a unified Democratic Party and she also had enough strength out there that she was able to go after independents and some Republicans.”

There’s a good chance that if she’s elected president this fall, Clinton would claim a similar mandate. And a resounding Clinton victory in November could allow establishmentarians in the Republican Party to reassert control over the GOP caucus.

Then again, if Trump holds his own, it could foment further the anti-establishment mood exploited by conservative interest groups in Washington and their allies in the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative faction that forced House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner to resign last year.

“If big numbers of Republicans stay home because of Trump, then the Republican Party is going to have to hit the big reset button” and shift to the center, says Mark Pryor, the former Arkansas Democratic senator.

But the GOP has defied similar predictions in the past, most recently after the failed presidential campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012, and Pryor admits he has no crystal ball: “If Trump comes in very close, who knows how they will respond?”