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Why Senator Clinton Just Can't Catch a Break

When Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in the Senate in January, 2001, she brought along a master plan: end her image as a carpetbagger passing through New York on her way back to the White House. She wanted to prove she could bring home the bacon for New York. She aspired to be a leading voice on national issues. Most of all, she hoped to be seen as a journeyman senator who immersed herself in legislation--not as a publicity-hungry prima donna.

But even her legendary discipline hasn't been able to keep Clinton from going off track. Indeed, she finds herself in a familiar place for a Clinton: attracting heaps of criticism from both the Left and the Right. The freshman senator remains a polarizing figure, which limits her ability to maneuver. Among New Yorkers, her support is lukewarm. The result: For the rest of her term, Clinton is likely to focus more on pleasing constituents than becoming a national spokesperson for Democratic causes.

Although Clinton claims she wants to keep a low profile, stressing mostly parochial issues, she is still a political lightning rod. When reports surfaced that President Bush had received intimations about a terrorist attack just before September 11, she took to the Senate floor to demand a fuller accounting. Other Democrats made more pointed criticisms, but White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer singled her out for disapproval.

That was no coincidence: Clinton helps the White House make its argument that Democrats are playing partisan politics. She is also the poster girl for GOP fund-raising. "She embodies everything Republicans don't like about Democrats," says Grover G. Norquist, a conservative activist. Because of that, her role as a Democratic messenger will be circumscribed.

Even a mildly centrist shift can get Hillary in trouble. On May 21, Clinton's Washington home was picketed by liberal activists. Their beef? Her decision to support a proposal to force welfare recipients to work 37 hours a week, up from the current 30. "Liberals thought she was their champion," says Eric Hauser, an antipoverty advocate. "To sign onto a bill that dramatically increases work requirements is incongruous."

But that could be part of a deliberate strategy. "Maybe she doesn't want to go too far to the left so as not to preclude national ambitions," says Jennifer Duffy, chief Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. The criticism from liberals, however, may have left Clinton feeling burned. She insists she is not abandoning her core beliefs: By accepting tougher work requirements, Clinton says she persuaded the bill's sponsors to earmark more money for child care and to make federal funds available for legal immigrants. She also joined Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in calling for increased funding and more flexible work requirements.

Moreover, a Presidential bid seems unlikely in the near term. While Clinton has raised more than $1 million for her political action committee, she knows that running for national office would imperil her standing with New Yorkers, 47% of whom rate her performance as fair or poor, according to an April poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "She can't so much as look in the direction of New Hampshire," says Lee Miringoff, director of the poll.

For now, Clinton is staying close to her home base--planning hearings on the mental health needs of New York children post-September 11, promoting nuclear security, and even keeping tabs on aides who help seniors get their Social Security checks. That might win more New Yorkers' hearts. But it won't free Hillary from the shackles that prevent her from leading her party's charge, let alone the national ticket. As Congress gets set to renew welfare reform, Senator Clinton is determined to be a player. But her support for a 37-hour workweek for welfare recipients, up from the current 30 and close to President Bush's proposed 40, has social activists fuming. In a May 24 interview with Washington correspondent Alexandra Starr, Clinton defended her position:

On her goals for welfare reform:

The central issue is how to make work pay. In Stage Two, we need to provide incentives and supports so that no American who works 35-to-40 hours a week is mired in poverty. I live in the real world. I got on the subway in the Bronx a few weeks ago and a woman came up to me who works seven days a week. She has two children at home, and she's working as hard as she can to build a better life. I want to help that woman.

On why she backs a measure that requires welfare moms to work more:

Under our bill, there is no increase in work hours unless there is $8 billion more in child-care funding. It provides new money for enhancing education and training. We require [states] to pay the minimum wage.

On compromising too early:

We're not in a theoretical discussion here. A bill has already passed the House, and it couldn't be worse. It's mean-spirited: It would actually turn the clock back. What I've learned in the last 15 months is that people who get in the debate early are going to be in the room when the decisions are made at the end, when it counts.

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