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Back at the Clubhouse, Clinton Gets a Warm Embrace

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

At Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing yesterday, senators came up with a new interpretation of the Constitution's "advice and consent" clause. This one could be called the "admire and congratulate" clause.

"In Senator Clinton, President-elect Obama has boldly chosen the epitome of a big-leaguer," gushed Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

"She's an excellent choice," asserted Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

"There couldn't be a better person to represent our nation," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) amended.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sounded as if she were writing for Hallmark as she told Clinton: "I truly appreciate all that you are poised to do and what you have done in the past."

The line of spectators trying to get into the hearing room snaked the length of the Hart Senate Office Building -- more than even a nominee to the Supreme Court can expect -- and yet there was no suspense inside. Clinton's confirmation was a sure thing, and the senators were so deferential to their colleague that they didn't bother to swear her in, the way they did when her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, came for her confirmation.

Instead, they posed for photos with the nominee and, in some cases, physically embraced her. "You've come a long way, but you've always retained your tireless efforts to better the world," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in the style of a man speaking at a retirement party. Schumer informed his fellow New Yorker that she'll "be a brilliant secretary of state" -- then put an arm around her.

"We need to excuse you -- post-hug," Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told Schumer, who released Clinton, then gave her a pat on the back before leaving the hearing room.

Kerry, making his debut as the panel's chairman, spoke for "every member of the committee" when he called Clinton "extraordinarily capable and smart." His solicitousness even extended to Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, who sat behind her mother in a purple dress. "Since your father served as an intern on this committee, maybe we can make you an intern for a day -- chairman's prerogative," Kerry offered. "So if you want to come up here later and look out, we're happy to welcome you." Chelsea Clinton politely waved off the offer.

Pre-hearing expectations had it that Senate Republicans, though unable to block Clinton, would pepper her with ethics accusations over her husband's foundation and charitable work. But the Senate is a club, and even the opposition thought it poor form to pick on a fellow member. "Despite the news accounts that say that I'm the one that's going to ask you the hard questions about potential conflicts of interest, I have no questions about your integrity," offered Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

With a bipartisan group of lawmakers going gaga for the nominee, the task of upholding high ethical standards fell to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose phone number appeared in the records of a prostitution ring. "Like a lot of folks, I have some concerns about these conflict issues," Vitter began when his turn came, five hours into the hearing. Clinton, referring to notes, calmly rebuffed the senator. When Vitter persisted in his line of questioning, Kerry intervened to defend Clinton, assuring Vitter that all was aboveboard. "I don't want to beat a dead horse," Vitter said, before finally relenting.

The questioning of Clinton, who sat at the witness table in an olive-brown jacket that brought to mind military fatigues, brought out a full complement of media heavies, including Joe Klein, Maureen Dowd and Andrea Mitchell.

On the dais sat three men who, like the nominee, were failed presidential candidates themselves. "For the first time in American history, one of our members will be sworn in as president and another one as vice president," Kerry said with pride. "Before any of the newer members of our committee get too excited about future prospects, let Dick Lugar, Chris Dodd and myself -- and perhaps even Hillary will join in this -- in saying, trust us, it ain't automatic."

Clinton listened to the lawmakers praise her for 45 minutes, then returned the affection in her own, 33-minute statement. "I love the Senate," she told her clubmates. "It will be hard to say goodbye."

"Wonderful," Kerry said when Clinton finished.

"We're always glad to see when one of our own does well," chimed in Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Back and forth they volleyed the praise.

Clinton called Lugar's leadership on arms proliferation "a great example." Lugar hailed Clinton's answer as "very good news." Clinton praised Lugar for "demonstrating your farsighted, realistic understanding of security threats."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Clinton, "You're a dedicated public servant."

"You have been such a leader," Clinton replied.

"I couldn't have asked for a better answer," Boxer returned.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who had drawn an elaborate doodle of an eight-pointed ship's wheel, told Clinton that she had "done a marvelous job" at the witness table. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) thrice informed Clinton that she had gone "above and beyond" ethics requirements. Even Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) was smitten. He paraphrased Clinton's opening statement and then asked her, "Do you agree with that?"

"Senator Isakson, I couldn't say it any better," came the nominee's reply.

The hearing was nearly over by the time Lugar gently told Clinton that he, like Vitter, had some concerns about the conflicts of interest with her husband's fundraising. "Having said that, I've indicated that I support your nomination," Lugar hastened to add, "because your qualifications are remarkable."

"I respect you so much, Senator," Clinton answered.

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