WASHINGTON — As she returned to the Senate for the first time since ending her groundbreaking campaign to become the nation's first female president, Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that her goal now was simply to be the very best senator she could be. "I am rolling up my sleeves and getting back to work," she said.
Yet despite the fact that she remains New York's junior senator, ranks only 68th in seniority and returns without any promise of a leadership position, a committee chairmanship or even a bigger office, it was clear that Clinton will be a far more prominent figure than the usual measures of Senate power might suggest.
She retains the loyalty of thousands of supporters across the country, having drawn 18 million votes before conceding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama less than three weeks ago. She and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are among the best-known political figures in the nation. And her words and actions will be sifted like tea leaves in the coming presidential campaign and beyond.
Acknowledging her new position, Democratic colleagues gave Clinton a standing ovation when she arrived at their weekly lunch. Crowds of congressional interns and others lined the Capitol steps as she arrived.
And her husband chose the day of her return to take a step toward ending the lingering bitterness between the Clinton and Obama camps, saying in a statement that he was "committed to doing whatever he can and is asked to do to ensure Sen. Obama is the next president of the United States."
Obama returned the gesture by encouraging his national finance team on a conference call to help Hillary Clinton repay the $10 million she owes vendors. At the end of last month, her debt was $22.5 million, including $12.2 million she lent her campaign.
As early as Friday, Clinton will be back on the national stage, joining Obama in a symbolic visit to the New Hampshire town of Unity, where she and the Illinois senator each received 107 votes in the primary.
As Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who campaigned for her in his state's May primary and was on hand yesterday, put it, "I don't think she'll enter the witness protection program."
"She has so much to contribute. . . . I hope she'll embrace this opportunity, and I think she will," Bayh said.
In remarks at the Senate Democrats' meeting, Clinton appealed for party unity and pledged to work to elect Obama to the White House, as well as to expand the party's Senate majority.
As for the possibility of Clinton becoming Obama's running mate, her name continues to be mentioned but she remains a polarizing figure. A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that although Democratic voters lean toward not having her on the ticket by a margin of 42% to 36%, independents who voted in the Democratic primaries were more strongly against her being on the ticket, 46% to 30%.
Though she missed a vote on a housing bill Tuesday, Clinton was greeted with cheers and waves as she made her way into the Capitol, looking upbeat as she paused to shake hands with interns on the steps.
Working her way through the crowd of smiling young faces, she asked some where they were from and thanked them for coming out to see her. She then went inside to join Democratic senators for their closed-door lunch in the Lyndon B. Johnson room outside the Senate chamber.
Eric Washburn, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide, said Clinton's support would be more sought after. "Her opinion likely will be solicited more frequently by colleagues," he said. "She will wield considerable influence over the national Democratic policy agenda." He expects her to be asked to campaign for Democrats nationwide.
"She carries enormous prestige," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
How Clinton's position evolves is likely to depend on two factors: how Democrats perceive her role in the presidential campaign and how effective she is as a legislator.
On the first point, said University of Pennsylvania political scientist Donald F. Kettl, "for success in the Senate and for any chance of another presidential run, she has to be perceived as a team player in the Obama campaign -- at least to the degree that Obama wants her help."
As for her performance in the Senate, although a number of Clinton's Democratic colleagues supported Obama, there were no signs of lingering bitterness. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic nominee, said it was a myth that coming back to the Senate after running for president was hard. "It's hard to lose," he said. "It's not hard to come back here."
As a possible role model, congressional historians point to Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who, after losing the 1980 Democratic presidential campaign to Jimmy Carter, threw himself into his Senate work and built a long list of legislative accomplishments.
"What made Kennedy's strategy work was that he was a senator's senator," Kettl said. "Clinton will have a hard time winning senatorial allies if she's seen as trying to position herself in front of other senators for a fresh presidential campaign."
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.