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GOP rolls out welcome mat for Hillary Clinton

A warm reception is expected in the Senate this week for her secretary of State confirmation hearing.

January 12, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — Long considered one of the nation's most polarizing figures, Hillary Rodham Clinton steps into her new role as America's chief diplomat this week with a Senate confirmation hearing that is likely to look more like a tribute than an examination of a controversial politician.

Clinton has fanned political passions as first lady, as New York's junior senator and as a presidential candidate. Yet she is collecting rhetorical bouquets from Republicans as she prepares for the Tuesday committee appearance that will open the way for her fourth public incarnation -- as secretary of State.

"Very knowledgeable," Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said after a private meeting with her Thursday. "Her appointment is a net plus for the administration and the country."

"She's been tested in a lot of ways," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who called Clinton a "known commodity."

The warm reception reflects in part the courtesy the Senate extends to its own and to a popular new president. But it also shows how attitudes from across the political divide have eased over the course of Clinton's long public life.

"She's now a fixture of American politics; this gives you a sense of how people can be gradually accepted," said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and a former congressional staff member. "Her record's familiar, and they don't see her as mysterious or fear they're going to be booby-trapped by her."

In a similar transformation, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was once considered a partisan hatchet man, but more recently has been remembered -- and hailed -- as having been a public-spirited pillar of the Senate. On Thursday, the retired Dole introduced another former Senate majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle, at the South Dakotan's confirmation hearing to be secretary of Health and Human Services.

Conservative attitudes toward Clinton have changed as she has detailed her foreign policy views, which lean toward the center or even the center-right. She has been hawkish on the defense of Israel and tough on Iran, and said during her presidential campaign that the United States would "obliterate" the Muslim country if it attacked Israel.

Isakson said he found a long discussion with Clinton on the Middle East to be "very satisfactory."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has scheduled a committee vote on Clinton's nomination two days after the hearing, reflecting his confidence that her confirmation won't require more lengthy debate.

However, one issue likely to produce some discomfort is that of President Clinton, whose foundation has received millions of dollars from foreign governments and businesses, raising questions of potential conflicts of interest. Bill Clinton's foundation last month released contribution records and has promised to disclose future donations annually.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking minority member of the committee, intends to raise the issue in his opening remarks. Other senators also intend to make clear that the subject causes them some concern.

But senators and aides said they didn't expect the topic to overshadow all others, since the lawmakers want to explore Sen. Clinton's views on the full range of foreign policy issues. Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar, said he expected close questioning on the topic but added: "I don't expect it to be protracted throughout the day."

One question that may not be settled until Tuesday is whether Clinton will bring her spouse and family to her confirmation hearing, as is Senate custom for Cabinet nominees.

Clinton's aides said that because of scheduling issues, it was not clear whether the former president would accompany his wife.

While having him there -- sitting behind her in the audience -- would have some advantages, it could also prompt questions about the former president, said Tom C. Korologos, a lobbyist and longtime congressional aide who has helped prepare nominees for such hearings.

"Will he travel with her?" Korologos asked. "Who gets off the plane first?"

Korologos thinks it would be a mistake for the former president to appear.

Yet some committee members are eager for Bill Clinton to play an important role in his wife's job as secretary of State.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said after a meeting with Hillary Clinton that he wanted Bill Clinton to provide advice and would favor a formal role if that was what President-elect Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wanted.

"I would be comfortable with getting his help on a whole series of fronts," Casey said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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