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18M Votes, But She's Still No. 68

On Saturday, Hillary Rodham Clinton told thousands of adoring supporters that her run for the presidency had changed American history forever. On Monday, she sent a letter to the Social Security Administration complaining about the slow pace of disability decisions coming out of a field office in Buffalo, N.Y. 

It’s a swift fall for someone who drew 18 million votes during the Democratic primary season. And it seems that the former first lady had better get used to it. 

Although Clinton has been out of the presidential race for nearly a week now, her office hasn’t said yet when she’ll return to work as the junior senator from New York. But when she does, her colleagues and leaders have made it abundantly clear that she’ll be ... the junior senator from New York. 

“We’ve had a lot of senators return to the Senate [after running for president],” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “We don’t have a special position [for her].” 

Senate Democratic leaders have dismissed the notion of a special leadership title for Clinton, and there’s no indication that she has sought one. 

Democratic Senate aides say there are no specific plans for her to take a lead role in any major Senate debate this summer, whether on energy, housing or her signature issue, health care. 

“General election candidates haven’t gotten anything when they return,” noted one Democratic aide. “Why should somebody who didn’t get the nomination?” 

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is one of those general-election losers. He said that the key for Clinton’s transition back to the Senate is not to have “any presumption about a special status.” 

“You have to just go back to the Senate, back to the committees,” he said. “You still have to come in and build support for the things you want.” 

Since formally suspending her presidential campaign on Saturday, Clinton has kept a relatively low profile. She’s had no public schedule, and Clinton aides say it’s premature to talk about her post-campaign role. As of Wednesday afternoon, Clinton hadn’t told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) when she plans to be back full time. 

Whenever she returns, Clinton will have to face the fact that only a dozen of her Democratic colleagues endorsed her candidacy. And she’ll be reminded that the number that matters isn’t 18 million — her vote total in the primaries — but 68, her place on the Senate seniority chart. 

She’ll be relegated to her old seat in the back row of the chamber and to her spot on the far end of the dais in the Senate Armed Services Committee. The rest of the world once waited for her; now, at committee hearings, she’ll have to wait out a dozen or so other senior members before she gets a chance to ask questions of emissaries from someone else’s White House.

It may be hard to picture Clinton back at her desk, reading over constituent letters, marking up legislation and discussing highway projects on Long Island. But longtime spokesman Philippe Reines insists that she’s looking forward to it.

“Sen. Clinton’s commitment to New York and the issues important to New Yorkers is as strong today as the day she took office, and she continues to work tirelessly for New York,” Reines said.

While Reines acknowledged that Clinton has laid out no specific Senate agenda, he said that her Senate office remains busy and that her staff has been immune to any turnover.

As a Democratic Senate aide put it, Clinton will be “the story” on the day she returns to the chamber. After that, she’ll need to pick up where she left off when she declared her candidacy last year. She’ll work with the New York delegation on priorities like hurricane preparation fo Long Island, transportation grants for Fort Drum and safety regulations for cranes in New York City — all concerns laid out in the “current news” section of her Senate website.

She’ll also soon have to coordinate earmark requests with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), just as she has over the past eight years in the Senate.

“She’s really going to come back and roll up her sleeves,” Schumer said.

But pressed to say what Clinton might accomplish once she’s got those sleeves rolled up, Schumer said he didn’t know.

“We’ll welcome her back, and she’ll be an effective leader,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who returned to the Senate in January after a poor finish in the Iowa caucuses. “More is made of this than there is. … There are so many in the Senate who have tried before. It’s not an uncommon experience for a senator.”

And Kerry — who returned to the Senate immediately after conceding the 2004 presidential race to President Bush — points out that the Senate is still a pretty good consolation prize.

“You do need to make an adjustment from going 100 miles per hour to the slower pace here,” Kerry said. “This is still a great job.”

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