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When someone like Newt Gingrich commends a Democrat's service on the Senate Armed Services Committee, you know you're looking at a serious hawk. That hawk is Hillary Clinton, junior senator from blue-state New York and possible presidential candidate in 2008.
Gingrich, with an eye on his White House bid, told a group of newspaper editors last month that she'd make a formidable opponent. "Senator Clinton is very competent, very professional, very intelligently moving toward the center, very shrewdly and effectively serving on the Armed Services Committee," the GOP hard-liner said. Gringrich should know: He sits with her on a star-studded Pentagon advisory group.
When not fending off terrorists or bucking up the troops in Iraq, Clinton has been equally fierce about defending defense dollars for her home state.
Just ask Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who got the back-off sign from her at an April 19 budget meeting of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee. Clinton isn't assigned to this smaller group, but she showed up anyway. And we know what she said, because her aides sent out a press release and video snippet of their Democratic boss fighting the good fight on Capitol Hill.
Lieberman, a fellow committee member, had sought a coveted $1.7 billion contract to build the presidential Marine One helicopter in his home state. The deal was awarded January 28 to Lockheed Martinin upstate New York. Now Clinton feared he would try to block its funding.
She spoke briefly, telling the subcommittee: "Now that the contract has been awarded, we think it is important we proceed expeditiously." Cut this money, in other words, and you're crossing me.
For the defense industry in New York, the Marine One contract ranks among its hardest-fought battles in recent memory, and plenty of state politicians had a hand in advocating that the 750-job contract go to Lockheed's plant, in Owego, a struggling area outside Binghamton. Yet no one was more tenacious than Clinton. On April 7, she and fellow senator Chuck Schumer thwarted a sneaky attack by Connecticut's Christopher Dodd, who tried to insert a fatal amendment into an unrelated bill. Clinton and Schumer pulled some parliamentary moves of their own, and prevailed.
"Lockheed Martin won it fair and square," Clinton said of her actions at the time, "and the people at the Owego plant worked their hearts out for this project."
So did she, turning the Marine One bid into something of a pet project over the past year. She took a test flight of the Lockheed chopper and met with navy administrators. She even placed a call to British prime minister Tony Blair, who was cheering for the craft to be built in his country.
The first New York senator to serve on the Armed Services Committee in the modern era, Clinton has used her two years there to carve out a muscular image on national security. Last week, when the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency told lawmakers he thought North Korea could deliver a nuclear strike, it was Hillary Clinton who had asked the key question.
Mitchell Moss, who teaches political science at New York University, says Clinton "has done an enormous amount on the committee to establish herself as a hawk on national issues." Moss likens her to the late Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the U.S. senator who represented Washington State from the 1950s until 1983. Jackson epitomized the great centrist Democrathe was a true liberal on domestic issues, and a hawk's hawk on foreign policy and national security.
But there's another way that Clinton mirrors Jackson: bringing home the bacon. The Washington senator worked so hard at it that he earned the title "the senator from Boeing." Clinton doesn't have such a reputationyet. In press releases last year, she took credit for securing roughly $125.5 million in defense projects statewide. This year, she has touted having already inserted $156 million in military construction projects in the fiscal 2006 defense budget.
"Senator Clinton is going back to the Scoop Jackson days," Moss says, "and she's filling a big gap in New York."
Not long after Clinton landed her spot on the prestigious committeewhich controls the $419 billion national defense budgetshe contacted U.S. Congressman Steve Israel, of Long Island, who serves on its House version. Israel says the two discussed how to use their respective seats to New York's advantage. Once a defense stronghold, with companies concentrated in Israel's backyard, the state has seen the industry shrivel over the past two decades.
"We made a decision to work very closely together to fight for defense procurements," Israel says.
Their first test surfaced just months later, in March 2003, when Israel learned the defense giant Northrop Grumman was ready to move part of its Long Island operations out of state. The congressman called Clinton and, within hours, they had company executives in her Capitol Hill office. They discovered the Pentagon had slashed funds for a Northrop-produced radar system for the navy. Without the money, the company would shutter its Melville plant and cut 100 jobs.
Clinton and Israel mapped out a plan to save the facility, working Pentagon officials and Armed Services members to secure additional funding. "We found the money," Israel says. To date, they've brought in $28.3 million to keep the program going.