Wistful goodbyes

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) made a memorable first impression on Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) in 2005, during Matsui’s initial run for Congress.

Solis, who had been in Congress for four years, sent Matsui messages to let her know she was thinking of her.

“There were several people who would leave voice mails for me, and one of them was Hilda Solis, saying, ‘I’m thinking of you, you’re going to do great,’ ” Matsui recalls.

The two became fast friends in Washington and would often be seen chatting and laughing together while walking off the House floor or around the Capitol grounds.

Now Matsui has to say goodbye to one of her closest Hill confidantes, as Solis prepares to join President-elect Obama’s Cabinet as Labor secretary.

Solis, who is still awaiting confirmation, isn’t the only lawmaker whom Obama stole in the dark of night while assembling his administration. Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have joined the new president’s Cabinet, and former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) curtailed his congressional career to become the White House chief of staff.

Whereas lawmakers had time to prepare mentally for the departure of colleagues who lost their November reelections or announced their retirements well ahead of the 110th Congress’s close, many are still smarting from the unforeseen loss of four members they almost uniformly describe not only as key players in the congressional machine but as collegial people they will miss.

“I consider her a very dear friend,” Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said of Solis.

Capps and Solis got acquainted as they traveled together from Washington to their West Coast districts, often letting one complain to the other about how tired she was or exchanging ideas on environmental policies, minority issues or other areas in which they share a passion. They even have a nickname for each other.

“We call each other comadres,” Capps said, explaining it as a Spanish word that connotes close friends who share personal details.

Salazar, Obama’s Interior secretary, also seems to have made a favorable impact on the Senate. Several congressional colleagues couldn’t use enough superlatives when asked what he contributed to Capitol Hill.

“Ken Salazar is part of the glue that holds a place like this together, [and] there’s probably one or two Republicans who feel the same way,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said. “He personifies the golden rule.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) quickly summarized Salazar’s role in the Senate: “When there was a problem, he helped solve it.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), too, had effusive praise for Salazar.

“Ken is a person who’s here for the right reasons,” she said.

Salazar, who was among the very first Cabinet members who were confirmed by the Senate, had similar sentiments. He made a final round through the Senate on swearing-in day, receiving several congratulatory handshakes and back-slaps from well-wishers. He took in the experience, saying he’d miss working in the ornate Capitol, but emphasized the time he spent with his colleagues. “The members of the U.S. Senate are some of the finest human beings to work with,” he said.

Clinton, Obama’s secretary of State, spoke fondly of her time serving in the chamber.

“I have loved being part of the Senate, working alongside public servants of both parties who bring to bear their expertise and enthusiasm to the difficult, painstaking and occasionally contentious work of turning principle into policy and policy into law,” Clinton said in her farewell address on the Senate floor.

Her colleagues still reminisced about the impression the former first lady and Democratic presidential candidate had on Congress’s upper chamber.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said she enjoyed Clinton at the women-in-the-Senate dinners and will miss “the day-to-day contact with someone I regard as a dear friend.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) got misty-eyed when talking about Clinton.

“She is just one of the most capable individuals I ever met, and she just is always on the forefront of issues,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed working with Hillary. I’m going to miss her here.”

Of the departure of both Clinton and Salazar, Boxer said: “These are hits to the heart. For me, this changes my world quite a bit.”

Even Emanuel, whose notorious foul mouth and strong-arm leadership style have reached the level of political legend, will be missed.

“There’s no question that Rahm Emanuel takes up a lot of space,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said. “He’s a very colorful member.”

Schakowsky got to know Emanuel right after he graduated from college, when they worked together at the Illinois Public Action Council.

“It was obvious then that he was going places,” she said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who worked closely with Emanuel at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also said Emanuel was a unique member of Congress.

“He has a great blend of political savvy and policy know-how,” he said. “You don’t find that every day.”

Despite their wistfulness, lawmakers wished the four Capitol Hill alumni well, knowing they will continue to work with them.

After Solis left the House floor for swearing-in, Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) practically bum-rushed her to offer hugs and congratulations. (Solis declined to say what she will miss most about Capitol Hill. “Nothing is confirmed yet, so I can’t say anything,” she said.)

Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was busy on the 111th Congress’s opening day posing for photos with newly sworn-in lawmakers, took a second to shower praise on Solis.

“Oh my gosh, she’s absolutely great,” Pelosi said. “We’ll miss her a great deal, her intellect, her intensity, [her] getting the job done.”

Moore and Solis posed for a photo together. Moore gave her a hug and told her, “I love you, my doll.”

As she left Solis, Moore shared a memory of her colleague traveling to Moore’s district to participate alongside her in a domestic violence awareness walk.

“I was determined not to get into cliques and all that when I came up here,” Moore said. “But it was impossible not to become a friend with her.”