Durbin's Hardball Game

By Manu Raju
|  Monday, Mar 8, 2010  |  Updated 11:48 AM CDT
View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print
Obama the Family Man

Getty Images

Dick Durbin doesn't want to protect bloggers.

advertisement
Photos and Videos
More Photos and Videos

Democrats are hungry for a hardball strategy against a resurgent Republican Party, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin is positioning himself as a leading aggressor — a move that could help him in a potential run for majority leader.

Durbin (D-Ill.) led the scorched-earth strategy against Sen. Jim Bunning’s one-man blockade of jobless benefits, and he’s now open to making Republicans actually hold the Senate chamber for real filibusters.

Durbin’s newly pugnacious strategy comes as more congressional insiders are whispering about the possibility of a Durbin vs. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) race for Senate majority leader if Nevada Sen. Harry Reid loses reelection.

Durbin won’t talk about his strategy in the context of a potential majority leader race, describing himself instead as a “catalyst” in the charge against Bunning. Durbin’s audience is mostly inside the Senate chamber — a new generation of Democratic senators flustered by the plodding pace of the upper chamber.

“I think you’ll see more of it,” Durbin told POLITICO, referring to confrontational tactics against a recalictrant GOP minority.

If Durbin finds himself in a race to become the next majority leader after this fall’s elections, his position as aggressor-in-chief could appeal to the 17 Democrats elected in the past two election cycles, who are calling for a bare-knuckle strategy against the GOP. Many of those new senators are generally seen as closer to Durbin’s potential rival for the leadership spot, Schumer, who helped them win their seats when he ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and 2008.

Publicly, none of the more junior Democrats are taking sides in a hypothetical race to replace Reid, saying they expect the Nevada Democrat to pull off a hard-fought victory in the fall. But they are praising Durbin’s tough approach to Bunning — which could pay dividends if he tries to sell himself down the line as the best person fit to lead Senate Democrats.

“Durbin’s shown good leadership — particularly in the past week with Bunning,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who was elected in 2006. “It was Durbin’s leadership that got Bunning finally to accept the fact that 75 members of the Senate disagreed with him.”

With Reid’s reelection bid in serious peril, Democrats on and off Capitol Hill are quietly watching Schumer and Durbin for signs of how they would rule the Senate if they have a chance to become majority leader. During the past several months, Durbin has shown himself to be something of an aggressor, ambushing top Republicans on the floor with combative floor speeches challenging GOP claims on issues ranging from Guantanamo Bay to health care legislation. And he’s recently signed on to efforts to curtail the power of the filibuster, an issue that has picked up steam in liberal circles and among more junior Democratic senators.

At the same time, Schumer — who has long been viewed as the more aggressive partisan of the two — is building a role as a bipartisan deal maker, something that could be critical should Democrats have a narrower Senate majority or be in the minority next Congress.

“He’s very good at putting together a deal and doing so in a way that demonstrates an understanding of what conservative members need and what liberal members need,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a moderate, said of Schumer.

Even though both men and their aides refuse to talk about a hypothetical race and say they are fully behind Reid, Democratic aides and senators are quick to interpret actions of both men as early signs of how they may be positioning themselves ahead of the first Democratic leadership race since 1994.

For instance, some Democrats point to Durbin’s role in trying to put together a major Senate jobs package with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

According to a private document obtained by POLITICO, the draft proposal included a list of provisions sought by moderates like Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), liberals like Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and newer members like Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

Some viewed that document as a sign of Durbin’s efforts to score points with an ideologically diverse group of senators — though there’s no evidence to suggest that.

But the Durbin-Dorgan effort floundered in the wake of January’s Massachusetts Senate race, and Schumer began his own talks with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), unveiling a payroll tax break aimed at spurring new hires.

Some Democrats on the Hill — who would like Schumer as majority leader — argued that Schumer was taking a more effective approach on the jobs issue. Those sources were not from Schumer’s office, and there’s no evidence that Schumer’s staff directed them to push that talking point forward.

Even though Schumer has a complicated relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stemming from the 2008 campaign season, Hatch said he is “one of the Republicans who likes Schumer.”

Asked if he sensed Schumer was positioning himself for a majority leader run, Hatch said: “I don’t get into his mind, but I’m sure there are people who think he is.”

Both Schumer and Durbin are nervous about any perceptions that they are campaigning for the job, with both strongly professing their loyalty toward Reid, his reelection bid for a fifth term and his desire to remain as majority leader next year. Both of the senators’ offices declined to comment.

Asked if a potential majority leader’s race enters his mind as he positions himself this year, Durbin said flatly: “no.”

“The majority leader is Harry Reid,” Durbin said, “and when he’s reelected, I’ll be happy to serve as his whip.”

And Schumer’s and Durbin’s allies in the Senate insist that the subject of a leadership race is driven more by media speculation than by any reality in the Senate.

“The vultures — you guys — are the only ones circling,” bristled Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was narrowly elected in 2006 after an aggressive effort by Schumer’s DSCC.

Pointing to the Senate’s ornate Mansfield Room, where Democrats were finishing lunch Thursday, she said: “There’s no one in that room that doesn’t believe Harry Reid isn’t going to get reelected.”

Still — even McCaskill thinks it’s time for Democrats to buck up.

“What’s changed here [is] I think many of us have been walking around crouched in a defensive position — I think we want to fight,” McCaskill said.

And Durbin seems to recognize that.

At a late evening vote Feb. 25, Durbin caught wind that Bunning had planned to block an extension of unemployment insurance and decided to respond by making Bunning publicly object. Soon, he got backup from a slew of Democrats, mainly those elected in 2006 and 2008, to vent fury at the GOP.

For days, Durbin was a near-constant presence on the Senate floor as Democrats continued their onslaught against Bunning — so much so that he considered leading a charge through the night last Tuesday after some 20 Democratic senators called his office and requested time to speak during an unusual all-night session. But it never came to that — and Durbin is now hearing praise for his tactics.

“He kind of galvanized the feeling that a lot of us have — he knows the group — the ’06 and ’08 group,” said freshman Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. “I’m a big fan of putting a face on what a filibuster is about.”

Get the latest headlines sent to your inbox!
View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print
Leave Comments
What's New
Get Our Weather App
Stay ahead of the storm with the NBC... Read more
Follow Us
Sign up to receive news and updates that matter to you.
Send Us Your Story Tips
Check Out