Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is poised to become the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, making him a key ally of Joe Biden as the president-elect navigates an increasingly partisan climate and some of the most contentious policy areas in Congress.
It will be up to Durbin, who is also the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, to help Biden achieve his goals on judicial nominees and immigration, two areas where bipartisanship has all but evaporated.
Both Biden and Durbin are old-school Washington negotiators willing to seek compromise with Republicans, and they know each other well. The two were on the committee together for many years before Biden became vice president in 2008.
Durbin says the prestigious committee has become “a shell of its former self” during President Donald Trump's time in office as Republicans pursued investigations of the 2016 election while conducting little oversight of the administration.
“This committee, which has usually been in the spotlight of every major debate and issue in America, in recent history has retreated to the back benches of Trumpism, and I think needs to be brought back into its rightful place,” Durbin said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The current chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is a close Trump ally. The current top Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is stepping down from the committee after criticism that she has been too conciliatory toward Republicans.
Durbin said he thinks there are policy issues that need to be tackled right away next year, such as the reinstatement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Trump administration has put restrictions on the program, also known as DACA, which was created by President Barack Obama and allowed people brought to the United States illegally as children to remain as legal residents.
It remains to be seen whether the 76-year-old Durbin, who has been on the committee for 22 years, will be the top Democrat or the chairman. If Democrats are able to win two Senate seats in Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia, Democrats would have a narrow Senate majority, giving them control of committees and Biden an opening for a more expansive agenda.
Durbin is expected to be officially approved for the top committee slot in the coming days, after a vote by the Democratic caucus that allowed members to hold both leadership positions and committee chairmanships. The vote came after Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who was angling for the Judiciary Committee spot, led an effort to make Durbin choose between the two.
Whitehouse has not publicly commented on his effort, but some progressives pushed his candidacy on the grounds that he would be more of a liberal fighter than Durbin despite their similar positions. Progressives are pushing Democrats to add seats to the Supreme Court after the preelection confirmation to the Supreme Court of Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative from Indiana who replaced the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“The next senator to serve as the lead Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee cannot wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum,” tweeted Brian Fallon, the executive director of the advocacy group Demand Justice. “It will take someone committed to undoing the damage Trump and McConnell have done to our courts, no matter what it takes.”
One highlight of Trump’s tenure for Republicans has been the Senate’s confirmation of more than 200 conservative judges, a priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. If McConnell holds the majority — and even if Democrats narrowly take it — Durbin would have to navigate a potential blockade on Biden’s judicial nominations by the GOP.
The partisan tensions on the committee were part of the reason Feinstein was pushed aside. Demand Justice and other progressive groups were aghast when she praised Graham’s handling of Barrett's nomination.
Feinstein, 87, was largely absent from the Democratic messaging against Barrett. Instead it was Durbin who took the lead, directing Democrats to question the nominee's views on heath care and connect the idea of a conservative court to the consequences for real people. “I think we achieved that with very few exceptions,” Durbin said.
Durbin said there are always going to be clear partisan divides, “but what I’m trying to do is find some common ground."
Durbin pointed to criminal justice legislation, a narrow version of which passed with strong bipartisan support in 2018 and became one of Trump’s signature accomplishments, as evidence that bipartisanship is possible. The committee came to rare agreement on the bill, which reduced some drug-related sentences and made other prison changes, two years earlier after Durbin says he approached then-chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Durbin called the law “an amazing thing to happen.”
Democrats and Republicans have expressed an interest in doing a second criminal justice bill, and Grassley is set to return as the top Republican on the committee in January.
Durbin’s main issue, though, has long been immigration. He has said he’d like to see a comprehensive overhaul — a goal that has eluded Congress, even after a bipartisan group pushed a bill through the Senate in 2013. Durbin was one of the Democrats on that bipartisan “gang” of eight that wrote the measure, which died in the House.
Durbin said he has had “preliminary conversations” with Biden’s team, saying DACA and other issues need to be taken care of immediately.
If Durbin becomes chairman, the committee probably would also address policing policy, gun background checks and bankruptcy laws. But regardless of his role, Durbin emphasized that he wants to try and explain to Americans that Democratic policy ideas are “not some radical thinking” but firmly in the mainstream.
“There will be times when we will compromise, for sure, to get legislation to move forward, but we will start with a clear statement of principle values so the American people know what the Democrats feel on the committee," Durbin said.