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Senate's No. 2 Man: Illinois Benefits from Dick Durbin's High-Profile Role

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Tucked into the transportation legislation coming from the U.S. House last spring was a formula change that would have reduced Illinois’ highway funding by $119 million. The bill’s author, who had lined up the support of both the House speaker and the Senate majority leader, wanted to tinker with the six-year-old formula for handing out road money. Once, the two relatively small pools of money at stake were doled out competitively. But now they had become, essentially, a way to deliver earmarked money to favored states. All told, 22 states got nothing from the two programs. More than half of the funds went to just six states. Illinois was one of the chief beneficiaries. Only California had more money at stake. 

Illinois ended up with such a large share of the money largely because the 2005 highway bill that contained the funding formula was passed when an Illinoisan, Republican Dennis Hastert, was speaker of the House. But by last spring, Hastert had retired, Democrats controlled the chamber and the highway bill was set to expire. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, thought it was time to change the funding formula. He may have succeeded, too, without the intervention of Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin.

Durbin orchestrated a defense from within the Senate, where he and his colleagues effectively turned back repeated attempts to retool the road funding. He was one of 16 senators who sent a letter to Oberstar protesting the change. Durbin argued that the change would penalize Illinois for spending money it already had been promised. He said the reductions would hurt the local economy. And he noted that Illinois already receives less money for highways than its residents pay in federal gasoline taxes.

The months-long standoff between Oberstar and Durbin could be a lesson in the realpolitik that governs Capitol Hill negotiations. Both protagonists rallied powerful allies to their side. Both occupied strategic posts that gave them plenty of chances to use procedural tricks to get their way (Oberstar, however, went on to lose his House seat in November). Each crafted a sensible, compelling narrative to justify a stance that just happened to benefit his home state. Perhaps most fittingly, the impasse ended when the opponents agreed to simply spend more money on the program, ensuring that no state lost money.

But it is also a lesson in how Durbin, better known to Illinoisans for his frequent appearances on television and at local ribbon cuttings, plays the ultimate insiders’ game in the hallways and hideaways of the Capitol. It is a crucial part of Durbin’s role as an advocate for the agendas of both the Democratic Party and the state of Illinois.

“People in Illinois need to really realize how central a role Durbin plays in the institutional politics [of the Senate]. He determines what gets to the floor, what doesn’t get to the floor and how it gets to the floor,” says Nancy Beck Young, a University of Houston historian who lived in Illinois for a decade. 

Durbin, who lives in Springfield and returns to Illinois most weekends, says his prominent role in Congress benefits his constituents back home. “Illinois,” Durbin promises, “will always be at the table for any discussion of legislation involving the leadership.”

Since coming to Congress a quarter century ago, Durbin has steadily advanced through the ranks of first the House and now the Senate. He now holds the title of assistant majority leader, also called the majority whip, which is the second-highest position in the upper chamber. Publicly, he tows the Democratic Party line in floor speeches and Sunday morning talk shows, which is not surprising because he helps craft that party line. Time magazine rated Durbin one of the top U.S. senators several years ago, specifically citing his debate skills. 

Still, in political circles, Durbin is known as much for his ability to listen as to talk. He knows the inner workings of the Senate and the concerns of its members. He regularly partners with Republicans on lower-visibility issues, such as food safety and natural disaster recovery. Durbin is the ringleader of the Illinois congressional delegation and regularly promotes consensus among the group.

Within the Senate Democratic caucus, Durbin has been a top member of the leadership team since 2004 and has never drawn a challenger for that partisan post. There was even plenty of chatter — premature, as it turned out — that Durbin would launch a bid to lead the caucus if its current head, Harry Reid of Nevada, had lost his re-election bid in November. Reid held onto his seat, avoiding an intraparty fight to succeed him, but the Washington rumor mill continued to swirl about Durbin’s role in the caucus. The speculation increased as Reid shifted responsibilities among his top lieutenants following the elections.

Durbin can be counted on as a reliable liberal vote, whether the issue is judicial nominees or universal health care. National Journal rated him as the ninth-most liberal member of the U.S. Senate this year; in 2006, Durbin was rated the most liberal. 

Durbin’s political skills will be tested in the upcoming Congress. His Democratic Party is in disarray after November’s elections, while Republicans have vigorously fought most Democratic bills, even measures sweetened with GOP ideas. That makes Durbin’s job of keeping his caucus together and pushing through crucial legislation increasingly difficult, a lesson he learned even before the new members of Congress were sworn in. “As the whip, it has been my sad duty to count to 60, and I have missed that number many times,” he told the New York Times at the beginning of the November lame duck session. “This is going to require bipartisan effort. Is it frustrating? Yes. But that’s the reality we have to deal with in the Congress.”

Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor and an expert on Congress, says Republican unity also makes Durbin’s job harder. “It’s not just a resurgent Republican Party; it’s a very disciplined Republican Party,” Zelizer says. “Sen. [Jon] Kyl [Durbin’s GOP counterpart] and his team have no problem keeping every Republican on the same page. There are very few moments when Republicans defect.”

Durbin and the Democrats got a taste of the GOP discipline during the lame duck session in late November and December. Durbin had his hands full. He helped push a bipartisan measure through the Senate on food safety, weighed in on potential budget cuts as a member of a deficit-reduction panel, promoted citizenship for undocumented students, attended a White House summit on the expiring Bush tax cuts and pressed for the Senate to ratify a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. (It was during this time that Durbin was scheduled to talk to Illinois Issues for this article but did not because of time constraints.)

Nearly all of that work was put in jeopardy when the entire Senate Republican caucus, including newly sworn-in Mark Kirk of Illinois, threatened to filibuster anything that came to the floor before the tax cuts and budget legislation. Shortly before that episode, Durbin fumed at the GOP delaying tactics on a Meet the Press appearance with Kyl, who wanted to put off discussions of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. “People across America who subscribe to cable ask for refunds when they turn on C-SPAN and see the Senate sit there day after day doing nothing, lurching from filibuster to filibuster,” Durbin said. “Come on. Let’s be reasonable. Let’s be constructive. Let’s be bipartisan. We can get these things done. Let’s roll up our sleeves and do it.”

Running the U.S. Senate is no easy task. The rules of the chamber give individual senators extraordinary power. Senators can stop legislation or nominations dead in their tracks with “holds” that can remain secret to the public. And with 100 members serving on 16 standing committees, it is easy for one or two holdouts to block bills from moving. But by far the biggest obstacle to passing legislation is the filibuster, the stalling tactic that can grind Senate business to a halt on any measure that has fewer than 60 senators behind it. In essence, the filibuster — and senators’ increased willingness to use it in recent years — means that even the most mundane matter must garner a supermajority to advance.

As the whip, Durbin is the chief nose counter for the Democratic caucus. It is his job not just to keep tabs on how many senators support a given bill but also to alert Reid and other members of leadership of potential problems that other members are raising. Durbin is part of Reid’s leadership strategy meetings, which also include U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, Durbin’s roommate who holds the No. 3 spot in the caucus. 

One of Durbin’s most crucial tasks is helping Reid line up bills before they get to the Senate floor. Time on the Senate floor is a precious commodity — it takes 15 minutes on a good day just to hold a vote, all done, of course, by voice — so the majority party must carefully orchestrate which proposals make it there, along with which rules apply. A minor hiccup on a controversial bill could sink its chances, especially if opponents get a chance to amend the proposal with unfriendly changes. Durbin is the one most often responsible for making sure that all of the problems with bills are worked out in committee before they head to the full chamber. 

He told Roll Call, “When you’re down to 53 [senators], the margins are very difficult and, of course, we’re going to be putting together a whip’s organization, reaching out to our colleagues, and making sure when votes come around, we’ve got the votes we need.”

Young from the University of Houston explains, “He is in a king-making seat by determining what is ready for the floor and what is not.” Getting a bill out of committee is a significant feat in Congress, but it is no guarantee that the legislation will make it to the floor. Determining what gets a final vote is a question, not about whether something is good policy, but whether it is politically viable, she says. Durbin’s role is to assess whether a bill can pass and whether putting the issue front and center is politically wise.

In that sense, the leadership combines control over legislative tactics and political strategy. Recently, Reid, in particular, has come under fire for his choices on the agenda. He controversially put immigration ahead of cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon dioxide pollution. He also scheduled votes shortly ahead of the elections on bills that would let gays serve openly in the military and allow students in the country illegally to become citizens. Critics said the Senate should have focused instead on efforts to create jobs. Partly in response to that criticism, Reid is handing control over much of his communications shop to Schumer, who helped Senate Democrats increase their numbers in 2006 and 2008.

Heading into the 2012 presidential campaign, the Democrats who run the Senate will determine how their party is viewed nationally, Young says. “Durbin, Reid and Schumer have an important role to play. They have to figure out how to be Democrats and also how to get things done.”

Throughout his career, Durbin has moved up the political ladder. He came to the U.S. House in 1982, after working as a lawyer for the Illinois Senate and then-Lt. Gov. Paul Simon. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor and state senator before winning the House seat. 

In the House, Durbin worked his way into a position as a member of the “college of cardinals” as chairman of the Appropriation Committee’s agriculture subcommittee. Since all spending bills in Congress must start with the House, the subcommittee chairs wield significant power in shaping the federal budget. 

He replaced Simon, his mentor, in the Senate after the 1996 election. Durbin quickly hopped on the leadership track, taking on the No. 3 spot in the Democratic caucus two years later under then-leader Tom Daschle. When Daschle lost his spot as the chamber’s top Democrat in the 2004 elections, Durbin moved up, as second-in-command to Reid. Two years later, Democrats took control of Congress, which put Durbin in the No. 2 spot in the Senate. He also benefitted from working closely with the junior Illinois senator, Barack Obama, and became one of the first people to publicly encourage Obama to run for president.

Joe Shoemaker, a Durbin spokesman, cites several reasons for Durbin’s influence. First, he says, is that members of the House and Senate trust Durbin to hear them out, even when he disagrees with their positions. Durbin also benefits from his good relationships with Reid and Obama. His colleagues know they can count on him to pass along their concerns in leadership meetings, Shoemaker says. Finally, other members depend on Durbin’s legislative know-how. They “know that Sen. Durbin was a former parliamentarian for the Illinois Senate,” Shoemaker notes. “He knows the rules and procedures very well, so other senators often come to him for tactical advice on moving their legislation.”

Young offers a different take. “He’s a pragmatist,” she says. “He understands how to count votes, and he understands the complex mechanizations of the Democratic Party. You can’t be an ideologue and be successful in his role.” Still, Durbin’s pragmatism will be put to the test in the coming Congress. To succeed, he will not only have to put aside his own ideology; he will have to persuade several Republican senators to do the same.


“People in Illinois need to really realize how central a role Durbin plays in the institutional politics [of the Senate]. He determines what gets to the floor, what doesn’t get to the floor and how it gets to the floor.” - Historian Nancy Beck Young

Daniel?C. Vock is a reporter for Stateline.org in Washington, D.C.

Illinois Issues, January 2011

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