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Senators Mount Quiet Race to the Top

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) helped fellow Democrat Bob Casey (Pa.) get a seat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last year, while Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) gave up his chairmanship of a powerful Judiciary subcommittee to Sen. Arlen Specter when the Pennsylvanian switched parties from the GOP last spring. In 2006, Schumer helped persuade several Democrats to vote for Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.) bill to increase oil drilling; in 2007, Durbin helped Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.)get a consumer product safety bill squeezed into a packed floor schedule.

As Durbin and Schumer eye a potential race for Senate Majority Leader this fall, the winner is likely to be decided not on the basis of either lawmakers’ political bent or ability to spin in front of the TV cameras, but on what the rank and file really care about: What have you done for me lately?

“The key to being elected Leader is that you have to be the most selfless person in what is inherently the most selfish body in the world,” said one former Senate Democratic aide with sustained ties to the Hill.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Casey or Landrieu are shoo-in votes for Schumer or that Durbin can be certain Specter or Pryor’s appreciation will be borne out in a secret ballot vote for Majority Leader. But their efforts on those Senators’ behalf certainly can’t hurt their chances of succeeding current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who may be the Conference’s most threatened incumbent this cycle.

“Clearly, they’re both in political overdrive with their colleagues,” one Senate source said of Durbin and Schumer, adding that both Members are “jockeying subtly.” Another senior Senate Democratic source said the duo has not been overtly asking for votes from their colleagues at this stage, but it is widely understood in the caucus that they might be rivals in a leadership election come November or December.

Still, Durbin and Schumer have gone to great pains to avoid any appearance that they think Reid will lose his bid for a fifth term. Likewise, Reid has gone to great lengths not to play favorites or show any preference for a would-be successor, although he did carve out a special leadership role for Schumer in 2006 after the then-Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman helped the party win back the majority, giving Reid the chamber’s most powerful position. The Conference vice chairmanship was a new slot, and at the time, Reid acknowledged he gave it to Schumer to thank him for the gift of the majority.

The non-race race is so sensitive that neither Durbin nor Schumer nor their staffs will even comment on a potential matchup, and Senators and aides will only talk about one of the most interesting parlor games in Washington, D.C., if their comments are either off the record or anonymous.

Given their current leadership positions — Durbin is the No. 2 and Schumer is the No. 3 — the pair would be assisting Members regardless of Reid’s electoral peril. But they also know that Reid came to power in many ways because of the favors that he did for his colleagues while he was Whip under then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.).

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