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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.).

Those plums come in the form of committee assignments, waivers on uncomfortable votes, provisions slipped into bills, campaign contributions and just understanding what Members can and can’t do.

Reid operates on the theory that “the more power you give away, the more power you get,” the former aide said. Indeed, Reid, who became Minority Leader in 2005 and Majority Leader in 2007, gave up the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee to then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) in 2001 in order to secure the lawmaker’s historic party switch, which handed control of the chamber to Democrats. In 2007, Reid vacated his seat on the Appropriations panel to make room for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

Durbin has clearly followed Reid’s example in giving up the chairmanship of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs to Specter when he bolted to the Democratic ranks last April. And Durbin, like Schumer, has also been involved in trying to help Members score the best committee assignments possible, sources said.

After hearing from members of the 2006 class of Democrats that they were itching for subcommittee gavels, Schumer urged the rest of the leadership and the caucus to enforce rules that limit the number of subcommittee chairmanships that senior Senators could hold. As a result, several Senators including Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) received chairmanships in 2009.

Beyond committee assignments that give Members a perch from which to claim credit for their endeavors, being able to accommodate everything from mundane requests like not voting on Fridays to getting out of a controversial vote on a politically sensitive issue is a key barometer that Senators use in judging whom they want to lead them.

Though both men sport decidedly liberal credentials, Schumer gets higher marks from many Democrats because he is seen as more understanding of all Members’ — liberals and centrists alike — political fears.

Privately, Senate Democrats said the most significant disadvantage for Durbin is that he is viewed as an ideologue who presses for party unity. That has been a particular problem among centrists, who bristled last year when Durbin urged Democrats to stay aligned on procedural votes after Democrats secured their 60th, filibuster-proof vote in the chamber.

At the time, moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who is retiring at the end of this Congress, greeted that suggestion with scorn. “Most Senators vote their conscience and they do what they think is right. They didn't come here to be told what to do by somebody else,” he said then.

On the other hand, Schumer appears to have a good relationship with moderates, even if that relationship is “almost clinical,” according to one former aide to a centrist Senate Democrat.

“Moderates know that if they can make the political case [to Schumer], he will make the deal,” explained the former aide, who acknowledged that, “The criteria that make you a good Majority Leader 80 percent of the time puts you at odds with moderates”

Durbin’s fans appear to be within the Conference’s liberal flank and among those Senators who appreciate Durbin’s willingness to try to find popular legislative vehicles for Senators to champion. The most recent example came when he and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) began writing a jobs bill last year. As originally envisioned, the bill would be a hodgepodge of job-creation incentives and tax credits, with each provision being promoted by a different Member. In one early incarnation of the bill, almost 20 Democrats — liberals and moderates — would have stood to get credit on the measure.

Of course, Reid decided not to move forward with a single, larger jobs bill after Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) special election win in Massachusetts robbed Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority. Durbin’s efforts were further compromised by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who made a play to take many of the Durbin-Dorgan bill’s proposals back to the Finance Committee — a move that made it harder for Durbin to dole out provisions to specific Members.

Meanwhile, Durbin does not yet appear to be using his close relationship with President Barack Obama — formerly the junior Senator from Illinois whom Durbin encouraged to run for president — on behalf of individual Senators, sources said. Though he has on occasion made the call down Pennsylvania Avenue, sources said, Durbin more often counsels Members to talk to Reid first to see whether the Majority Leader can grease the wheels for them.

However, if he were Leader, Durbin would be freed from his loyalties to Reid and likely to take better advantage of his previous mentorship of Obama, sources suggested.

Though Schumer is aggressive at arguing on Members’ behalf behind the scenes, the most common concern among Democrats about his becoming Majority Leader is his penchant for not fully sharing credit for legislation, sources said. While Durbin has more often walked away from bills in order to give other Members a chance to shine, Schumer is a prolific legislator, and he is rarely shy about taking credit for his own accomplishments.

However, his supporters point out that Schumer has handed over bills to other Members on occasion or helped Senators advance their priorities. For example, Schumer offered an amendment during the Finance Committee’s consideration of the health care bill to address a priority of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin does not sit on the panel.

But during that same health care debate last year, Schumer also appeared to have a tough time straddling the two factions of the party and was criticized by some for pushing a decidedly liberal priority — the public insurance option — even as he worked to find an alternative approach that centrists could also embrace.

Neither Schumer nor Durbin is a slouch when it comes to campaign contributions; they both have given to vulnerable incumbents and Democratic challengers.

While Schumer was running the DSCC in the 2007-08 cycle, Durbin — facing an easy path to re-election that cycle — gave a whopping $1.8 million from his own campaign coffers to the DSCC. He gave $250,000 last year.

Schumer, up for re-election this year, has not used his campaign committee to contribute to anyone or any party this cycle, and he gave just $20,000 in the last cycle to Democratic candidates and party organizations.

But he outpaces Durbin in giving from their respective leadership political action committees. Schumer’s IMPACT has given $120,000 to candidates and $15,000 to the DSCC this cycle, while Durbin’s Prairie PAC has given $85,000 to candidates and $15,000 to the DSCC. Schumer outpaced Durbin by about $60,000 to candidates in the 2007-08 cycle, while Durbin’s PAC bested Schumer’s by $10,000 in giving to other candidate PACs and party committees.

Of course, one big unknown for both Schumer and Durbin is which Senators will be left to vote should Reid lose. Some political pundits have predicted a loss of six to eight seats for Democrats in November — with centrists taking the biggest hit.

One senior Senate aide said both men need to tread carefully as they seek to win the hearts and minds of the rank and file.

“It could be seen as opportunistic and perhaps a turn off at a time when Democrats need to all work together to turn the narrative around and get on better political footing,” the aide said. “If they’re not careful and they start turning people off with their tactics, a third person could come out of nowhere.”

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