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Durbin’s Role a Third Rail Among Democrats

With Schumer Leading Democrats’ Messaging, Senate Whip Still Finds Relevance in Being Attack Dog

Scott Ferrell/CQ Roll Call

Sen. Dick Durbin’s leadership role in the Democratic Conference is a sensitive topic.

The Majority Whip is described by colleagues as an indispensable leader who performs the pivotal function of driving the Democratic message and providing a relentless, articulate defense of both Conference and White House policies from Republican attacks. Some of Durbin’s most ardent fans within the Conference, in fact, are Senators far more centrist in their politics than the committed Illinois liberal.

But in offering praise, some Democratic Senators acknowledged that questions have arisen about where Durbin fits in in the wake of Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) assuming command of the Conference’s messaging and policy operations under the auspices of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center — a combination of Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (Nev.) old communications war room and the Democratic Policy Committee.

“They had this so-called, it wasn’t a brush up — with Schumer and Durbin — but I think that each of them is fitting into a perfect spot,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a self-described “hard-core Durbin loyalist.” “The Schumer strengths we really needed; the Durbin, kind of, street loyalty — street call of core Democratic
values we absolutely need. I just think the world of him.”

Rockefeller agreed that Durbin’s role has changed somewhat since Schumer, with the assistance of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), launched the DPCC. But the West Virginian said the change has been positive, both for the Conference and for Durbin. “It’s just a different role. There are things that Dick Durbin can do that nobody else can do.”

Durbin might not be tasked with developing the Democratic message — although he does have a hand in that effort. But many of his fellow Democratic Senators said there is no one better at carrying it, either on the floor, where the Majority Whip is a ubiquitous presence, or in public.

In the 14 weeks since Thanksgiving, Durbin has appeared on a Sunday morning news show 10 times, including a handful of guest spots on “Fox News Sunday.” Additionally, he used the Presidents Day recess period to travel Illinois and test market a counter message to the House Republican budget plan for the remainder of fiscal 2011 that would have cut $61 billion if fully implemented. Durbin pushed that message in Republican House districts.

The local news coverage Durbin generated was deemed so successful that Reid asked him to make a presentation to the Conference during a subsequent caucus lunch, and about a dozen Senate Democratic offices later called and asked how they could plan similar in-state events. The message was also discussed at a regular meeting of Senate Democratic press strategists. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a Durbin ally, described him as an “effective national spokesman” for the Conference.

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