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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.

“I think that he’s very, very focused on where our party should make its stand and the communications part of it, because that’s key to us,” Boxer said. “We have to take our message to the people outside the Beltway. It’s his great strength.”

In a brief interview Thursday, Durbin appeared hesitant to promote his leadership role, and he dismissed any suggestion that there has been tension or confusion within the leadership team since Schumer was granted expanded authority.

Democratic Senators have conceded that there has been some friction in the caucus as Members adjust to the new DPCC. The view of a strain among the leadership is partly a hangover from the last election cycle, when Durbin and Schumer were preparing to run against each other for Majority Leader in the event that Reid lost re-election.

“I sit in the leadership meetings with Harry, and we develop our tactics and strategy, and I try to execute them on the floor, and some of my work [I] bring back to the caucus, and some of them decide it’s worthy,” Durbin said of his responsibilities. In discussing the new DPCC and how it has affected him, Durbin said, essentially, that it has not.

“The war room was originally Harry’s creation, and now Chuck and Debbie play a major role in that with Harry and I think they do a great job, and I’m glad they’re doing it,” he explained. “We’ve had no problems along those lines. We’re going to disagree on an issue from time to time. But in terms of the message and thrust of the caucus, we’re unified.”

One Democratic operative who monitors the Senate said Durbin’s influence has not diminished so much as Schumer’s role has increased.

This individual said Durbin’s nature as an outspoken and unabashed liberal could hamstring him in any future battles for influence with Schumer, who is similarly liberal in his personal politics but viewed as more pragmatic and flexible. The loyalty Schumer might have developed in helping elect the 14 Democrats who won in 2006 and 2008 might also give Schumer an advantage in intra-caucus politics.

“Durbin is a go-to champion on the issues many Democrats care about,” said the Democratic operative, who is based in Washington, D.C. “But he tends to be more of a true believer and it’s hard to be effective in leadership when you’re a true believer, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

However, Durbin has admirers among centrist Democrats. Some are particularly impressed with his work on President Barack Obama’s deficit reduction commission and his willingness to support the group’s final recommendations despite the whack it would take to government expenditures that have long been sacred to Congressional Democrats.

“He is a voice of reason; he is obviously very smart and is a very gifted communicator,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a moderate. “On the political spectrum, he’s over on the left-end side of spectrum down there somewhere. But he just brings — I think people really respect the things he says and he stands for.”

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