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For Durbin, Small Majority Means Whip Smart

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Dick Durbin attended Wednesday’s meeting of the deficit reduction commission. In the new Congress, Durbin hopes to build his Whip operation.

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Correction Appended

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin can’t seem to find his niche.

The Illinois Democrat has watched two less-senior members of the Democratic leadership gain more responsibility and power in recent weeks, and he has been fighting a media narrative that suggests Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has in effect selected Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer as his heir apparent.

But even as Durbin eschews talk of the leadership maneuvers and publicly professes support for Reid’s decision to cede most of the caucus’ communications and policy strategy to the New York Democrat, he has been quietly planning some changes to how he runs the Democratic Whip operation.

Durbin reluctantly acknowledged Wednesday that he is beginning the process of revamping his shop for the 112th Congress. Democrats will have six fewer Senators than they did during the bulk of the 111th and will have a tougher time trying to corral votes for their agenda.

“I haven’t made any announcement,” he said.

But when pressed, the No. 2 Senate Democrat said he hopes to tighten the operation “to make sure the votes are there when we need them. ... 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.”

Senate Democrats will likely serve as the first line of defense for President Barack Obama as he does battle with a new House Republican majority and a strengthened Senate GOP minority. Senate Republicans will need to pick up only four Democratic seats to score a 51-vote majority.

Besides needing to beef up his Whip team for tactical reasons, Durbin also appears to be responding to the same forces that inspired Reid to create Schumer’s new role. Reid announced on Nov. 15 that Schumer would become chairman of a newly reworked Democratic Policy Committee in the next Congress, in addition to his position as the Conference vice chairman.

In tapping Schumer for the post, Reid appeared to be responding to calls from his junior Members — particularly those from the classes of 2006 and 2008 — for more aggressive leadership. Those newer Members made clear that their leaders’ re-election, including Reid’s as Majority Leader, was contingent on major changes to the way the caucus operates.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who was elected in 2008, said junior Members have not specifically requested a change in the Whip organization, but that “it’s a good idea.” He added, “I think that a well-operating Whip organization that facilitates communication in the caucus is always a good thing.”

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