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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.”
Still, sources said Durbin’s efforts to restructure his Whip team may not be enough in the short term to change the storyline that emerged when Reid announced plans to assign Schumer another leadership role. Reid has since added to the portfolio of the No. 4 Democrat in leadership as well: he tapped Murray to reprise her role as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Murray also ran the DSCC during the 2002 cycle.
While Senators publicly rejected the notion that Durbin’s star has fallen, some privately acknowledged that he has been downbeat in recent weeks.
One Democratic Senator said Durbin has likely hit a ceiling on how far he can advance in caucus leadership, saying he appears to be too much of an ideologue to run the politically diverse Democratic Conference.
“He’s too far to the left in his own views ... to be leader,” this Senator said. Schumer, the Senator added, is harder to pin down because he’s more “pragmatic.”
But another Democratic Senator said Durbin is far from irrelevant and would provide a tough challenge to Schumer for Democratic leader should Reid step aside or retire.
“There’s no vacancy in leadership right now. But if and when there is one, it will still be a contest,” the Senator said. “I don’t expect Dick will just roll over and say, ‘Oh, it’s a fait accompli.’”
The Senator added that Schumer’s majority-building stints atop the DSCC in 2006 and 2008 — Democrats surprised most pundits when they retook the Senate in 2006 — would not necessarily be enough to carry the him to the top spot.
“Some of the luster of those two campaigns will wear off the farther you go forward,” the Senator said.
And several aides and Senators said Durbin still has plenty of cards to play if he chooses to do so.
The demand for more communication from party leaders to the rank and file will require “increased Member-to-Members communication on floor strategy,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. The aide added that as Majority Whip, Durbin still has “a clear mandate on floor operations.”
Additionally, Durbin, who urged then-Sen. Obama to run for president in 2008, still has a powerful connection to the White House that he can leverage. And Obama’s new chief of staff, Peter Rouse, served as Durbin’s chief of staff while Durbin was in the House.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse also said the media’s perception of Durbin is quite different from the one his colleagues hold of him. The Rhode Island Democrat noted that many Members consider Durbin their “go-to person” in leadership when they have a concern, making him a key player.
“Dick is a spectacularly respected strategist, one of the senior-most members of leadership and you know, Chuck got this DPC task, but it’s a burden. It’s not like he got given a headband of laurels to ride around with,” Whitehouse said.
Correction: Dec. 2, 2010
The article incorrectly stated that Peter Rouse served as Durbin's chief of staff while he was Whip in the House. Durbin did not serve as Whip in the House.