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Durbin Forges Ahead in Deficit Negotiations

Senator Undeterred by Lack of Leader Recognition

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Dick Durbin continues to plug away in trying to reach a compromise with the GOP — despite fire from the Democratic base and occasional pushback from his own leaders.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin keeps getting knocked down, but he’s not giving up on his quest for a big bipartisan budget deal.

The liberal Illinois Democrat is an unlikely deficit hawk, but he continues to plug away in the thankless job of hammering out a grand compromise with Republicans — despite fire from his party’s base and occasional pushback from his own leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“There just hasn’t been a buy-in at the leadership levels,” Durbin lamented in an interview this week. “That’s what we need.”

Durbin’s own journey as liberal party leader to a leading deficit reduction advocate in the bipartisan “gang of six” came a bit by accident.

“I didn’t do this with any grand design,” he said.

Durbin was one of Reid’s picks for the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission set up by the president last year, and despite his reservations about potential cuts to social safety-net programs that Democrats hold dear, he became a key supporter of the commission’s plan.

He said that while he was on the panel, he came to understand the depth of the nation’s fiscal problems and that something serious has to happen to address the country’s financial problems. And perhaps more than any other liberal, he has made the case that cutting the deficit is critical to saving programs they hold dear.

“If we just say we can spend our way out of this, tax our way out of this, ignore the long-term impact, I think we don’t have a credible position in the year 2011,” Durbin said.

With Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) assuming the role of the party’s messaging chief after the 2010 elections and Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) helming the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the new Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, Durbin has been perhaps less visible but has thrown himself into a host of policy issues and found a place for himself in bridging the gaps of a deeply divided Senate.

“This is a balancing act,” he said of his dual roles as Whip — the party enforcer — and as someone pushing a compromise with the GOP. “Leadership gives you an opportunity to sit in the room and really debate the issues and strategy, and I’m honored and grateful to be there,” Durbin said.

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