In Potential Fight, Obama Helps Only So Much

Posted November 4, 2009 at 4:29pm

Second of two parts

Returning to our look at a leadership fight between Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), where would President Barack Obama fit in?

Obama is the unquestioned leader of the Democratic Party. He is also Durbin’s close friend and most powerful ally and would be pleased to see Durbin become the Senate Leader.

Yet Durbin would have to be strategic about how to ask the president to work on his behalf. Some Senators might be irked by anything they construe as executive meddling in internal legislative matters. Therefore Obama and his team will have to be subtle and selective in how they wade into a leadership fight for Durbin.

Additionally, Durbin will face the perception that Illinois would become too powerful if he were elevated. This would be especially pronounced if Obama is at a lower point politically. If Obama is riding high and Democrats do better than expected in the midterms, the equation might be different, but Durbin will still face Illinois-centric questions. Consequently, Obama will not be the game-changer in this contest that one might expect.

Following the (PAC) Money

Switching gears, let’s turn our attention to political action committees. Durbin and Schumer have maintained PACs and have used them to dole out money to their colleagues and build IOUs to be cashed later. A leadership war would put a lot of Members in a bind because Schumer and Durbin have given so generously to the same people.

Since 2000, Schumer’s PAC, Impact PAC, has given $736,500 total to Senators and Senate candidates and $477,500 to Senators likely to be in office when a Majority Leader race would be decided in late 2010 — assuming the current leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), loses his re-election bid. For Durbin’s Prairie PAC, the split is $781,000 and $461,500.

Durbin and Schumer gave a lot of money to the same people, but some cases stick out for their disparity. Since 1998, Durbin has given more PAC money than Schumer to Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana ($30,000 to $10,000), Barbara Boxer of California ($20,000 to $10,000), Russ Feingold of Wisconsin ($20,000 to $10,000), Al Franken of Minnesota ($25,000 to $10,000) and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana ($31,000 to $15,000). Schumer’s PAC has outstripped Durbin’s in contributions to Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York ($20,000 to $0), Carl Levin of Michigan ($10,000 to $1,000), Barbara Mikulski of Maryland ($10,000 to $2,000) and Ron Wyden of Oregon ($10,000 to $1,000).

While Senators won’t vote solely because they have gotten more money from one over the other, many will remember who was generous with them in the past, and more likely, who was not.

Developing a Whip Count

Based on the information we have gone over, plus other considerations and gut instincts, our own whip count finds 25 votes for Schumer, 20 votes for Durbin, and the rest are unclear.

Schumer will likely get a lot of support from newer Members he worked with at the DSCC (Begich, Cardin, Hagan, Shaheen, Mark Udall, Whitehouse), regional allies (Gillibrand, Lautenberg, Lieberman, Menendez), Senators who owe him for helping them even before their first general elections or for coaxing them to run in the first place (Casey, Merkley, Tom Udall, Webb), pragmatic moderates (Ben Nelson and Pryor), and liberals who prefer a more hard-charging leader (Boxer, Brown, Cantwell, Franken, Klobuchar, Mikulski, Rockefeller, Sanders).

Durbin will get the bulk of his support from old bulls (Akaka, Byrd, Inouye, Leahy), cautious Members (Baucus, Bingaman, Carper, Conrad, Dorgan, Feinstein, Kerry, Kohl, Landrieu), regional liberal compatriots (Feingold, Harkin, Stabenow), and those who will face other pressures (Alexi Giannoulias if he is elected, McCaskill, Tester).

While there will be plenty of votes up for grabs, this breakdown is a bad omen for Durbin. Schumer would have a lot of support to start and would be just a few votes shy of critical mass.

Would Schumer Run Against His Friend and Housemate?

Durbin and Schumer have been in Congress together for a long time, and interestingly, the two men have lived in the same house in Washington, D.C., for years. At first glance, it is tough to fathom this kind of skirmish materializing.

At 59 (in 2010), Schumer could let Durbin, then 65, become Leader, as he would become Whip unopposed and he could sit and wait until Durbin retired. But Durbin could remain Leader for 20 years, Schumer could slip on a banana peel, or Democrats could lose control of the Senate for a generation. The prospect of waiting is thus not so simple. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) proved that late last year when he toppled Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House, to become chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Schumer more than most knows that succeeding in politics is about timing and seizing opportunity. One other possibility is that he could cut a deal; become Whip and, if Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) retires in 2010 — which at this point does not seem likely, get Durbin’s support to become Judiciary chairman when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would presumably get the Appropriations gavel.

Schumer first won office fresh out of law school. He got to Congress when he was 30. In the House, he bided his time for 18 years until he saw the right opportunity. When he finally made the leap to the Senate, he faced a difficult primary field, which he navigated adeptly, and then he dispatched a sharp three-term incumbent. If Harry Reid loses next fall, it is in Schumer’s political DNA to realize the opportunity and run.

The Last Word

Schumer has given out as much money to his colleagues as Durbin has, and he will have a good base of support at the start. Should a health care bill pass with any public option, Schumer will get a share of the credit, as he has been one of the staunchest advocates for a public option. Perhaps most importantly, with Reid gone, many Democrats will prefer a different type of Leader.

Schumer may not beat Durbin because of the power of procedure and Obama’s intervention, but many factors are in his favor today, and he would be foolish not to pursue the job if it opens. If he does, he could become Majority Leader come January 2011.

Mark Greenbaum is an attorney in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at markgreenbaum@gmail.com.