Durbin quest for Judiciary sparks opportunity debate

Progressive groups throw support to Senate Democratic whip

Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, and foreground, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., attend a Senate Judiciary meeting on October 15. Feinstein announced she would give up her top Judiciary post and Durbin said he would seek to replace her. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/POOL)
Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, and foreground, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., attend a Senate Judiciary meeting on October 15. Feinstein announced she would give up her top Judiciary post and Durbin said he would seek to replace her. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/POOL)
Posted December 4, 2020 at 2:57pm

Interest in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Democratic spot by Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has sparked a larger conversation about who gets leadership opportunities in the caucus.

“It’s not about Senator Durbin. He’s terrific, but I think it’s legitimate to talk about various ways to give more people opportunities. So I’ll have to see what all of it looks like,” said Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee chairwoman.

Durbin, who is 76, raised his hand after California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 87, announced last month she would be stepping aside as the top Democrat on Judiciary. He said in a statement that he has served on the committee for 22 years, and is “its most senior member who does not currently serve atop another Senate Committee.” Durbin also said he would seek to retain his position in leadership.

There are no rules disallowing someone to be in Democratic leadership and chairman or ranking member of a committee, which is generally determined by seniority.

Several Democrats including Stabenow and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, both 70, hold ranking positions on Senate committees and serve in Democratic leadership. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, 70, Durbin, Feinstein, Stabenow and Murray are in at least their fourth Senate terms.

Durbin told The Washington Post on Thursday he would back a proposal that would limit the whip to serving as the top Democrat on just one committee or subcommittee. If Durbin were to get the Judiciary slot, that would then entail him giving up his slot as top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He called his support for that plan a “major concession.”

When asked the day before if he believed adding Judiciary to his leadership resume Wednesday would limit others from getting leadership opportunities, Durbin said, “There are things being worked out.”

Stabenow and several other Democrats asked about committee leadership opportunities said the deliberations on how to proceed will be handled internally.

Feinstein’s announcement came after she caught ire from grassroots advocacy groups who called for a change in committee leadership in the wake of the October confirmation fight over now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.  

On Judiciary, the next Democrat in line after Durbin is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who released a statement that did not explicitly say he was interested — but also did not say he wasn’t.

“In the wake of Ranking Member Feinstein’s announcement, I look forward to the question of succession on the Senate Judiciary Committee being decided by the caucus,” the statement said. “I will abide by the caucus’s decision.”

The 65-year-old Whitehouse is in his third term and has been outspoken on the influence of “dark-money” groups on the federal judiciary.

Earlier this year he helped prepare a 54-page report depicting the GOP majority’s confirmation of conservatives to the federal courts as a plan to benefit Republicans and their donors.

Durbin’s bid for Judiciary Committee leadership received support from civil rights leaders and former Democratic Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ namesake group that promotes gun safety. Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, was sworn in Wednesday as a Democratic senator from Arizona.

In a letter shared with CQ Roll Call, a dozen civil rights groups — including Muslim Advocates, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, and United We Dream — said Durbin would be best positioned to help guide the committee as it navigates a post-Trump administration era.

“It is imperative that the Democratic leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee have a proven track record of leadership on civil and human rights so that the Committee can hit the ground running in 2021,” the letter said. “We strongly believe Senator Durbin is the right person for this critical role.”