Reid surrogate Durbin shadows McConnell

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinCongress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds MORE (D-Ill.) has taken the job of shadowing Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility California governor predicts 'xenophobic' GOP will likely be third party in 15 years This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request MORE (Ky.), mimicking a strategy from the National Football League, where teams often assign a “spy” linebacker to key on the opponent’s offensive threat.

McConnell’s staff says they have noticed Durbin taking a more forceful approach against the Republican leader in recent weeks, culminating in a pointed reproach of McConnell on the Senate floor this week.

Durbin acknowledged his new role in an interview Wednesday, saying he decided to birddog the GOP leader after noticing McConnell stepping up attacks against Democratic healthcare reform proposals and the majority’s decision to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

But there may be another reason for his new defensive assignment. By checking McConnell, as well as other Republicans, on the floor, Durbin has given important political cover to Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSenators briefed on US Navy's encounters with UFOs: report Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview MORE (D-Nev.), who faces reelection in 2010 and has struggled with low approval ratings in a state that has often voted for Republican candidates.

Tom Daschle (S.D.), the Democrats’ former Senate leader who was in the midst of his own tough reelection battle in 2004, nevertheless spearheaded his party’s rhetorical clash with former President George W. Bush and Republicans.

Daschle lost his race for reelection in the conservative-leaning state.

“Reid’s not going to go to the floor like Daschle did; he’s learned from Daschle’s mistakes,” said Jimmy Williams, who served as senior adviser to Durbin when Durbin was the assistant democratic floor leader under Daschle.

Durbin is “providing cover for Harry Reid, which is the job of whip,” Williams added.

Reid has at times showed extreme frustration with McConnell and Republicans for blocking the Democratic bills, including legislation with significant bipartisan support, such as a tourism bill that Reid hoped would help revive the economy in Nevada.

But Reid, a former professional boxer, has held back from punching too hard or too often and has indicated in recent days that he welcomes GOP cooperation on major bills.

Durbin said Reid did not ask him to take on McConnell and other Republican leaders.

“I made the decision,” Durbin said. “I’m responsible for the message issues and I noticed the minority leader was developing certain themes on Guantanamo and healthcare and I felt it was important to tell both sides of the story.”

Indeed, McConnell has traveled to the floor regularly to blast Democratic policies, and GOP strategists say he has begun to have a political impact.

McConnell spoke more than 20 times on the Senate floor to criticize President Obama’s decision to close the detention facility and is approaching 20 speeches on healthcare reform.

One GOP aide said that McConnell’s communications strategy has coincided with rising public opposition. Since January, opposition to closing Guantanamo has risen 20 percentage points, according to Gallup polling.

The GOP aide also pointed to an ABC News/Washington Post poll that shows Obama’s disapproval rating on healthcare reform has risen 10 percent.

Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, predicted that McConnell would find his hands full with Durbin as an opponent: “He is going to be Sen. McConnell’s worst nightmare by the time it is all said and done. There is no better debater in the Senate.”

But a McConnell aide said Durbin’s impact would be limited: “Even if Democrats deploy all their best communicators, they still won’t convince taxpayers that it’s a good idea to shoulder trillions more in spending and debt.”

Durbin has accused McConnell of using scare tactics and getting facts wrong, a departure from the chamber’s more clubby atmosphere.

“He argued before, Be afraid of closing Guantanamo; now he is saying, Be afraid of healthcare reform. This is not a fearful nation,” Durbin said Tuesday, popping onto the Senate floor right after McConnell delivered another speech on healthcare.

“One of the things the senator from Kentucky says repeatedly, which is just plain wrong, is that under the proposals coming before the Senate, the government can take away health insurance people have today,” Durbin said.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillConservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Lobbying world MORE (D-Mo.) said Durbin’s role has become more vital.

“I think Republicans have been more organized as it relates to getting speakers with message points and so I think Dick tries to pick up the slack on our side as we’re running around and doing other things,” she said.

Durbin said he hopes Republicans will join Democrats on healthcare reform and other big issues. But he suggested that McConnell and other Republican leaders have shown almost no willingness to cooperate.

“The strategy on the Republican side is to stop things and slow them down and that’s what he’s doing. They want to filibuster us into failure and we don’t want that to happen,” he said.