Durbin’s job in jeopardy?

Greg Nash

Sen. Dick Durbin’s job as Democratic whip is in danger in the absence of a crucial endorsement from New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the incoming Democratic leader, say Senate aides.

Democratic aides say Schumer’s backing could make or break Durbin’s bid to hang onto his job as the Senate’s No. 2 Democratic leader.

{mosads}“The real interesting story here is what does Schumer want. The caucus is going to want to give the person they elect leader the ability to put together a leadership team that works, his own team,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

No one has said they will challenge Durbin for whip but, tellingly, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the fourth-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, hasn’t ruled it out.

Durbin’s allies note that the Illinois Democrat received a boost Friday when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised in a phone call Friday to endorse him for whip.

But the silence of Schumer and Murray may be more telling, say other Democratic sources.

“Should Durbin be worried about his job? It sure likes like it to me that Sen. Murray is going to keep her head down and give this thing some time as she figures out whether and when to challenge Sen. Durbin unless there’s some sort of deal cut,” said a former Senate Democratic aide.  

Schumer’s and Durbin’s staffs have given conflicting accounts of a conversation the two men had on the Senate floor on Friday. Durbin’s staff says Schumer said he would back Durbin for whip, but Schumer’s staff says that’s not the case.

On and off Capitol Hill, lawmakers and their staffs have taken note of the conflicting accounts.

One former senior Senate Democratic aide said the clashing stories raise questions about Schumer and Durbin working together in the future.

“If this is how their relationship is now, I can’t see them working together if Schumer becomes leader,” said the Democratic source. “If they can’t figure this piece out with their spokesmen sniping, I don’t see how they work together.”

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a one-time member of the Democratic leadership, said an endorsement from Schumer would help Durbin keep his job, but observed that ultimately the caucus would make its own decision.

He noted that many Democrats have come to the Senate since the current leadership structure formed in 2007 and predicted younger senators may want to make a change so as to put their own imprint on the leadership.

It’s possible that could be bad news for Durbin.

“Schumer as the presumed incoming Democratic leader will have some role in making recommendations to the caucus if he chooses to do that,” Dorgan said.  

“Dick is very well liked. The question is whether there are a lot of new members of the caucus who want some changes and how they want to make those changes. Whether that will affect Dick Durbin, I don’t know,” he added.

Some speculated about the possibility of a deal that would let Durbin and Murray share power with Schumer.

After House Democrats lost their majority, they created the position of assistant democratic leader for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who had served as whip when Democrats held the majority. In the minority, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) fell from Speaker to minority leader, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) fell from majority leader to minority whip. The creation of the new position kept Clyburn as part of the leadership team.

One possibility is that Durbin could be appointed as the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee after Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) retires next year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Murray are ahead of Durbin in the panel’s seniority ranking but Feinstein has indicated that she may prefer to remain the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, aides say.

Murray could let Durbin take the top slot on the committee in exchange for her taking his job as Democratic whip and second-ranking leader.

Murray declined to speculate about her future in the leadership during a press conference on Monday, but made clear she wants to play an active role leading the caucus.

“I am focused on making sure I do the best job for the people of Washington state. I’m up for election — I’ll be focused on that as well. But I’m always open to whatever opportunity is there to make sure that I can be the strongest voice possible for the people of our state,” she said.

“What everybody needs to understand is this vote, this election, won’t take place for a year and a half,” she added. “Right now, we need to get a budget written and passed we have a lot of work that we are focused on and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Durbin scrambled on Friday to shore up support by calling colleagues to say he would run next year to keep his job, a move some Democrats interpreted as a sign of weakness considering he does not face a challenger.

Schumer has offered no public backing for Durbin, though his spokesman did release a statement Wednesday afternoon emphasizing that his boss “considers Durbin a close personal friend.” That could be a sign that the two leaders, who once shared a Capitol Hill row house with former Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), may be trying to mend fences.

Murray could make a bid for the No. 3 leadership slot that will be vacated by Schumer at the end of 2016. As chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center (DPCC), Schumer has been in charge of coordinating political messaging with the Democrats’ policy agenda.

But that job could shift change significantly after Schumer becomes Democratic leader. He may incorporate many of the DPCC’s functions into the Democratic leader’s office to maintain his influence of messaging strategy.

He could also break up the responsibilities of the DPCC and parcel them out to other leaders.

If Murray decided to run for DPCC chairwoman, she might have to run against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the center’s vice chairwoman, who is a close ally of Schumer’s. If Stabenow wants the DPCC job, Murray might be more inclined to challenge Durbin.   

Tags Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Harry Reid Patty Murray
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