McConnell, Schumer fail to cut power-sharing deal amid filibuster snag
Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot
A coalition of criminal justice groups is signaling support for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in his bid to take over the top Democratic spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Justice Roundtable, a coalition of more than 100 groups, sent a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), obtained exclusively by The Hill, signaling support for Durbin, citing his previous work on criminal justice reform.
"At this inflection point in the nation's history, particularly as we confront a devastating pandemic and systemic racial inequality, we are comforted to know Senator Durbin's long-standing commitment to human rights, fairness and justice will guide him at this critical time. He is a trusted and experienced leader, and we welcome his ascension in the Judiciary Committee," Justice Roundtable leadership wrote to Schumer.
Durbin, who was recently reelected to serve as the Senate Democratic whip in the next Congress, has worked for years on criminal justice legislation.
Most recently he teamed up with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the First Step Act. The First Step Act, which incorporated provisions of the first bill, was passed in 2018 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to give it a vote amid pressure from the White House and a bipartisan group of senators.
"If not for Dick Durbin sentencing reform would not be a part of the First STEP Act. He was very much an ally of the criminal justice groups and the liberal groups," Inimai Chettiar, the federal legislative and policy director for the Justice Action Network, told The Hill, crediting Durbin with "holding people's feet to the fire."
Durbin and Grassley, who will chair the Judiciary Committee if Republicans keep the majority, have also teamed up this year on legislation reforming compassionate release for federal prisoners amid the coronavirus.
Durbin, who is serving in the No. 2 spot as party whip, announced that he would seek the party's top position on the panel after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would step down from the spot.
Some progressives, however, have signaled support for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has also been active on criminal justice and prison reform and has been a leading voice in the caucus on issues like campaign finance reform and the judiciary.
And there are rumblings of pushback, including discussion about the potential for changes to the caucus rules, because Durbin is already whip and holds the top Democratic spot on the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for defense spending, a plum post.
Supporters of Durbin are quick to note that previous Democratic whips have held committee chairmanships while also serving in the No. 2 spot. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is the No. 3 Senate Democrat and also holds the top Democratic spot on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"Anyone who cares about criminal justice reform and its impact on racial justice should want [Durbin] to be the top Democrat on Senate Judiciary," Kevin Ring, the head of the FAAM Foundation, tweeted amid the progressive pushback against Durbin.
He added on Monday that "this is madness. You don't pass over Michael Jordan to shake things up. Dems should pick Durbin if they want to pass bolder criminal justice reform."
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson also tweeted on Monday that the group "looks forward" to Durbin's "strong leadership on civil rights & equal justice."
"After four years of Trump, we have much work to do," he added.
The offers of support for Durbin comes as criminal justice groups are gearing up to try to get additional legislation passed under the incoming Biden administration. Biden, during the White House race, vowed to end the government's use of private prisons, end cash bail and work to end the use of the death penalty.
If Durbin or Whitehouse would be chair or ranking member of the Judiciary Committee remains unclear because which party will control the Senate will come down to the two Georgia runoff elections on January 5.
"I think it is critically important who the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to be and I think Dick Durbin has a very proven record of being able to fight for criminal justice reforms," Chettiar said.