Power struggle sparks tensions among Senate Democrats

Senate Democrats are mulling new limits on leadership positions and plum committee posts as long-simmering tensions about the balance of power within the caucus are spilling into public view. 

What started as a fight over Democrats’ top spot on the Judiciary Committee has instead turned into a sprawling debate about concerns that there’s a bottleneck to climb the seniority ladder. 

It’s a rare point of public division in a caucus that has prided itself on unity over the past four years. But Democrats, who failed to win the majority for the fourth cycle in a row, say the debate is a long time coming. 

“My belief is that we were going to have this discussion over seniority rules regardless. … I think there’s a lot of frustrated members who have been here for 5 years or 10 years that think that we shouldn’t be the only caucus that operates by strict seniority,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) described herself as in listening mode before making a decision. 

While she said that she would “like to see more opportunities for people,” she added that any changes also needed to be “fair.” 

The divisions boiled over when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) created a vacancy by announcing that she would step back from the Democrats’ top spot on the Judiciary Committee next year. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), who was recently reelected as Democratic whip for the next Congress, immediately threw his hat into the ring to succeed her. Durbin is third in seniority among Democrats on the committee behind Feinstein and Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), who previously chaired the committee and is the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. 

But the move drew grumblings because Durbin already holds the No. 2 position in the caucus and Democrats’ top spot on the Appropriations subcommittee for defense spending, an influential post that gives him sway over the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget.

Sen. Shelton Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is next in line behind Durbin on the Judiciary Committee, is also interested in succeeding Feinstein and has the support of some progressive activists. A coalition of progressive, civil rights and criminal justice reform groups have also endorsed Durbin. 

But senators stressed that the discussion is not just about Durbin versus Whitehouse but broader pent up frustrations that senators can serve in the Senate for years, if not decades, without ever gaining enough seniority to wield a committee gavel because of the caucus’ strict adherence to seniority and lack of term limits on influential spots. Durbin, for example, has served in the Senate since 1997 and is just now in a position to control a committee if Democrats win the two runoff elections in Georgia. 

“It’s opened up a much larger discussion which is good because it’s hard to do rules changes as a one-off. You sort of have to look at ‘what are you trying to accomplish,’” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). 

While Murphy predicted the caucus would be having the debate regardless of the musical chairs happening in the Judiciary Committee, he added that he was “supportive of reform.”

“I think we need to be invested in giving opportunities to younger and more junior members,” he said. 

Senators described the debate as in the early stages, with multiple proposals being floated, but one that could come to a head as early as this week. 

Asked about the rules debate, Durbin predicted that there would be “many more hours spent” and that the talks were at the “earliest stages of discussion.” 

Whitehouse has been publicly tightlipped, telling reporters that the timing was up to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). He declined to say if he made a pitch and that he’s “leaving it in the caucus.” 

A spokesperson for Whitehouse didn’t respond to a request for comment about if he was making a proposal or if he supported specific rules changes. 

Schumer hasn’t commented publicly on the Judiciary Committee fight or said if he would support changes to the caucus rules. 

“Look, I think the bottom line is every two years, we have a robust discussion in our caucus about the caucus rules and what should be changed and what shouldn’t be changed, and we’re going to have another good discussion in the next few weeks,” Schumer told reporters. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), known for his even keeled temperament, is responsible for moderating any rules change discussions the caucus has and assembling proposals, a role he is reviving for the current debate among Senate Democrats. 

“I rarely talk about caucus business. There’s always a process at the beginning of every term of Congress to consider changes in caucus rules. I take on that responsibility for our caucus to try to make that an orderly process,” Cardin said, asked about the rules debate. 

Wrapped up in the debate are a myriad of moving parts as senators debate how far to go with any potential rules change. 

There aren’t any rules currently that prevent Durbin from holding the No. 2 position and the top Democratic position on a full committee, and Durbin allies are quick to note that previous whips have also chaired committees simultaneously. 

Kaine has offered a preliminary proposal that would prevent Schumer as the Democratic leader from wielding a gavel. The No. 2 spot would only be able to hold one top position on either a full committee or a subcommittee. 

Durbin told The Washington Post that he would be willing to give up his position as the top Democrat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, a move that would comply with Kaine’s proposal, characterizing it as a “major concession.” 

But Democrats are also mulling if new rules should be applied more broadly to the entire top level of Senate Democratic leadership. 

Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the No. 3 and No. 4 Democrats, respectively, are the top Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Agriculture Committee. Murray is also the ranking member on the Appropriations’ Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee. Both have expressed an openness to a debate on the caucus rules. 

There’s a more far-reaching discussion about placing limits on how long a Democratic senator could chair a committee or serve as ranking member. Unlike Senate Republicans, Democratic caucus rules don’t place such limits that would force a senator to give up a committee gavel after a certain number of years. 

“That’s what I mean about the fairness. If you’re going to apply a rule it probably should apply across the board,” Hirono said, asked if changes should apply to everyone in top committee spots or everyone in a leadership position. 

The issue was discussed during closed-door caucus lunches over the past week where senators pitched proposals and took questions from their colleagues. In addition to the breadth of who would be impacted, senators are debating if the rules changes should be prospective, meaning past service would count against new limits. 

A proposal heard during a call on Thursday from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), for example, would be prospective, according to senators. Spokespeople for Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, didn’t respond to questions about the proposal. 

“We’re certainly discussing should there be time limits for service as a chair or ranking and if so what about past service, should we count it or should you start fresh, all of those are under discussion,” Kaine said. 

“But nobody yet is saying okay I like opinion A better than option B,” Kaine added. “People have put options on the table and then folks have asked clarifying questions about the proposals.” 

Tags Amy Klobuchar Appropriations Committee Ben Cardin Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Debbie Stabenow Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Mazie Hirono Patrick Leahy Patty Murray Senate Democratic leadership Senate rules Tim Kaine

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