WASHINGTON – As soon as Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin officially learned Monday that there would be a Democratic opening at the head of the Judiciary Committee, he phoned his colleagues to pin their support for the position.
“Never take anything for granted,” said Durbin of his offer to replace California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who stepped down as a senior Democrat on the panel under heavy pressure from progressive activists who felt she was insufficiently aggressive for the job. “I’ve been through these competitions before.”
One Democratic compatriot Mr. Durbin did not speak to was Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who made it clear the next afternoon that he was also interested in the job. Some of the same progressive activists who urged Ms. Feinstein to be pushed aside said they would support him.
The competition sparked a rare internal power struggle that reflected broader disputes among Democrats over the direction and stance of their party in a new Congress. As they sort through the election results that gave them control of the White House but abandoned hopes of keeping the Senate hanging by a thread, some are pushing for a new, more combative style and generation change.
Depending on the results of two Georgia Senate runoff elections in January, anyone who wins the battle for the post will be either the chairman of the panel or the senior Democrat, with a crucial role to play on a panel that Republicans are in have turned a forensic confirmation assembly line.
Mr Durbin is next to Mrs Feinstein on committee, and Democrats generally adhere to seniority in such posts. The tension in this case stems in part from the fact that Mr Durbin is already the second largest chairman and holds a key chair in the subcommittee of the budget committee that controls federal spending. For some, he’s trying to hoard power, possibly at the expense of his own effectiveness in both jobs.
“Ultimately, this will not be due to political considerations,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of progressive advocacy group Demand Justice and a supporter of Mr. Whitehouse. “It will be a question of whether the caucus believes that a leadership position and a top position on a large committee are too many for one member to hold at the same time.”
Mr Durbin said it was common for Senate leaders to hold top positions on a committee, and his office noted that the Whip, the second-rate official, has routinely done so in the past. The 76-year-old Durbin, who was first elected to the Senate in 1996 and has just won his fifth term, was neither a chairman nor a high-ranking minority member of a full committee. He said he saw this as his chance to sway the direction of a panel he has sat on for 22 years.
Members of both parties have viewed Mr. Durbin as an effective advocate for committee Democrats who rubbed themselves over the way Republicans have jammed with candidates in recent years.
“Believe me, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe I could do the job,” he said in an interview this week.
The supporters of Mr Durbin, who has a very liberal track record, noted that he had progressive goals on a number of issues.
“Senator Durbin has consistently formulated progressive values at the center of the Justice Committee, ranging from reviewing corporate power to arbitration and bankruptcy reforms to promoting fair elections and protecting whistleblowers and civil liberties,” said Daniel Schuman, Political Director of Demand progress.
Under Republican control since 2015, the committee has been the focus of this party’s quest to approve more than 220 Conservative federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices and 53 Appeal Court judges.
With that in mind, 65-year-old Whitehouse, who refused to be interviewed for this article, set out how a network of advocacy groups took money from undisclosed donors to help validate conservative judges who were potentially sympathetic to theirs Interests are considered.
During the confirmation hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett in October, Mr. Whitehouse devoted his first round of interrogation to the portrayal of his case, telling her that she needed to understand the “forces outside of this room that pull strings and stick sticks and cause the puppet theater to break down to react. “
His push has earned him support from the left, who believe the Democrats were not aggressive enough to challenge the Republicans through the judiciary. But you also see Mr Whitehouse, just elected into his third term, as someone who would bring a new perspective to the head of the committee.
“I think it takes some fresh air, fresh energy,” said Faiz Shakir, a former top Senate advisor and progressive activist who served as presidential campaign manager for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Mr Shakir said his support for Mr Whitehouse was not a personal complaint against Mr Durbin, but that the Rhode Island Democrat “earned credibility” for his work.
“Giving him the opportunity to chair a committee would be a good changing of the guard for the Senate Democrats, in my opinion,” Shakir said.
Mr. Durbin certified that Mr. Whitehouse did “an excellent job” in uncovering expenses related to judicial nominations.
“It’s an important issue and I’m glad he brought it up,” said Durbin, who was extremely critical of Republicans’ handling of confirmations and said he would do a reset if Democrats win a majority.
“There clearly has to be a balance between the courts,” he said. “Most Americans don’t look for all Democrats or Republicans.”
Mr Durbin said he believed the committee had deviated from its previous role as the powerhouse of the Senate and that he wanted to revive it. If he got the leadership seat, he would try to focus the committee on voting rights, executive oversight, antitrust efforts and combating liability immunity that are haunting Republicans following the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Durbin also noted his ability to work with Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who will serve as either the Republican Chief or the Panel Chair, particularly on a criminal justice overhaul that became law in 2018. Mr Durbin negotiated an agreement with Mr Grassley to reduce penalties for nonviolent offenders, despite own reservations and pressure from Iowan to drop the controversial provisions in order to move the rest of the legislation forward.
“Very few people thought we could pass conviction reform as part of Step One,” said Holly Harris, president of Justice Action Network, a non-partisan criminal justice reform organization. She credited Mr. Durbin for keeping the aspects of conviction alive: “Because of him, criminal justice reform has taken a first step rather than a shy stumble.”
Internal leadership elections are known to be difficult to hinder because legislators are reluctant to publicly commit to a secret decision. The elections will take place in the coming weeks before the new congress is convened early next year.
Senator Chuck Schumer from New York, the party chairman who has to bridge the gap in his caucus, has not yet said anything about whether he has a preference.
However, if all Senate Democrats can agree on one thing, they would prefer either Mr Durbin or Mr Whitehouse to chair the Judiciary Committee rather than serving as its senior Democrat, the position depending on the outcome in Georgia.
“We’re all in every way we can to help the two candidates down there,” said Durbin.
Catie Edmondson contributed to the coverage.