Durbin’s Rough Road

Majority Whip Hopes to Move Past Dark Days

Posted January 16, 2009 at 6:16pm

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) should have been spending the past few months reveling in the Democrats’ new Congressional majorities and the knowledge that the man he pushed to get into the presidential race would take over the White House. Instead, an intense family tragedy and a home-state political fiasco ended up clouding what should have been Durbin’s victory lap.

“It’s a couple of months nobody would wish on anyone else, for sure,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said.

After all, Durbin could claim, if he wanted to, the title of kingmaker after convincing Barack Obama to run for the presidency barely two years into his Senate tenure. Now Durbin has a direct line to the new president along with the good fortune of being the No. 2 Senate Democrat in a chamber enjoying a significant majority.

But all that seems to pale in comparison to the devastating loss of his eldest daughter just three days before the Nov. 4 elections. A married mother of one son, Chris Durbin died of complications from a congenital heart defect at age 40.

Even though he was up for re-election himself, Durbin suspended campaigning — as well as for Obama — in the final weeks of his daughter’s life, his office said. And rather than attending a raucous election night party with other Congressional Democratic leaders, Durbin was with his family, getting ready for a wake the next day.

A little over a month later came the breaking news that sent the political establishment in Illinois into a panic: Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich had been arrested on charges that, among other things, he tried to sell Obama’s vacant Senate seat for political favors. Though not on the scale of a death in the family, it would consume Durbin, the Senate and the media for several weeks.

The situation on Dec. 9 began as a curveball that Durbin primarily had to deal with on a public relations level, but a defiant Blagojevich placed the matter squarely in Durbin’s wheelhouse on Dec. 30 by naming former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to fill Obama’s seat. The surprise move set off an internal Senate leadership crisis over whether Burris’ appointment would be legal.

Nelson said Durbin has shown inner strength in the face of such adversity: “It’s pretty clear that he’s a very durable person. He has a strong faith, but a lot of other people couldn’t handle it.”

While Durbin declined to be interviewed for this story, he spoke with reporters at length about the distraction the Burris appointment created for him.

“It was awkward. It was painful, particularly for Sen. Reid and myself,” Durbin said last week. “To go from the glory of that November night when Barack Obama became president-elect of the United States to all of the difficulty that we’ve faced since, it was a long and tortuous path. But it ended well, and I’m looking forward to serving with Roland Burris.”

Burris was sworn in as the new Illinois Senator on Jan. 15 after weeks of wrangling over his certification and what Durbin called “painful” allegations that he and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were trying to deny an African-American a place in the chamber. With the imbroglio behind him, Durbin may finally be able to move on and bask in his newfound power and status in Congress and with the White House.

“Dick Durbin is probably Barack Obama’s closest friend in Washington, and he’ll have a new part-time job of facilitating things with the White House,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said.

Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker played down Durbin’s special status with the incoming administration, saying Obama will look to Reid as the decision-maker and will reach out to other leaders as well.

“The administration has a lot of people they rely on in leadership,” Shoemaker said. “Sen. Durbin has a personal relationship with the president-elect, and I think they’ll continue to talk. … But I don’t think it will circumvent the normal channels of communication between the White House and the Senate.”

As for his day-to-day duties in the Senate, Pryor said Durbin has largely kept his personal loss to himself and has not allowed the Burris controversy to affect his regular duties. Pryor said he’s been in several meetings with Durbin to talk about policy matters and that his difficulties with Blagojevich and Burris “doesn’t seem to phase him.”

For instance, one senior Senate Democratic aide said Durbin was heavily involved in “framing the strategy” on overcoming the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to an omnibus public lands bill, despite the fact that deliberations on Burris’ status and growing calls from both chambers for him to be seated were creating a massive media stir.

“I would argue with anyone who said that it has in any way, shape or form held him back,” the aide said, noting that Durbin on Thursday shuttled between a whip meeting to count votes for a Wall Street bailout measure and the welcoming reception for Burris after he was sworn in.

The aide added that even if Durbin had not had to face a death in the family or a home-state political scandal, he would have been unlikely to be among those Democrats patting themselves on the back for being a part of his party’s historic victories in November.

“He doesn’t strike me as the type of person who wants to bask in the glow of anything,” the aide said. “He’s always about what’s next.”

For all his struggles the past few months, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Durbin is persevering and pushing ahead for the most important of reasons.

“In reality, he’s doing it for his daughter,” she said.