WASHINGTON – As soon as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois officially learned on Monday that there would be a Democratic overture at the top of the judicial commission, he telephoned his colleagues to try to convince their support for the post.
“Never take anything for granted,” Durbin said of her candidacy to replace Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who stepped down as a senior Democrat from the panel under intense pressure from progressive activists who judged her insufficiently aggressive for the job. “I have participated in these competitions before.”
A Democratic colleague 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 insisted on putting Ms Feinstein aside said they would support him.
The competition set up a rare internal power struggle that mirrored wider differences between Democrats over their party’s leadership and approach in a new Congress. As they sort through the election results, which gave them control of the White House but left their hopes of taking the Senate in abeyance, some are pushing for a new, more combative style and a generational change.
Depending on the results of two Senate rounds in Georgia in January, whoever wins the battle for the post will be either the panel chairman or the leading Democrat, with a crucial role to play in a panel that Republicans have turned into confirmation. judicial. Assembly line.
Mr. Durbin is next behind Ms. Feinstein on the committee, and Democrats generally adhere to seniority when filling such positions. The tension in this case stems in part from the fact that Mr. Durbin is already Leader No.2 and holds a major subcommittee chair on the supply board, which controls federal spending. For some, he tries to accumulate power, potentially to the detriment of his own efficiency in one or the other job.
“In the end, it won’t come down to political considerations,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice and a supporter of Mr. Whitehouse. “It’s going to be whether the caucus thinks a leadership position and first place on a major committee are too important for a single member to hold simultaneously.
Mr Durbin said it was common for Senate leaders to take a prominent position on a committee, and his office noted that the whip, the second-rank official, had done so regularly in the past. First elected to the Senate in 1996, Mr. Durbin, 76, who has just won his fifth term, has never been chairman or a major minority member of a Committee of the Whole. He said he saw this as his chance to influence the direction of a panel he served on for 22 years.
Members of both parties viewed Mr. Durbin as an effective advocate for committee Democrats who were angered at the way Republicans have blocked candidates in recent years.
“Believe me, I wouldn’t take this if I didn’t think I could do the job,” he said in an interview this week.
Supporters of Mr. Durbin, who has his own decidedly liberal record, noted his pursuit of progressive goals on a range of issues.
“Senator Durbin has consistently articulated progressive values at the heart of the Judiciary Committee’s mission, ranging from corporate empowerment to arbitration and bankruptcy reform, to promoting fair elections and whistleblower protection and civil liberties, ”said Daniel Schuman, director of policy at Demand Progress.
Under Republican control since 2015, the committee has been the focal point of that party’s drive to uphold more than 220 conservative federal judges, including three Supreme Court judges and 53 appeals court judges.
In this context, Mr Whitehouse, 65, who declined to be interviewed for this article, explained how a network of advocacy groups took money from undisclosed donors to support the confirmation of Tory judges who are considered potentially sensitive to their interests. .
At Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing in October, Mr. Whitehouse devoted her first round of questioning to laying out her case and telling her that she needed to understand the “forces outside of this room.” who pull strings and push sticks and the puppet theater to react.
His push has brought him the backing of those on the left who believe Democrats haven’t been aggressive enough to challenge Republicans over justice. But they also see Mr. Whitehouse, who has just been elected for his third term, as someone who would bring a new perspective to the top of the committee.
“I think it takes a bit of fresh air, a new energy,” said Faiz Shakir, a former senior Senate adviser and progressive activist who served as presidential campaign director for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Mr Shakir said his support for Mr Whitehouse was not a personal complaint against Mr Durbin, but that the Democrat of Rhode Island had “gained credibility” through his work.
“Giving him the opportunity to lead a committee, I think, would be a good change of guard for the Democrats in the Senate,” Shakir said.
Mr. Durbin credited Mr. Whitehouse with a “great job” in outlining the expenses related to judicial appointments.
“This is an important question, and I’m glad he brings it up,” said Durbin, who has been very critical of the Republican treatment of confirmations and said he would pursue a reset if Democrats won a majority. .
“There clearly has to be a balance between the courts,” he said. “Most Americans aren’t looking for all Democrats or all Republicans.”
Mr Durbin said he believed the committee had drifted from its old role as a driving force of the Senate and wanted to reinvigorate it. If he had the place of leader, he said, he would try to refocus the committee on voting rights, executive branch oversight, antitrust efforts and the immunity from opposite liability that Republicans pursue to the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Durbin also highlighted his ability to work with Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who will either be the main Republican or the chairman of the panel, particularly on a criminal justice overhaul that has become law in 2018. Mr Durbin negotiated a deal with Mr Grassley on reduced sentences for non-violent offenders despite Iowan’s own reservations and pressure to drop the contentious provisions to advance the rest of the law.
“Very few people thought we could pass sentencing reform as part of First Step,” said Holly Harris, president of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization. She credited Mr. Durbin with keeping aspects of sentencing alive: “Through him, criminal justice reform was a first step rather than a timid stumbling block.”
House leadership elections are notoriously difficult to cripple, as lawmakers are reluctant to publicly commit to a decision taken in secret. The election will take place in the coming weeks, before the convening of the new Congress early next year.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the leader of the party that must overcome the divide in his caucus, has so far said nothing about whether he has a preference.
But if there’s one thing all Senate Democrats can agree on, it’s that they would much prefer Mr. Durbin or Mr. Whitehouse to chair the Judiciary Committee rather than make him the Principal Democrat. , the position depending on the result in Georgia. .
“We are all stepping in in every way imaginable to help the two candidates over there,” Durbin said.
Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.