Dick Durbin is now at the center of a Supreme Court confirmation fight. Allies say he's more than ready
WASHINGTON – Just inside the entryway of Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin’s Capitol Hill office hangs a framed whip scorpion, an imposing arachnid found in parts of the southern U.S. that uses its spiny appendages to whip both prey and potential mates to sense its surrounding environment.
The specimen, on loan from The Field Museum in Chicago, is a longstanding reminder of Durbin’s role as Democratic whip, the party's No. 2 in the Senate tasked with anticipating his colleagues' moves – both friend and foe alike. It's a role he's played for more than 15 years and one he'll channel as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the upcoming battle to confirm President Joe Biden's Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is poised to become the first Black woman on the high court.
But the bruising process won't be easy. Recent Supreme Court confirmations have been marked by toxic partisan fights spanning from the GOP race to seat Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the weeks before the 2020 election – and after Republicans blocked President Barack Obama's pick for eight months before the 2016 election – to the emotionally charged confirmation process of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
While Biden's pick won't change the high court's 6-3 conservative tilt, polarizing issues on the docket like abortion rights and affirmative action as well as GOP senators with an eye on the 2024 presidential election are likely to set up an acrimonious battle. The fight will require a sharp tactician like Durbin to score a much-needed win for Biden and vulnerable Democrats bracing for an uphill battle in November's midterm elections.
The 77-year-old Democrat, who has served nearly four decades in Congress, may be just the person to steer a smoother process as the Biden administration juggles a once-in-a-generation war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and record high inflation that has chipped away at the president's domestic standing. Senators on both sides of the aisle told USA TODAY they're encouraged Durbin will be the one holding the gavel when proceedings get underway, a high-stakes political process that will finally give a steady hand his turn in the spotlight.
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The president has emphasized his preference for a bipartisan vote on Brown Jackson's historic nomination, a move that Democrats including Durbin argue could temper public frustration with partisan gridlock in Congress and ease concerns about the Supreme Court as a political institution.
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"I think it is a good thing for the Senate, for the Supreme Court, if we have bipartisan support. That's my goal," Durbin told USA TODAY in his office in February, a suite of rooms previously occupied by former Senate Majority Leader and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. "And some may try to take advantage of that – drag it out – I'm not going to let that happen."
Senate Democrats are aiming to fast-track Brown Jackson's confirmation process at nearly the pace of Barrett, who was seated less than a month after being nominated. The Judiciary chairman said he'd like to see her confirmed in an "expedited way" by April 8, when Congress leaves for a two-week Easter break.
"We don't know what's going to happen in the world," he said. "I want to really focus on getting this to the finish line.”
'I'm the designated driver'
The late Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas, a champion of civil rights, recalled hiring "selected college students as apprentices in politics" in his autobiography, "In the Fullness of Time." Among those hired hands was Durbin, a Georgetown University student who helped the liberal senator respond to letters from constituents, paving a path into politics that would culminate with holding his onetime boss's Senate seat.
After graduating from law school in 1969, Durbin served as legal counsel for Lt. Gov. Paul Simon, another prominent Illinois Democrat who succeeded Douglas in the Senate and shaped his progressive thinking and polite, Midwestern approach. Durbin became parliamentarian for the Illinois Senate before serving in the U.S. House in 1982 and later won the U.S. Senate seat that belonged to both his mentors in 1996.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a longtime friend, recalled Durbin asking to be seated on the powerful Judiciary and Appropriations committees after his Senate arrival, an unusual request for a freshman. But Durbin got his wish and the assignments helped catapult him into the party's leadership.
"He became one of my key members of my leadership team and I can say without fear of contradiction or equivocation that there was nobody more supportive and more loyal," Daschle said. "I knew we had a rising star early on as a result of those efforts and those qualities, but it's something that I think about all these years later."
Durbin said while he avoided the Judiciary Committee in the House he "wanted to be part of that debate" in the Senate.
"Educate myself and maybe have some influence on the outcome," he added.
But Durbin, who often joked about being "the other senator from Illinois" as future president Barack Obama grabbed headlines in the runup to the 2008 election, was more defined by his Midwestern style than his ascension in politics, according to aides and allies.
One of the more notable moments underscoring that dynamic was his 2015 tussle with Sen. Chuck Schumer, his onetime roommate in a Capitol Hill townhouse, to succeed Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as the Democratic leader in 2015.
Schumer ultimately leap-frogged Durbin for the job, but the episode illuminated the contrast between the former roommates and their political ambitions as they rose through the Democratic ranks. Durbin, a soft-spoken, East St. Louis native, emphasized quiet determination in cementing his role as the party's No. 2 while Schumer made his leadership intentions clear through his bombastic, Brooklyn approach.
Former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, a longtime Durbin friend and daughter of his mentor Paul Simon, said Durbin's "steady influence" is what makes him equipped to lead Biden's Supreme Court battle in an evenly split Senate, which provides little room for error.
She recalled listening to Durbin field questions about his presidential ambitions, a bid her own father unsuccessfully pursued.
"He said, 'All the Democrats in the Senate consider themselves to be of presidential timber and I'm the designated driver,'" Simon said. "He's not someone who keeps a record sheet of when he's been in the limelight. I think the record sheet he keeps track of is what does he get done."
A quest for bipartisanship
Durbin wasn't always the centrist he's credited to be in today's partisan climate. He was ranked the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007 by the National Journal, a title he earned while Obama held the other Illinois Senate seat.
He's spent his career championing the DREAM Act to obtain legal status for young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and he faced Republican blowback for remarks he made on the Senate floor in 2005 comparing the mistreatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to methods used by Nazis, Soviets and other totalitarian regimes.
Daschle recalled an old Washington maxim that those who serve in Congress either swell or grow.
"I think Dick Durbin has grown. He's grown as a legislator, he's grown as a leader and he's grown as a policymaker," he said. "I've always believed that compromise is the oxygen of democracy and Dick Durbin understands that oxygen as well or better than anybody else in the Senate."
The Illinois Democrat has been through seven Supreme Court nomination fights during his tenure on the Judiciary Committee, a powerful perch that's allowed him to see what works and what doesn't but also to acquire decades worth of knowledge about both his Democratic and Republican colleagues.
And he's cultivated those bipartisan skills on battles ranging from immigration to the First Step Act, a Trump-era law aimed at reducing prison sentences.
Durbin's efforts appear to be paying dividends, at least in the initial phase of the confirmation process. Several Republican senators told USA TODAY that they had heard from the chairman within hours of Breyer's retirement announcement and, more importantly, that they trusted him to run a fair hearing.
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Asked to describe his relationship with Durbin, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, responded with a single word: "perfect."
"It's pretty simple," Grassley said. Durbin "told me there wouldn’t be any surprises. How much more coordination do you need at this point?"
Senior Republicans have downplayed speculation about whether committee members might boycott a vote on the nominee, a tactic the GOP has used to stall some of Biden's other nominees. Grassley said party leaders would do their due diligence but said they aren't interested in a "spectacle."
Still, the history and the current political dynamic in the Senate is treacherous. Because Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote, control the Senate by the most narrow of margins, Durbin's committee is evenly split between members of both parties. And even nominees who appear relatively uncontroversial at the outset can lead to explosive fights in the Senate.
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Kavanaugh had received a steady clip of outside bipartisan support when President Donald Trump nominated him in 2018, but his confirmation was nearly derailed by decades-old allegations of sexual assault – which he denied – and a messy partisan fight that followed. Barrett's nomination two years later was rushed through the Senate to ensure she could be confirmed before the 2020 election, after Republicans refused to vote on Obama's nominee for most of 2016.
Republican senators said Durbin has built up a reservoir of trust – and that may help him overcome unforeseen challenges.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a centrist who has supported some of Biden's judicial nominations in the past, said Durbin called her soon after Breyer's announcement. He assured her she would have the ability to meet with the nominee and review documents collected by the committee.
"I believe, knowing Dick as well as I do, that he will preside in a dignified, fair way over the hearing," Collins said. "We’ve had some very contentious hearings over the past few years and so that’ll be welcome."
But holding to the chairman's 40-day timeline raises questions about how long Democrats should court Republican votes, said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked as a top aide to Reid.
"At some point the process is going to be hijacked by outside groups or Republicans who are thinking about running for president the next time around who want to make a scene," he said. "On the one hand, very few senators have been through as many confirmation battles as Sen. Durbin has but on the other hand, he's never handled one as chairman so it's going to be somewhat of a challenge for him."
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Durbin conceded the 2024 election could complicate the effort. Several Republicans on the Judiciary committee are potential candidates and the high-profile nature of the confirmation hearing often lends itself to political theatrics.
"Some would prefer we fail at everything and I have to give them their allotted time under the committee rules and try to find others who look more positive," he said.
GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are all viewed as potential presidential contenders and have used committee hearings to attack Biden. Cruz called Biden's decision to only consider a Black woman for the high court "offensive," a criticism echoed by a small number of other conservatives.
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But Democrats' razor-thin majority is not lost on Durbin, which is why he's balancing a desire to seek out some GOP support with the party's anxiety to confirm Brown Jackson as quickly as possible.
"It's a fragile majority," he said after pulling a detailed chart from a folder that showed how many days it took to confirm other Supreme Court nominees. "We're a heartbeat away from minority status. Republicans are a heartbeat away from giving us an advantage."