Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) on Friday endorsed his rival, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), to become the next Senate Democratic leader, clearing the path for what is likely to be an easy transition in leadership when Sen. Harry Reid steps down from the job.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in leadership for the past decade, said he has decided to back Schumer for the top position and will instead seek reelection to his current post.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Durbin said that a 2 a.m. conversation with Reid, the Senate minority leader, led him to believe that the Nevada Democrat was about to announce his plan to retire at the end of 2016. As the Senate continued in its marathon budget debate, Durbin found Schumer and pulled him to the side of the chamber.
"I don't think Harry's going to run," he told Schumer, according to Durbin's account Friday. "I think you've earned this."
Schumer grew emotional as his longtime friend and roommate of 22 years endorsed his bid to succeed Reid, because their relationship had frayed in recent years as many Senate Democrats and party strategists watched their every move through the prism of the race to succeed Reid.
Instead of challenging Schumer, Durbin began making calls Friday morning to secure support for his current post, officially known as assistant minority leader but traditionally called minority whip. "It's my intent to run again," said Durbin, who has been second lieutenant since 2005.
Durbin's endorsement followed Reid's endorsement earlier Friday of Schumer, also in a Washington Post interview. With no other challenger in the mix, Schumer appears ready to sail to election to a job he has long sought despite anger among liberal activists who have said that the New Yorker has been too close to Wall Street.
The liberal group MoveOn highlighted Schumer's support for an Iran sanctions bill as a reason to block his ascension. “Supporting reckless legislation that undermines President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran and risks a dangerous, unnecessary war in the Middle East should disqualify anyone from leading the Senate Democratic caucus," the group said Friday in a statement.
Durbin acknowledged he has had differences with Schumer on some policy matters, but he said Schumer has handled well the "tough assignment" of representing Wall Street at a time during bailouts and economic crash while liberal activists pushed for the toughest regulations possible of the financial services industry.
"He's a pragmatist, and he listens closely to his caucus," Durbin said of Schumer. Reid made a similar point, that the rising state of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) should reassure liberals that their voices would be heard at the leadership table.
Some insiders have wondered whether Durbin would face a challenge for the whip post, with most waiting to see if Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), currently the No. 4 leader, would run against him.
Murray's aides remained quiet Friday. Durbin also spoke to Murray early Friday morning after his conversations with Reid and Schumer. Durbin and Murray are close friends.
There will also be an opening now for Schumer's spot as No. 3 leader, which could be a target for Murray.