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Sen. Durbin willing to give up subcommittee post as peace offering amid Democrats’ post-election infighting

Sen. Richard Durbin makes remarks while Sen. Dianne Feinstein watches during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in October.
Sen. Richard Durbin makes remarks while Sen. Dianne Feinstein watches during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in October. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Pool)

The second-ranking Senate Democrat threw his support behind a proposal that would force him to give up a powerful subcommittee post overseeing the Pentagon budget, a peace offering amid a heated internal reckoning after the caucus came up short of expectations in a fourth straight election.

The potential ascension of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Democratic whip for the past 16 years, to the top post on the Judiciary Committee — as chairman or ranking minority member, depending on the outcome of Georgia’s Jan. 5 Senate elections — set off a broader debate about the power accumulated by senior Democrats.

The issue has been smoldering for years, but has come to the fore as more junior Democrats grew irritated after another disappointing election left them still in the minority, at least for now, despite President-elect Joe Biden’s resounding margin of nearly 7 million votes in the national contest.

Durbin said he would support a proposal formally limiting how many top positions he would hold, limiting himself to just the whip post and the top Judiciary spot while giving up his slot as the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee, which controls the roughly $700 billion in annual funding for the military.

“I’ve supported it. It is a major concession,” Durbin said Thursday in an interview with The Washington Post.

The preliminary proposal, from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was first elected in 2012, would bar Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) from holding any other position of power at committees, and would then limit the whip to just one top position on a full committee or subcommittee.

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Durbin, 76, first elected in 1996, acknowledged the discontent among these younger senators who are into their second or third terms and, under current structures, would need another decade or more to grab positions of power on influential committees.

“They want more committee leadership to go down in the ranks and I think it’s a fair request,” he said, calling his action “personal and political sacrifice.”

That might not be enough sacrifice, as some Democrats are pushing a clutch of other proposals that would reduce the power that is largely ensconced among a small group of the most senior Democrats.

Just below Durbin in the ranks, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) hold elected leadership positions that come with staff budgets and some extra office space, while they also serve as the top Democrat on two full committees and on influential subcommittees.

Some have talked about expanding Kaine’s proposal to include at least those two leadership posts.

Others are aggressively pushing to install term limits on the top spot for committees, similar to the six-year limit Republicans impose on their chairmen.

This fight grew out of the decision by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 87, the oldest senator, to surrender her ranking member spot on the Judiciary Committee, which opened up the post for Durbin, based on the Democratic caucus’s strict adherence to seniority rules.

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But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), first elected in 2006, has made private calls to other senators to try to round up support to leapfrog the seniority line and claim the top spot at Judiciary.

Durbin and Whitehouse are staunch liberals with similar voting records, but Whitehouse has crafted a more fiery partisan demeanor as opposed to the modest Midwestern image Durbin has honed.

It’s a highly unusual battle for Senate Democrats, who have not held an actually contested race for a leadership post or a top committee slot in more than 25 years. Similar disputes have been quietly resolved behind the scenes without actual internal ballots being cast.

But many rank-and-file Democrats are ready to push that envelope and use the Durbin-Whitehouse battle to explore the bigger battles over seniority.

With no limits atop the panels, Senate Democrats can languish in the middle flank of the dais for decades. Despite serving 24 years in the Senate, Durbin is just now hitting the right seniority to be in line for a full committee gavel.

Whitehouse, 65, after 14 years in the Senate, is no higher than fourth in seniority on the four legislative committees that he serves — probably requiring at least another 10 years to reach the top spot on any of the panels, maybe longer, without any rules changes.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest serving senator, by contrast, has held a top committee position for 26 straight years, first at Judiciary and now at the Appropriations Committee.

Schumer has deputized Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a trusted operator by both generations of the caucus, to moderate the debate and assemble new rules proposals. The caucus is expected to have several conference calls discussing them, with votes possible as early as next week.