Dick Durbin: The Debater

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DAVID BURNETT / CONTACT FOR TIME

Senator Dick Durbin, Illinois.

Even though the senate is occasionally dubbed the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, actual debate on the Senate floor rarely happens: members just read prepared speeches written by aides and then return to their offices. Then there's Dick Durbin. On issues from immigration reform to judicial nominees, the Illinois Democrat frequently engages in public back and forth with his Senate colleagues in hearings and before votes—and rarely uses notes to do it. "I can't do it any other way," says Durbin of his off-the-cuff style. "That's me." And while the debates don't often change the votes of other members, Durbin's tough questioning of his colleagues and his willingness to defend his own proposals clarify and distill complicated issues for the C-SPAN-viewing public. Occasionally, Durbin's arguments even carry the day, as when he won support on the Senate Judiciary Committee for a provision in an immigration bill that would protect church groups and others from prosecution if they aided illegal immigrants.

Of course, speaking extemporaneously has its risks, which Durbin learned last fall after he was forced to apologize for comparing alleged abuse of prisoners by American troops at Guantanamo Bay to techniques used by the Nazis, the Soviets and the Khmer Rouge. And some Republicans complain Durbin is too strident in his role as assistant leader of Senate Democrats, constantly on the attack against Republicans and President Bush. But Durbin, 61, has a bipartisan side. He has joined with Senator Rick Santorum, a staunch Republican from Pennsylvania, to push the U.S. government to give $866 million in additional funds for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Early this year, he helped broker a compromise between Democrats and Republicans to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, working on a provision that will keep libraries from having to hand over information about users without an order from a judge.

And if he can't reach a compromise behind the scenes, Durbin is happy to return to the open well of the Senate. "I really enjoy debate," he says. "The battle of ideas is what it should be about."