Schumer vs. Durbin: An Early Fight to Replace Harry Reid

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Jim Young / Reuters / Corbis

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, center, is flanked by Senator Charles Schumer, left, and Senator Dick Durbin at a press conference on Capitol Hill

Update Appended: March 11, 2010

No one remembers exactly when they started, but there is no doubt that the campaigns for Senate majority leader are raging on Capitol Hill. They have not been formally declared, of course, and for good reason — the position is still filled. But as Harry Reid's November re-election has looked increasingly imperiled, his two top deputies in the Senate have become more overt in their quests for his job. And in a Senate that is already near paralyzed by partisan rancor, the two Democrats' maneuverings are threatening to further gum up the works.

Both Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York say they firmly believe Reid will be re-elected, but for several months the No. 2 and 3 Democrats in the Senate have been trying to one up each other in wooing their colleagues. Schumer's speeches to the Democratic caucus are filled with shout-outs to all those whose hard work he appreciates. Durbin lavishes praise on a long list of contributing Senators on his bills. They both are racing from issue to issue — health care, jobs, filibusters — trying to position themselves as the next leader for the party. "It certainly is premature," says a Democratic Senator, who asked not to be identified. "We need to be all hands on deck, with one focus: keeping this majority and passing legislation that's critical for the country. Anything else is a distraction that is undesirable and unnecessary."

The first time leadership aides noticed something was amiss was during the health care debate last November, when Schumer made some notable overtures to the progressive wing of the party. He'd previously taken flack from progressives for his championing of Kirsten Gillibrand, a moderate Dem from upstate New York who was appointed to Hillary Clinton's seat. Just after Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus passed a bipartisan health reform bill out of his committee, Schumer demanded that the public option — a liberal provision that provided government competition to private insurers — be put back in. Reid initially bowed to Schumer's pressure but weeks later had to drop the provision in order to secure all 60 Democratic votes to overcome a Republican filibuster threat. That delay would come back to haunt the Democrats after the New Year, when Scott Brown's surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate race cost them their critical 60th vote. Even last month, Schumer joined 23 progressives in signing a public letter to Reid asking that the public option be put back in the bill during reconciliation, the parliamentary procedure that the party hopes to use to pass reform by a simple majority vote. "Either way, Schumer came out smelling like roses: if it goes down, he's the progressive champion; if it passes, he's the one who got the public option in," says a Senate aide. "It's typical Schumer — he doesn't care about collateral damage; he only cares about self-aggrandizement."

While Schumer was tied up on health care, Reid asked Durbin in early November to craft a jobs bill. For months Durbin polled members and committee chairs, compiling the best ideas. But throughout his career, Durbin has been viewed as more of a policy wonk than a legislative tactician — there's a perception, Democratic aides say, that he tends not to follow up on the requests his fellow Senators make. And Schumer didn't help matters, lobbying against Durbin's liberal $82 billion bill by saying there weren't the votes to pass it.

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