State Journal-Register

May 24, 2001

Fortunes reversed for Illinoisans 


WASHINGTON - For Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, it was a fleeting taste of power.

The Illinois Republican is poised to lose two subcommittee chairmanships if Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., bolts the Republican Party, as expected.

But Fitzgerald's pain could be Sen. Dick Durbin's gain. The Springfield Democrat stands to gain two chairmanships.

Jeffords' jump would throw the leadership of the evenly divided Senate to the Democrats in a mid-year leadership switch never before seen in the history of that august body.

"I think that my influence in the Senate comes by virtue of my vote, which can't be taken away from me by anyone except the people of Illinois," Fitzgerald said.

"It's my vote which allows me to affect legislation, and that single vote will be just as critical in a 50-49-1 Senate as it is in a 50-50 Senate."

In late January, Fitzgerald was named chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee on marketing, inspection and product promotion as well as the Commerce subcommittee on consumer affairs, foreign commerce and tourism.

While at the helm of the consumer affairs subcommittee, Fitzgerald has drawn attention to shortfalls in the federal standards for children's car seats and booster seats.

He also brought together the country's leading experts on mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease to help calm consumers' concerns.

But Fitzgerald said he has worked closely with the senior Democrat on that subcommittee, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

"I will continue to work with Senator Dorgan and, while I won't be the chairman, I'm sure he'll let me hold hearings on topics of interest to me," Illinois' junior senator said.

Like Jeffords, Fitzgerald has often parted company with members of his party and says his independent streak will keep him in good stead.

"I've always walked an independent road, which means that in instances like this the ramifications are less striking. I'm accustomed to considering each issue on its merits apart from whether it represents the Republican or Democrat, the majority or minority view.

"I don't think that's likely to change," Fitzgerald said.

But he said he can't imagine ever switching parties.

"It's kind of like being divorced by a member of your family," Fitzgerald said. "I can't tell you now sad we all are."

But Durbin and other Democrats are almost gleeful.

Durbin will gain influence as part of the Democratic leadership team that stands ready to take the Senate reins.

Durbin is assistant Democratic floor leader and a member of the Democratic Steering and Coordination Committee that decides committee assignments.

Should the party switch occur, he said, "many of us have spoken about bipartisanship for many months, and now we'll put it to the test."

Durbin's clout as a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee will be solidified with his party in power.

He also is in line to chair the legislative appropriations subcommittee and the Government Affairs subcommittee that has oversight of the entire federal government.

Durbin said the realization of what Jeffords' decision would mean came during an afternoon meeting in which a group asked for a hearing on an issue.

"It suddenly dawned on me that I may be in the position to request a hearing as chairman of a subcommittee," Durbin said.

He and fellow Democrats have already discussed holding hearings on gasoline price spikes, which their Republican colleagues have refused to do.

"That just shows you how the world can change," Durbin said.