WASHINGTON - At 9:40 a.m., Sen. Dick Durbin is
on the Senate floor railing about President
Bush's plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.
The Illinois Democrat has been up since 5 a.m.
and has already been to the Senate gym and
watched a 25-minute BBC-TV segment recommended
by a U.S. soldier in Iraq.
Later, he gets a surprise visit by embattled
Tour de France winner Floyd Landis. He'll
squeeze in six interviews with Illinois
television stations and meet with Sen. Ted
Kennedy, D-Mass., about Iraq - all the while
monitoring the ethics reform debate on the
Then, he's off to the White House to meet
with Bush, then to dinner at the Supreme Court
and back to the Capitol to give the Democratic
response to the president's Iraq speech.
But nowadays, it's all in a day's work for
Durbin, the Senate's new assistant majority
leader and Democratic whip, who owes his
newfound clout to the voter revolt in November
that gave Democrats control of Congress.
After his floor speech, Durbin walks up one
flight of stairs in the U.S. Capitol to his
third-floor office, a choice piece of real
estate with a view of the Washington Monument.
He moved into the ornate, five-room suite two
years ago, when he became the Senate's No. 2
The place is bustling. Durbin welcomes three
new interns, and Landis and his entourage have
dropped in to ask for Durbin's help.
Landis could be stripped of his Tour de
France title if charges that he took
testosterone to enhance his performance are
upheld. Landis tells Durbin he is "looking for
someone to look at the system," which he says
presumes athletes are guilty. Durbin asks a few
polite questions about the status of Landis's
case before an aide says the senator has a call
he needs to take.
Amtrak President Alex Kummant is on the line,
seeking a funding increase.
Although an Amtrak supporter, Durbin has to
explain to Kummant - as he no doubt will to many
others over the next few months - that funding
levels are frozen at the same levels this year.
And next year isn't looking so good either, with
the war costs and the spiraling federal deficit.
An 11 a.m. meeting has been postponed, so
Durbin has some time to talk about his first few
days in the new Democrat-controlled Congress.
The pace has "stepped up a notch because now
we're in charge," Durbin said. "So we can't just
react to Republicans' initiatives. We have to
take the initiative. That means planning ahead."
As Democratic whip, Durbin is second in
command to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Durbin's job is to round up and count votes and
to help fashion his party's legislative
"I spend most of my day going up and down the
staircase," said Durbin, referring to the path
he takes to the Senate floor and Reid's office
one floor below. "Things are constantly changing
and everything depends on the latest
conversations between Harry and Mitch"
McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky.
The Democrats' 51-49 majority means every
vote counts. During this first full week of the
new Congress, Reid is establishing what Durbin
calls "his manner of his rule." Reid's pledge to
run the Senate more efficiently caused several
senators, including 89-year-old Sen. Robert
Byrd, D-W. Va., to miss votes when they didn't
make it to the Senate floor in the 15 minutes
that were allotted.
"He's in the process of defining himself as
leader," Durbin said. "I'm part of that process,
because when people are unhappy they come to
In addition to his whip responsibilities,
Durbin will chair two subcommittees of the
Appropriations and Judiciary committees, which
he acknowledges will be tough to balance with
his floor duties.
He'll also have to balance state and national
issues. But Durbin, a Springfield resident, said
his leadership role helps Illinois.
"The leadership position gives me good access
to some of the decision makers in the
administration," Durbin said.
In other words, he expects to get more calls
After another quick check on Senate floor
developments, Durbin takes the elevator down to
the Senate recording studio in the basement of
the U.S. Capitol. There he's scheduled to do six
interviews with Illinois television stations,
In addition to two aides, he's accompanied by
a non-uniformed U.S. Capitol Police officer, who
escorts Durbin everywhere he goes outside his
As Durbin sits down in front of the
made-for-TV backdrop of a bookcase and U.S.
flag, a technician pins a microphone on his
lapel. Durbin's policy director, Tom Faletti,
catches up with him to report on how certain
senators are lining up on ethics reform
amendments. Throughout the day, Durbin gets
updates on his Blackberry from two staffers on
the Senate floor.
Then, the camera operator gives him a
countdown. Three, two, one ...
For the next 30 minutes, Durbin will answer
the same questions over and over about his views
of Bush's plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq.
He varies his words, but the message stays the
same: "Escalating the war in Iraq by sending
another 20,000 troops is a mistake."
On the way back upstairs, an aide informs
Durbin that Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has asked
for a meeting. Durbin disappears behind the
frosted glass swinging doors marked "United
States Senate" into the private hallway off the
Kennedy is pushing for a vote on legislation
he introduced to deny President Bush the funding
to send additional troops until Congress gives
its approval. Reid and Durbin prefer to offer a
vote on a nonbinding resolution opposing the
troop increase, a vote expected to occur next
"I just asked him to let us do this
bipartisan resolution first," Durbin said.
"There's division in the caucus on his
When Durbin emerges from the Senate floor,
he's running late for a videoconference with a
group of about 50 public-health professionals
and veterinarians attending a conference at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The
conference participants are discussing the need
for a unified effort to monitor animal diseases
to prevent their spread to humans.
Durbin has long been active on food safety
issues, and he expresses a desire to help. But
he warns them that "the budget situation is not
He takes a break for lunch, but spends part
of the time returning reporters' phone calls and
makes another trip to the Senate floor.
For the first time today, Durbin leaves the
Capitol to step into his government-issued
Chevrolet Suburban - another perk of the
leadership position - which is driven by another
U.S. Capitol Police officer.
He's whisked off to the White House, where he
and other congressional leaders are to meet with
Bush about Iraq. A parade of similar shiny black
vehicles moves smoothly through the White House
gate to drop off their passengers.
About an hour later, Durbin exits with Reid,
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, House
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and
House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South
Carolina. Braving a brisk wind, the Democratic
leaders stand at a microphone to take questions.
Reid and Pelosi do all the talking.
Riding back to the Capitol, Durbin says
President Bush bristled when Durbin told the
president he didn't see how increasing troops
"The president, I thought, today was less
confident than he has been in the past," Durbin
Despite their policy differences, Durbin said
he and Bush left on good terms.
"I am not optimistic. But I said as we
parted, 'You know, Mr. President, I hope you're
right. I hope this works and works well,"'
Durbin said. "I mean it. Even though I'm
skeptical and would not do it this way and think
it's a mistake, I hope he turns out right.
"He really carries a heavy burden. I respect
him very much," Durbin said. "I respect the
presidency and his efforts to do things the
Later, Durbin meets with fellow Illinois Sen.
Barack Obama to brainstorm on Illinois issues,
as they try to do about twice a month, and he
drops in at a congressional dinner at the
Durbin heads to the Senate radio-TV
reporters' gallery to give the official
Democratic response to the president's televised
speech on Iraq. He faces nine cameras and 12
print reporters. "Escalation of this war is not
the change the American people called for in the
last election," Durbin says.
In response to reporters' questions, he
acknowledges that Congress has little power to
stop the president from sending more troops,
other than political pressure.
"What we're talking about now is bringing
Congress into the debate, the American debate,
about what's going to happen next in Iraq,"
He then calls it a night and heads home about
Dori Meinert can be reached at (202)737-7686