Springfield Journal Register

 January 14, 2007

All in a Day's Work

Since becoming the Senate's No. 2, Durbin is a man on the run

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 Senate floor.

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.

10:05 a.m.

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 Democrat.

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 strategy.

"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 me."

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 returned.

11:20 a.m.

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, including WICS-TV.

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 office.

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 Senate chamber.

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 week.

"I just asked him to let us do this bipartisan resolution first," Durbin said. "There's division in the caucus on his approach."

12:35 p.m.

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 hopeful."

He takes a break for lunch, but spends part of the time returning reporters' phone calls and makes another trip to the Senate floor.

1:55 p.m.

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 would help.

"The president, I thought, today was less confident than he has been in the past," Durbin said.

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 right way."

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 Supreme Court.

9:25 p.m.

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," Durbin says.

He then calls it a night and heads home about 10:30 p.m.


Dori Meinert can be reached at (202)737-7686 or dori.meinert@copleydc.com.