November 28, 2005
Dick Durbin's Senate
WASHINGTON -- On Nov. 16, as Congress raced to adjourn for Thanksgiving,
Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin found time to sit down
with Republican political activist C. Boyden Gray. It was unpleasant
for Gray, who followed with what looked like a pre-arranged letter
of apology to the senator. After that, Durbin was reported to
have lifted the "hold" blocking Gray's confirmation
as U.S. ambassador to the European Union (EU).
day, Durbin engaged in public confrontation with Republican Sen.
Ted Stevens, the Senate's president pro-tem. Durbin took the Senate
floor to accuse Stevens of making it easier for oil executives
to lie to Congress. When Stevens demanded an apology under the
rules, Durbin refused on grounds the rules did not apply.
I have been
watching the Senate for nearly 49 years, and there once was a
time when Durbin's busy Nov. 16 would have attracted attention.
But it went virtually unnoticed. The Senate has hardened, and
so has Dick Durbin. A career politician from downstate Illinois,
he always was partisan, but he was viewed as an amiable fellow
with a ready smile. Today, at 61, he leads the charge against
George W. Bush and Republicans, firing all weapons at hand.
opposition appears to be the reason Gray's nomination by President
Bush for the EU post has languished since July. Gray, a prominent
62-year-old Washington lawyer with distinguished public service,
including White House counsel in the elder George Bush's presidency,
was blocked by several senators from a vote in the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee. But Durbin's opposition was the key.
arcane procedures do not require a senator to reveal his hold
on a nomination, much less explain why. Durbin's opposition stems
from his leading role in fighting Bush judicial nominations and
Gray's chairmanship of the Committee for Justice (CFJ), an organization
pressing for their confirmation. In 2003, Durbin asserted the
views of William Pryor on separation of church and state disqualified
him as a U.S. appellate court nominee. The CFJ ran an ad saying
opposition to Pryor, a Catholic, sent a signal that "Catholics
need not apply." Durbin, a Catholic, took umbrage.
no way to get Gray confirmed until Durbin sat down with him Nov.
16. Neither side is describing what was said, but accounts have
leaked out that it was not pleasant. After it was over, Gray sent
-- by both fax and first-class mail -- a profuse apology for the
It was a
tough letter for a proud man to write, but Gray had no choice
if he wanted to get past Durbin's veto. The letter, which was
not given to me by Gray, said: "As I said to you, I did not
sufficiently appreciate the way in which the words used ["Catholics
need not apply"] evoked a very uncomfortable chapter in our
history." He added that "I deeply regret" the mistake.
Gray repeated, "At the risk of being repetitive, I want again
to say how truly sorry I am for the discomfort the CFJ ad has
caused you." Shortly thereafter, according to a Senate source,
Durbin lifted his hold.
that day, Durbin went on the Senate floor to attack Stevens for
enabling oil company executives to lie to the Senate Commerce
Committee by not putting them under oath. Stevens, renowned for
his temper, went to the floor to demand Durbin's apology under
Senate Rule 19, which prohibits senators from charging each other
with "unworthy" behavior.
parliamentarian ruled Durbin need not apologize because Stevens
was not on the floor to object when the statement was made. In
a somewhat gentler time, Durbin might have apologized to a 37-year
veteran of the Senate who is two decades his elder (Stevens celebrated
his 82nd birthday two days later, Nov. 18). But he did not apologize,
because that is not the way things are done in Dick Durbin's Senate.
been forced to back down on at least one occasion, when he compared
U.S. treatment of enemy combatants with history's worst genocidal
regimes. But he did not become the Senate's second-ranking Democrat
in eight years by avoiding personal attacks, either backstage
or in public.
2005 Creators Syndicate