Durbin's Senate Is One of Personal Attacks

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).

That very 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.

Durbin’s 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.

The Senate’s 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.

There appeared 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 2003 ad.

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.

Earlier 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.

The Senate 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.

Durbin has 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.