Dick Durbin, left, and Chuck Schumer
Dick Durbin (left), Charles Schumer (right)


Dick Durbin’s office has responded angrily to published reports that the senior senator from Illinois is angling to become the Senate majority leader next year if the current leader, Harry Reid, loses his reelection bid this November.

Durbin’s spokesman, Joe Shoemaker, said the senator is working hard to make sure that Reid is reelected. Shoemaker denounced the “current parlor game” in Washington and its players for spewing “spurious motives and political garbage.”

Still, the talk continues, featuring a purported contest between Durbin, the majority whip and number two to Reid, and New York tough guy Charles Schumer, number three in the Senate hierarchy. One Washington observer says that the competition between the two Democrats is “the worst-kept secret in town.” Both are trying to operate discreetly, but insiders say the rivals are busily corralling votes by doling out campaign-fund cash and by maneuvering colleagues onto coveted committees.

Adding to the awkwardness is the fact that the ambitious senators share a rat’s nest of a Capitol Hill townhouse but are not particularly friendly, according to some accounts. Both are aggressive legislators. Schumer is more abrasive and centrist—he’ll make deals with Republicans to advance his agenda. Durbin is more popular with his Democratic colleagues, but hyperpartisan and less of a wheeler-dealer.

Durbin was one of Barack Obama’s first backers, and a Durbin ascendancy to majority leader would give Illinois a formidable one-two punch inside the Beltway. Schumer’s ties to the Obama administration are less direct—in the 2008 Democratic primary, he supported the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton. (Schumer’s office did not respond to inquiries.)

Handicapping a Durbin-Schumer face-off would be tough, even for members of the Senate. They vote for their leader by secret ballot. Larry Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says the senators often go into the balloting with a majority pledged to support them but lose anyhow. “Politicians are very good at fibbing to people’s faces,” Sabato explains. “The logical thing to do is to tell both candidates for majority leader that you’re for them.”

At the same time, people who know Harry Reid warn not to write him off. He has pulled close races out of his hat before, and although he currently trails both his GOP opponents by double digits, Reid could win a fifth term and stay majority leader if a Tea Party candidate joins the race and splits the Republican vote.


Photography: (Durbin) Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia, (Schumer) Newscom