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Interview with Dick Durbin

The other Illinois senator, the one who pushed Barack Obama into the ring, discusses this election year

    Early July was a momentous time for Dick Durbin, senior U.S. senator from Illinois. His good friend, Senator Ted Kennedy, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, returned to the Senate floor to a standing ovation and voted, along with 68 others, to pass H.R. 6331, the Medicare payments legislation that prevents a 10.6 percent cut in payments to physicians. Meanwhile, Durbin’s senatorial colleague from Illinois, Barack Obama, who he had advised to run for the presidency in 2006, was ahead in the national polls. Charlie Cook, of the respected Cook Political Report, was predicting even more House and Senate Democratic pickups in this fall’s election.
   One would think that Durbin, a two-term senator who easily cruised to victories in both of his races, could relax. Think again.
   Genial but intensely focused, Durbin still has a long list of legislative to-dos that he was eager to talk about. Indeed, the vote on H.R. 6331 was unique because it passed by such a large measure.
   “The problem we face,” says Durbin, “is that we only have 51 votes. We don’t have the 60 we need to prevent a filibuster, and the Republicans have broken the record for using filibustering in the last year. They’re determined to not let us pass significant bills, and only by having a larger margin in the Senate can we get legislation passed.”
   Durbin, who is predicting at least a five-seat pick-up in the Senate this fall and a Barack Obama presidency, isn’t through listing what he hopes his party will accomplish.
   “I told Barack when we sat down to talk about whether he should run for president that there were things we should think about focusing on, including the energy crisis, health care, global warming, fixing Social Security and bringing the troops home from Iraq, to name just a few,” says Durbin.  “I think there are eight to 10 major issues that the new president will need to address.  More than those individual issues, we also need to unwind some of the decisions George W. Bush has made. We need to start appointing more people who are centrists and who believe in government. Even Nixon put people in who believed in government. They may have been ideological, but they believed in government and wanted to make it work. Bush didn’t. [His administration] put in incompetent people.  I know Barack and I know he will bring great people into his administration.”
   Known as a progressive, Durbin cites the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon as one of his personal heroes. Durbin, practiced as an attorney, was of legal counsel to Simon from 1969 to 1972, when the late politician was lieutenant governor of Illinois.
   “We have a good team in Illinois,” says Durbin, mentioning U.S. Congressman Rahm Emanuel and Obama. “We had a good mentor in Simon, who prided himself on being fiscally conservative but for human rights. The last person Simon endorsed, from his hospital bed, was Obama.”
   “People in my state, once you sit down with them, are in agreement with progressive or liberal positions,” says Durbin, the majority whip of the Senate since 2007. “But liberalism has been given such a bad name that people have a knee jerk reaction to the term. There was a very effective effort made by the conservatives to try to say that liberals were respectful of basic American values, but I find that labels don’t work anymore. It finally fell apart a few years ago when the conservatives took their views to extremes with cases like Terry Schiavo.”
   Durbin cites Social Security as another vital issue.  When asked about Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s statement that the program that guarantees retirement benefits for the elderly was a “disgrace”, seeming to imply that younger workers shouldn’t have to fund Social Security, Durbin responds vehemently.
   “McCain just rejected the notion of Social Security,” says Durbin.  “He rejected that notion that I’m going to pay for my grandmother and grandfather’s Social Security.  And we need to reject McCain on that.”
   Durbin’s advocacy frequently garners awards.  This winter he was presented with the 2008 Water Advocate award for his work in promoting safe drinking water and sanitation in the developing world.
   “Access to safe drinking water is a right that everyone in the world ought to enjoy, but too few are able to realize,” Durbin said at the time. “Water access is no longer simply a global health and development issue; it is increasingly becoming a national security issue. The United States needs to do much more to ensure that global water access is protected and expanded.”
   The fine hand of Simon can be seen in Durbin’s stance. Simon worked for decades to increase access to safe drinking water, and his widow presented the award.
   Despite all the work that needs to be done, Durbin says he’s looking forward to the future now that the Democrats appear to be in the lead. “We are going to restore America’s dignity to the world,” he says.  “It was lost because of what the Bush administration did, but we will get it back.”

Published: August 09, 2008
Issue: Fall 2008 Politics Issue