Dick Durbin's Moment

The No. 2 Senate Democrat gets a chance to prove his chops.

Harry Reid's injury is giving Dick Durbin an unexpected audition to be the next Senate Democratic leader.

For the soft-spoken minority whip from Illinois, this may be his only true opportunity to show fellow Democrats what he can do and what a caucus under his leadership might look like. Democrats both inside and outside of Congress widely expect that Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, will leapfrog Durbin for Reid's job when the minority leader retires. But with Reid threatening to run for reelection in 2016, the line of succession isn't set in stone.

As Reid recuperates from his recent exercise injury, Durbin will steer his caucus through a contentious period this week, with Republicans planning to bring the Keystone XL pipeline to the floor under a completely open amendment process. The bill itself divides Senate Democrats, Durbin readily admits, some of whom don't even want to see it come to the floor, much less head to the president's desk as is expected. But with the potential for floor fights over conservative amendments offered by the new majority, Democrats will need a strong hand at the wheel.

That's what Durbin hopes to provide. Durbin said that he will give members the space they need to introduce and vote on amendments as they please, putting the onus on new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to wrangle members in what some Republicans—Durbin noted pointedly—have said could be a weeks-long amendment process.

Durbin views himself as the happy stand-in, telling National Journal in an interview that he is stepping up to the plate because "Harry asked me to do it." Asked whether he views himself as merely as a stand-in for Reid or will take advantage of having the reins as well, Durbin said, "I'm going to do what is best for the caucus."

Durbin does not, he emphasized, view this as a trial run for Democratic leader. He is "happy to serve as whip," he said, but would not speculate about Reid's eventual retirement or his position in the Senate once that happens. "I'm not going to get into that."

Just reelected to his fourth term, Durbin is more than up to the job, said one longtime Senate aide who called Durbin "one of the most skilled debaters we have." The open-amendment process this week, in particular, is going to require a "skilled hand," and Democrats will find that in Durbin, the aide said.

But Schumer is also no slouch on the legislative front, and he has the trust of his colleagues to go head-to-head with McConnell and the new majority. The difference, according to the aide: "Sen. Schumer's forte for years has been more tactical and not managing bills."

Although Durbin has taken over on the floor as the top Democrat, there is a sense that Reid is still very much calling the shots. In opening the 114th Congress, Durbin offered brief remarks needling Republicans, before reading an opening statement from the minority leader.

Schumer also has not said explicitly that he's interested in taking over for Reid, when the current leader retires. But it's an open secret on Capitol Hill that he is interested in the job and, barring any drastic changes or moves within the Democratic conference, members and aides believe he will get it.

Although he's kept quiet about his future plans, at least publicly, Schumer has certainly set himself up for the job. He is a close confidant of Reid's and the two speak several times per day. That has not changed since Reid's doctors ordered him to stay at home and recuperate this week.

Schumer's work on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2004 and 2012 led to 14 pickups for Democrats and he has stuck fiercely by those members. Even as a member of leadership, Schumer has held on to his chairmanship of the Senate Rules Committee, where he doles out plum office assignments to members. All have helped Schumer collect chits for a future leadership bid, should he choose to pursue one.

Durbin, meanwhile, has taken a much quieter path. The whip has the respect of the Democratic conference and has more than proven himself as a capable legislator and whip, but has been much less aggressive in jockeying for a promotion. Although Durbin is at the helm, Schumer led last week's conference luncheon, the only meeting of the entire Democratic Caucus so far this Congress.

Asked whether he's given up interest in the number one leadership spot, Durbin quipped: "That assumes I was ever interested in it."

This week is a "good opportunity" for Durbin "to show the caucus he has what it takes," the aide said. "I don't think it changes anything. The next leader, given what Reid does, is going to be Chuck Schumer."