For the first time in nearly a decade, Senate Democrats could see several new faces in their leadership.
With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid retiring, at least one slot will be open in 2016. But the intense infighting between Sen. Chuck Schumer, Reid's chosen successor, and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin could send a cascade of Democrats up the leadership ladder. The pool of Democrats eyeing promotions is led by Sen. Patty Murray and could also include Debbie Stabenow, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Coons, and a handful of other ambitious lawmakers.
The future of the party leadership—and the exact number of slots that will change hands—may come down to what exactly happened just off the Senate floor between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Friday.
As the Senate neared finishing up its work in an all-day vote-a-rama on the budget, Durbin pulled Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat, aside. Durbin had just heard from Reid, who wanted to have a meeting. The Illinois Democrat expected that he was about to learn of the leader's retirement and wanted Schumer to know he had his support for the top job. Durbin, at the time, had no idea that Schumer had already spoken to Reid—about six hours earlier.
"I think you've earned this," Durbin recalled telling Schumer, in an interview with The Washington Post the next morning.
The two spoke privately off of the Senate floor without any witnesses, a detail that would become immensely important to the relationship between the soon-to-be top two Democrats in the days to follow.
According to Durbin's office, at the same time that he offered his support to Schumer, the New York Democrat offered Durbin his support to stay on as whip. He'd be Schumer's top deputy.
"Senators Durbin and Schumer spoke off the Senate floor," Durbin spokesman Ben Marter said Tuesday. "The two leaders had an agreement to support one another: Schumer for leader and Durbin for whip. Then they shook hands. That's what a deal is."
But Schumer's team is now accusing them of lying. "That didn't happen," a source close to Schumer said. "And they know it."
The public dispute represents the widening of a rift that, as of Friday morning, had appeared to be healed. The Post reported that Schumer "grew emotional" at Durbin's offer to avoid a public fight for Reid's job that, Democratic sources say, has been all but over for years. The two former roommates, who went their separate ways when Rep. George Miller retired and sold the home the three lawmakers had lived in for more than two decades, have long been friends. But their sometimes conflicting personalities and leadership styles, not to mention the constant media interest in who would succeed Reid once he retired, had created a rift between the two.
Reid's growing closeness with Schumer, whom he often says he speaks to multiple times per day, did not help things. Though Reid told Schumer of his pending retirement announcement on Thursday evening around 8 p.m., he didn't connect with Durbin until about 11 a.m. Friday morning, long after Schumer and the No. 4 Democrat, Murray, had released public statements commending Reid for his nearly three decades serving in Congress.
The disagreement between Durbin and Schumer over what exactly happened early Friday morning was first aired in Politico on Monday in a piece speculating that Murray may challenge Durbin for the whip job. The story cited "several Democratic sources" encouraging her to move up in leadership and quoted Murray at an event with reporters in Seattle, on Monday "side-stepping" a question about whether she would run for another leadership job in 2016.
"Let me just say this: What everybody needs to understand is, this vote, this election, won't take place for a year and a half," Murray said. "Right now, we need to get a budget written and passed. We have a lot of work that we are focused on."
But the question asked of Murray was whether she would be "necessarily opposed" to running for another open leadership position. Schumer's job as the head of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee will, after all, be vacant come 2016 (though Stabenow, the current vice chair, may be interested in that position as well).
Murray could end the speculation about her interest in Durbin's job by endorsing the Illinois Democrat, as Reid did on Friday. But the senator from Washington has no desire to wade into a fight between the two Democrats above her in leadership—particularly, 22 months before the conference elections.
"Senator Murray is focused on her current job and isn't going to be speculating about other positions under Senator Schumer in leadership elections two years from now," Murray spokesman Eli Zupnick said Tuesday.
Durbin and Murray have spoken by phone this week about the whip's race, although the Illinois Democrat was in Berlin, Democratic aides said, but would not get into the specifics of their conversation. "They have discussed the matter," one aide said, of speculation that Murray would run for whip.
Both Durbin and Murray's camps have emphasized that the two are close friends. The whip is currently helping Murray in her reelection—after she pulled out a close victory in 2010—and sent out a fundraising appeal for her just on Monday.
Murray's distaste for coming between colleagues, particularly those she she considers friends, makes a Durbin-Murray leadership battle unlikely. But Murray has been careful not to rule any position in or out, particularly if one were to suddenly open up.
And that's where the bickering between the Durbin and Schumer camps comes back into play. Should the fighting continue, Durbin could decide that working alongside Schumer in leadership over the next two years is plenty, opening up the Ni. 2 slot for Murray.
Such a decision would fundamentally transform the Democratic leadership roster that has seen little change in the past eight years. In addition to Stabenow, several other Democrats have been floated as possible leadership candidates.
Warren could be one possibility. The progressive champion has said repeatedly she will not run for president, but she took a lower-tier job in leadership earlier this year, directly under Schumer's control. Warren was quick to endorse Schumer for leader this week, noting his support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in an interview with NPR. (Stabenow, it should be noted, heaped praise on Schumer in her own interview with Roll Call on Sunday.)
Other potential candidates for leadership include Coons, who considered a bid for chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year and is open to another bid to move up in leadership (he is currently the Democratic Steering Committee's chair of business outreach); Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been floated as a future presidential contender and will be coming off of her work for Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016; Amy Klobuchar, who joined leadership this year as the chairwoman of the Steering Committee and whose ambition is well-known to the conference; and Mark Warner, who could help bring the party's conservative members into the fold.
The DSCC chairmanship will be open again in 2016, as will Schumer's chairmanships of the DPCC and the Senate Rules Committee, Murray's job as conference secretary, and the lead Democratic slot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, now that Sen. Barbara Mikulski is retiring. Sen. Patrick Leahy is next in line for the Appropriations gavel, but he may decide to stay on the Judiciary Committee. That could leave a plum spot for senior Democrats who don't find their names on the leadership roster.
But Durbin is committed to running for whip. "He is planning to continue as whip. He's honored to serve the caucus for the next 22 months as whip and he'd be honored to continue," Marter said Tuesday.
Durbin spent Friday on the phone with members as they retreated from Washington to their home states for a two-week recess, earning commitments from colleagues to support him in the November leadership elections. As whip for the past decade, Durbin "knows where the votes are," an aide said.