As Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer feud over the future of the Senate Democratic leadership, the senator who could gain the most from their split—Patty Murray—is deliberately staying out of it.
The battle between Schumer and Durbin, the two Democrats above Murray on the leadership roster, has led to speculation that Murray, a soft-spoken but influential force on the Hill, will assert herself as a potential contender for whip. But she has been silent on the subject.
Don't expect that to change anytime soon—certainly not while Schumer, the Democratic leader heir-apparent, and Durbin appear unsettled about the latter's fate. At issue is whether Schumer promised to support Durbin to be whip in the next Congress when the current minority leader, Harry Reid, retires, and Schumer takes his place. Durbin's aides say Schumer promised to support Durbin when Durbin agreed not to challenge him for leader. Schumer's aides say the New York senator made no such promise.
A source close to Murray said she has spoken with both Schumer and Durbin since Reid announced he would not run for reelection in 2016, but she has not taken a public side in their dispute.
Murray, now the conference secretary, has emerged as a strong candidate for a leadership promotion when Reid retires. Current and former Senate Democratic aides say she has the backing to assume a top position. With Durbin in the whip job, the natural choice for her would be No. 3, or conference chair, Schumer's current job. But she would also be a natural candidate for the whip job should it become available.
Murray's decision, either to run for whip or to support Durbin for the job, would carry a huge amount of weight in the caucus.
But Murray is not about to make statements about either position, reminding reporters in Seattle earlier this week that the election is almost two years away. "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," said her spokesman, Eli Zupnick, repeating statements he has made for several days.
Murray is an unlikely candidate to challenge a member of her own party for a leadership post that he or she wants. She is known and trusted among the caucus precisely because she is straightforward about her intentions and her positions.
It's a safe bet that she's not going to try to oust anyone from an internal Democratic post, because that simply isn't her style. Unlike some of her other colleagues in leadership, Murray is not the type to quietly plot an insurrection, particularly against a friend like Durbin.
But Murray won't rule it out either, aware that should the position come open later on, she will want to answer the call from her new leader, Schumer, as she has countless times before with Reid.
Murray's support within the Democratic caucus is deep. Having served two stints as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—a job no one wanted in 2012—Murray helped to elect about half of the Democratic members currently serving in the Senate.
And as chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee last Congress, Murray got done for Democrats what they had thought impossible: finding a deal with Rep. Paul Ryan and House Republicans to avoid harsh sequestration cuts for vital Democratic programs. During the harrowing budget talks in 2013 that led to the deal, Murray managed to balance the concerns of progressives nervous about giving too much to Republicans with the need to reach a deal with the GOP. Moderates in the party are especially appreciative of that.
With the DSCC job and the budget deal, Murray has built her reputation in the conference on being willing to step up and lead her fellow Democrats when others were unwilling to take a tough assignment.
That doesn't mean she won't take part in the conversations about how a Schumer-run Senate would go, and it doesn't mean she'll back away from a fight. She's just not going to create one. She is, after all, known as the "mom in tennis shoes" who turned the critique into a rallying cry when she ran for Senate in 1992.
For now, the brouhaha appears to be limited to Schumer and Durbin, although Murray has been dragged into the conversations by dint of having her name floated in the news day after day. There does not seem to be a major campaign brewing from either side to gin up support among other Democrats. Murray, for one, is focused on the upcoming budget conference that the House and Senate will have to sort out within just two days of returning to Washington on April 13.
No doubt members are talking, one aide said. But Several Democratic offices contacted by National Journal said their bosses were out of pocket and not responding to questions about the leadership struggle.
A source close to Schumer also said the senator isn't getting involved in any potential leadership races. For now, Durbin is running for the whip job unopposed, so he doesn't have to.