Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Blogger Breakfast with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)

Today I had the privilege of attending a blogger meeting with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois--you know, because I'm one of those elite bloggers everyone keeps talking about :-)

In all seriousness though...also in attendance was thereisnospoon, occams hatchet, dday, Mark Kleiman of samefacts.com, Desi Doyen of Bradblog.com, and a blogger from Martini Republic. Am I forgetting anyone? Let me know.

For an hour-long conversation, we actually managed to cover a range of topics that I considered fairly broad. I took a bunch of notes and will do my best to convey a sense of Senator Durbin's ideas about where the Democratic Senate should proceed from this point forward.

First, a few introductory impressions.

Senator Durbin comes off as polite, down-to-earth and quite affable. I guess you kind of have to if you're a politician, but he seems genuine about it, even in areas where we may not exactly see eye-to-eye.

But I was equally impressed--and I know I shouldn't be surprised at this point, but I still kind of am--by the combination of knowledge and tact of the collective blogosphere. dday, thereisnospoon, occams hatchet and Mark Kleiman especially were noteworthy in the conversation for their ability to inquire more deeply about policy points and express specific concerns. I think any Democratic politician would be well-served to spend an hour with that crew.

Now, onto the issues.

Now, Senator Durbin is up for re-election in 2008, and while I don't think anyone expects him to be seriously threatened, especially the way the Senate races in 2008 are shaping up, the purpose of his visit to Los Angeles was--you guessed it--fundraising. Senator Durbin began by expressing his desire for comprehensive campaign finance reform--public financing of elections--whose constitutionality was guaranteed by making it an opt-out system. While this received general approval from the crowd, there were a few bloggers--myself and dday among them--who pointed out the example of what happened in California (if you don't know, our state had a ballot measure for public financing of elections, and it got slaughtered because the party remained officially neutral and our largest interest groups actively opposed the measure).

Senator Durbin countered that he and his as-of-yet-unnamed cosponsors were working with labor, and that in any case, the labor movement needed to realize that they are--from a financial standpoint--unable to keep up with the corporate donations flowing to the other side.

On Iraq: Senator Durbin is certainly in favor of bringing the troops home, and was one of the 23 Senators to vote against the war to begin with--but he does not believe that cutting off funding is the right approach, and Senator Feingold has already made a decision that the Democratic Senate will not go in that direction because that can definitely be seen as being "anti-troops" and they don't want anything to do with that (he went on to explain that the rescinding of funding for Vietnam was done as a very gradual process, and far from a fell-swoop refusal along the lines of what some have advocated for Iraq).

Senator Durbin says that the priority of the Senate on Iraq is to come up with a consensus amendment that will get as close to 49 Democratic votes as possible (counting on the fact that Joe Lieberman will never vote for anything having to do with ending Iraq. Durbin also likes Jack Murtha's idea of tying troop deployments to readiness, and he expects that will have the effect of making it look like the Republicans are eager to send ill-equipped troops into combat zones.

On Joe Lieberman: Senator Durbin says that while he vehemently disagrees with Senator Lieberman (CfL-CT) on Iraq, he was fine with the fact that Lieberman was welcomed back into the caucus.

thereisnospoon countered that the discontent with Lieberman was driven just as strongly by the notion that he was too close to the administration as it was by his position on the occupation, as was evidenced by his sudden refusal to investigate the administration's response to Katrina. Senator Durbin responded that he understood the concern, but that Senator Levin was the second-in-command on that committee and he would make sure that all appropriate investigations took place.

Darfur: Continuing on the foreign policy theme, Senator Durbin addressed his concern over Darfur, and voiced his support for what is called Plan B: an effort by the administration to convince Sudan to allow U.N. peacekeepers in the region. Other measures supported by Senator Durbin on Darfur include:

1) Freezing dollar transactions involved with Sudanese oil. Three companies--one Malaysian, one Chinese, and one Indian--work with Sudan to extract oil, and the transactions are done in dollars, meaning that they could be frozen by the U.S. treasury.

2) Divestment. Encourage large-scale divestment from companies that do business in Sudan.

3) Change U.S. law on genocide to that regarding torture. Currently, if a foreign national who is responsible for torture comes to the United States, they can be arrested under U.S. law--but that doesn't apply to genocide. Durbin wants to see the law changed to allow the same practice for those who practice genocide so that the U.S. is no longer a safe haven.

On Nancy Pelosi: Senator Durbin says that Nancy Pelosi is an extremely effective speaker who others underestimate at their own risk.

On the bankruptcy bill: Senator Durbin was the Minority Whip during the lsat Congress, and thereisnospoon asked why there was such difficulty with stopping the bankruptcy bill in its tracks. The Senator said that many on the House side simply didn't read the legislation before voting on it and didn't realize the impact the legislation would have.

By the time it reached the Senate, Senator Durbin knew exactly what was going on with it, and tried to offer amendments that would mitigate the effect that he thought were slam dunks: exemptions for National Guard members serving overseas, exemptions for disabled veterans, a homestead amendment--and they were all shot down without the slightest hint of trepidation. As Senator Durbin put it:

"I really couldn't believe it. What a bunch of heartless bastards!"

I took the opportunity toward the end of the discusssion to ask Senator Durbin about some of his personal priorities--the DREAM Act, which would put children of undocumented immigrants on a path to legalization and offer universities the choice of whether to allow in-state tuition rates to them; and his proposal to create a single food safety regulatory agency to supervise the twelve agencies already in existence.

He said that the DREAM Act stands a very good chance of being passed by this Congress, and that Rosa Delauro--his counterpart in the House on food safety--will be pushing the bill on food safety regulation in the House this year.

That just about wraps it up, though I welcome the other bloggers present to leave their own comments and impressions. I'm on the far right.

I'll wrap this up with a group photo:

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