Dick Durbin, a low-key Senate veteran, to preside over Supreme Court hearings Durbin has been No. 2 in the Senate Democratic leadership since 2007, a job that involves knowing senators well enough to be able to count and corral votes, and knowing how to broker a deal.

Dick Durbin, a low-key Senate veteran, to preside over Supreme Court hearings

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Next week, confirmation hearings begin on the Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson. And there's going to be a new face in the center chair. Presiding will be Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. Though he has served in the House and the Senate for a total of 39 years, his influence has largely been behind the scenes until now. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has this profile.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Durbin was raised in the working-class city of East St. Louis, Ill., where neighborhoods were either white or Black. On the white side of town, the population was largely Catholic immigrants like his mother, who immigrated as a child from Lithuania. Both his parents had only an eighth-grade education, and both worked for the railroad, his mother in the office and his father as a night watchman who worked his way up to a chief clerk's position.

DICK DURBIN: Church was kind of the center of my life. It was not only my school, but it's where I went to play sports and, you know, dances. And everything else kind of focused on the Catholic side of life in East St. Louis.

TOTENBERG: That came to a grinding halt when his father died.

DURBIN: He was in the hospital for 100 days before he passed away. And there I was, a 14-year-old kid standing by his bed, seeing this man gasping for air at age 53, two packs of Camels a day.

TOTENBERG: His father's death led to what, decades later, Durbin calls his proudest accomplishment - leading the fight against tobacco. In 1987, as a junior member of the House, he introduced a bill to ban smoking on airplane trips.

DURBIN: The entire Democratic and Republican leadership of the House was against me, and I got it to a vote on the floor, and it passed. It passed with bipartisan rollcall. Why? Because the House of Representatives was the biggest frequent flyer club in America.

TOTENBERG: In fact, he says, it turned out to be much more than that.

DURBIN: It was a tipping point I didn't see coming.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, public opinion polls soon showed people didn't want to inhale secondhand smoke anywhere, and politicians jumped on the bandwagon to ban smoking in all public places. So how did a boy from East St. Louis with no financial means get to college, law school and the U.S. House of Representatives? To start with, Georgetown University was a lot cheaper in those days.

DURBIN: I could work all summer in the slaughterhouse in East St. Louis, make $1,200 a summer, bring it back here, borrow a thousand bucks and take a part-time job and get by and go through a whole year.

TOTENBERG: One of the part-time jobs Durbin took was working for Senator Paul Douglas, a famous liberal lion of his times whose photo sits on the wall in Durbin's Capitol office.

DURBIN: Douglas fought the battle for civil rights against all the Southern Democrats in the Senate. It went on and on for years and years, and he usually was on the losing side. He never gave up.

TOTENBERG: Now Durbin holds the Senate seat that Douglas once did. He's the Democratic whip, the No. 2 in the Democratic leadership and the person in charge of corralling votes on the Senate floor. What's more, this is the first time a Senate whip has been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He persuaded the Democratic caucus to let him do these two full-time jobs by giving up other significant committee assignments. And he's intent on trying to break the committee's gridlock where possible. Everything has to be a compromise to succeed because the committee and the Senate is evenly split.

Durbin is something of a master at getting along with the opposition whenever possible. He's friends with the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, and is trying once again this year to win passage of the DREAM Act that he first proposed 20 years ago. It would allow people brought here by their parents as children to win legal status. His ally in that, most of the time, has been Republican Lindsey Graham.

DURBIN: People back home say you get along with Lindsey Graham? I said, yes, I do. That's the nature of the Senate. You know, there are a lot of Titanic egos on a very small boat. The fella you want to push overboard today may be the one that's going to save your life tomorrow.

TOTENBERG: Now Durbin is about to preside over confirmation hearings for the first African American woman nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. And he's proud of this moment.

DURBIN: I hope we get it done - fingers crossed. If she can make it, it's historic.

TOTENBERG: But he's been through a lot of these fights before. He's reflective enough and candid enough to look back and see that partisanship can lead to misjudgments.

You voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts. Do you still think that was the right vote?

DURBIN: I've thought about that more than anyone. I would say if it came to me again, I would reconsider. I respect him for so many things, although a majority of his opinions I definitely would disagree with.

TOTENBERG: If that remark seems measured, don't look for more like it next week. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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