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Inside Senate Democrats' leadership standoff

Chuck Schumer will be elected the next Senate Democratic leader about a week after the Nov. 8 election. But a stare down between Dick Durbin and Patty Murray has the tight-knit caucus fretting about a messy power struggle over the No. 2 job.

For more than 18 months, Senate Democrats have wondered whether Murray (D-Wash.) will challenge Durbin for the whip job. With leadership elections just a few weeks away, Murray is refusing to rule out any of her options, even as Durbin suggests he’s got the job locked up.

A public fight over the job is unlikely, given that the Senate Democratic Caucus is eager for an orderly transition of power from Harry Reid — who’s retiring at the end of the year — to Schumer. The New York lawmaker’s ascension to the top spot from the No. 3 job is raising the prospect of him working hand-in-hand with Durbin, with whom Schumer enjoys a longstanding but occasionally frosty relationship.

Durbin has the votes to be reelected as the party’s whip, people close to him say, a job he has held for 12 years. But Murray has stubbornly declined to say whether she might challenge him.

“Senator Durbin would be honored to continue to serve the caucus as whip, and he has the support to do that,” said Ben Marter, a spokesman for Durbin.

This is not a new dilemma for Democrats: The will-she-or-won’t-she Murray dynamic has played out for 18 months since the party fell in line behind Schumer’s bid to succeed Reid. Then, Durbin claimed Schumer would support him as the party whip. But Schumer denied that deal and has never publicly offered support to Durbin. That disagreement has done little to alter the view that the two men maintain a tense rapport despite living together in a Capitol Hill rowhouse for years.

And now, 13 days before Nov. 8, Murray still won’t signal her intentions — and is unlikely to until after the election, given that she’s on the ballot in Washington. It raises the prospect of an ugly power struggle, right when Democrats will be seeking to portray Paul Ryan and his House GOP as unstable and disorganized.

“She’s keeping her cards very close to her vest,” said a senior Democratic source.

Democrats say their main goal is to come up with a solution that gives the appearance that everyone is a winner, even if there is a limited amount of power to go around at the top rungs of Democratic leader.

“It’s been so quiet as to suggest there’s a way to figure this out to everyone’s mutual benefit,” said a Democratic senator who has spoken to Durbin about the matter.

Indeed, Schumer’s ascension creates what should be a good problem for Democrats: A high-ranking leadership vacancy in a caucus whose structure has been static since 2011. There’s at least one upper-rung slot opening up with Schumer leaving his No. 3 position, but no clarity on whether Murray wants that job — or if she would seek Durbin’s post, which comes with an office that overlooks the National Mall and a full-time security detail.

“People who say they know don’t know,” said a second Democratic senator closely following the caucus’s balance of power. “Even the preliminary framework has not been established. That being said, there’s just enough food for both of them to eat.”

Murray has not broadly tested support for a challenge to Durbin and would be unlikely to do so without the backing of Schumer, who has not encouraged Murray to challenge Durbin. Plus it’s unclear just how many new Democratic senators there will be, though there could be more than a half-dozen new female members of the caucus. A woman has never held the job of Senate whip in either party.

How the two senior Democrats handle the internal jockeying will then set the tone for the rest of the caucus’s structure. The party is still seeking a chairman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, with one talked-about candidate — Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) — hesitant to take the job. That’s got some members speculating that Maryland Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen or another freshman could take the gig with half the caucus up for reelection in 2018. The DSCC chairman in the next cycle will have a monumentally difficult task, defending 25 seats that include several in conservative territory. Republicans have to protect just eight seats.

Still, the smart money’s on Durbin remaining in the whip role, given that a public challenge by Murray would thrust the party’s dirty laundry into the open. Instead, Murray could become even more powerful by reinvigorating a committee and taking a stronger role in the party’s political and messaging strategy. Murray could easily move a slot up in the pecking order while avoiding a clash with Durbin, which would buy her goodwill and keep her on the inside track to succeed Schumer.

Plus, Murray and Durbin have a good working relationship, without any history of personal animus, Democrats say. One factor that could portend a potential shake-up in the caucus’s leadership ranks is if the leadership elections get delayed, but there is no indication that will occur. The leader and whip jobs are the only ones elected by the caucus.

“I think we’re going to end up in a place where Patty chairs [Appropriations] and has some core role in leadership that maybe doesn’t have the title whip,” said a third Democratic senator. “And Dick retains the title whip.”

Murray, a former preschool teacher, is actually seen as more likely to keep her current role leading Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where she would be able to work with a President Hillary Clinton on shared priorities such as health care and education. Still, Murray could see benefit to chairing the Appropriations Committee, which maintains major sway over billion-dollar spending decisions and last-minute deals.

The HELP committee may be another site of a clash between members: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is itching to wield his newfound influence that he gained during his presidential bid, continues to signal interest in the HELP gavel, though he is in line to become chairman of the Senate Budget Committee should Democrats come back into power.

Sanders said in a brief interview in September that it was “a little bit too early” to discuss whether he would challenge Murray should she decide to stay at the top of the HELP pecking order. A spokesman for Sanders underscored that point this week, saying Sanders was instead focused on electing Clinton and helping to regain the Senate majority.

If Murray doesn’t take the Appropriations job, it’s unclear who would try for the gavel at a once-powerful committee that has weakened as the congressional spending process withers each year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has twice passed on the job to remain atop the Judiciary Committee, which oversees judicial nominations and hot-button issues such as immigration. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) seems likely to stay atop the Intelligence Committee. After then, Durbin would be next in line: He’s currently slated to lead the Senate Rules Committee, a slot Schumer must vacate to become the party leader.

And no matter what Murray does, there will be a leadership vacancy in the powerful “Big Four” group of Democrats due to Reid’s retirement, one likely to be filled by a close Schumer ally. Right now the favorite is Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is close to Schumer and currently plays a large role in the party’s messaging.

Finally, there’s the question of how the caucus’s larger leadership group is arranged. Currently, Stabenow and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mark Warner of Virginia hold slots in the party brass, lower-ranking positions that usually meet once a week with the rest of the leadership team.

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