Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin
(Paul Beaty/AP)
July 01, 2013

Sens. Durbin and Kirk Hopeful For Student Loan Agreement

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) say they hope their chamber votes on a plan to lower student interest rates when lawmakers return after the July 4 holiday.

Subsidized Stafford loan interest rates doubled on Monday to 6.8 percent because the Senate failed to strike a deal to keep them low.

 Congress’ Joint Economic Committee estimates the higher rates could cost the average borrower $2,600.

Speaking at Champaign’s Parkland College, Sen. Durbin said he is not sure if an agreement on a lower rate will be reached.

“I mean we really hadn’t reached much of an accommodation or compromise before we left, but I think when more members of Congress hear from families and students, there will be a stronger inclination to reach an agreement.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Kirk said he expects the U.S. Senate will find a solution to rising student loan rates soon.

I would say that the Senate is now working pretty well, that we’re knocking stuff out and solving some big problems,” Kirk said. “You would have never thought that we would be handling as tough as issues in a bipartisan way as we are.”

Lawmakers have known since last year that the July 1 deadline was coming.

The Republican-led House passed its own measure that links student interest rates to the financial markets.

Republican Congressman Rodney Davis of Taylorville said the Senate should take that up.

"The bill was passed was actually thought of by President Obama," said Davis, appearing at his office in Champaign Monday.  "It uses marketplace rates that are historic lows.  It sets a cap and makes sure that students don't have to worry about what their costs are going to be once they graduate, and I just wish the Senate would have taken it up."

Durbin said the 8.5 percent cap in the House's plan on student interest rates is too high, and he wants that rate to remain at 3.4 percent.

senators after immigration vote
(Susan Walsh/AP)
June 27, 2013

US Senate Passes Immigration Bill, Now Heads To House

Efforts by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and seven other members of the Senate were successful on Thursday in passing immigration reform out of their chamber.

Lawmakers approved the plan by a 68-32 vote.

Speaking before the vote, Durbin said it has been a long journey to get to this point since he first introduced the Dream Act more than a decade ago.

“For anyone in this chamber who believes this is just another vote, go to a naturalization ceremony," Durbin said. "Watch those new citizens with those flags in their hands as they take that oath to be part of this country. You cannot help but feel the emotion that courses through them at that moment.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said border security provisions in the Senate’s immigration bill are a big reason why he voted for the measure. Kirk was one of 14 members of his party to support the plan.

Earlier this month, he voted ‘no’ in a procedural vote to continue discussion on the bill because he said it did not do enough to address border security.

In a video released by his office on Thursday, Kirk said those earlier concerns have been addressed.

“What we’re going to see from this bill is millions of people will have their full Americanized potential realized, boosting our economy, especially in our state,” he said.

The measure now moves to the Republican-controlled House.

Speaker John Boehner has ruled out taking up the Senate bill. He has said the House will instead chart its own version, with a focus on border security.

Many conservatives oppose the path to citizenship for those who are already in the country illegally that is at the heart of the Senate bill.

gang of eight in senate
(Charles Dharapak/AP)
June 21, 2013

Compromise Deal May Speed Immigration Bill Through Senate

The chances of an immigration overhaul bill getting through the Senate greatly improved on Thursday.

A deal was reached on a border security plan. NPR's Steve Inskeep talks about the deal with two of the senators in the so-called "Gang of Eight," who are working on a bipartisan approach to immigration, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.


US Supreme Court Justices
Wikimedia Commons
June 19, 2013

Durbin: US Supreme Court Should Provide Live Audio

Sen. Dick Durbin wants the U.S. Supreme Court to provide live audio broadcasts of its proceedings.

The Illinois Democrat sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday.

Durbin says many high-profile proceedings are scheduled for the coming weeks. He says live audio broadcasts ``would greatly expand the Court's accessibility to average Americans.''

Durbin also says the broadcasts would provide "greater accountability, transparency, and understanding of our judicial system.''

The court decided recently to release same-day transcripts and end-of-the-week audio of oral arguments and opinion announcements. Durbin applauded that decision but said the court should take another step.

The court is expected to issue opinions soon on two closely watched same-sex marriage cases. This week the court struck down a law requiring would-be voters to prove they are citizens.

June 10, 2013

Senate Takes Up Farm Bill

The U.S. Senate could finally vote on a new farm bill on Monday, but the final version could still be at least several weeks away.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added a provision that would require wealthier farmers pay more for crop insurance, which Durbin argues is mostly subsidized by taxpayers.

"We took a look at the farmers in Illinois," Durbin said. "These are not the farmers you are thinking about. These are not the farmers you see at the fair, by and large. These are farmers who have farms in six, 12, 18 counties. These are huge operations and they can afford it."

But others say the higher cost would lead some to bow out of the program. 

Many leading ag groups say that could wind up forcing all farmers to pay more to make up the difference.

That is just one controversial part of the farm bill, which is about more than agriculture. For example, it includes funding for food stamps. The House and Senate are at odds over reduction of the benefits.

Durbin said that might wind up being the most contentious part of the overall debate. It is likely the entire farm bill will wind up in negotiations over the summer in an attempt to get a final compromise.

Dick Durbin
(Sean Powers/WILL)
May 28, 2013

Sen. Durbin: Veteran Disability Claims Procedures Must Change

U.S Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says the way American veterans receive disability claims has "got to change."

His comments come as the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is working on a new digital, paper-less way of handling the claims. The V.A is working to get that done by September.

Durbin said on average, Illinois veterans wait close to a year for payments - which he says is the third-worst rate in the country.

"There is no excuse for people waiting months, sometimes over a year, to get a determination on their disability," Durbin said at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Camp Butler National Cemetery, just outside of Springfield. "We owe it to these veterans to do a much better job."

The Veterans Affairs secretary says the new system should reduce the wait for almost-all disability claims to about four months (125 days) by 2015.

Camp Butler National Cemetery is partially on land that was a military training camp during the Civil War.

Immigration advocates
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
May 18, 2013

Immigration Bill Chugs Along, But Some See Deal-Breakers

It's been a long slog already for the bipartisan immigration overhaul proposed by the Senate's Gang of Eight.

The legislation has been the target of more than 300 amendments during days of debate and votes by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But while the bill has largely held its own so far, its prospects for getting through Congress remain uncertain.

In Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy's view, the immigration overhaul is "moving very well."

"It's moving a lot faster than people said it would," says Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of two Republican members of the Gang of Eight who sit on the Judiciary Committee, says he thinks with the adoption of 15 GOP amendments so far, the bill has become more appealing to conservatives.

"It's a better bill for, I think, those of us who care about border security and interior enforcement — it's a stronger bill," he says.

But that's not how fellow Republican and committee member Jeff Sessions of Alabama sees it.

"None of the significant amendments have been accepted," he says. "It's pretty clear that the Gang of Eight's original statement that they would resist any significant changes to the bill is coming true."

Earlier this week, Sessions brought up an amendment putting the bill's promised path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants on hold until biometric data, such as fingerprints or iris scans, are used to screen the entry and exit of every international traveler.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Gang of Eight, helped defeat it.

"I want biometrics as far as the eye can see, in as many ways as possible, post-9/11, to protect this nation," he says. "But to make it a trigger in light of how much it costs and how long it takes, I just think goes too far."

But the issue has exposed a crack in the Gang of Eight's unity. One of its members who is not on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says he supports a biometric entry-exit system.

"The fundamental question is: Can it be done in a cost-effective manner? And I think that's what we're going to hopefully explore here over the next few days leading into the floor debate," he says. "I hope that we can. I think it makes the system more effective."

And even though Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voted against the biometric amendment, she says she would like to see it considered when the bill goes before the full Senate, probably next month.

"I don't think it's a deal-breaker," she says. "But I think we need to do our work, and I'm one Democrat that would like to see it eventually used ... if it is cost-effective — cost-efficient, I should say."

Meanwhile, opponents of that path to citizenship are warning it could doom the entire bill.

"The way to avoid the bill being voted down in the House of Representatives is to reach a reasonable common-sense compromise," says Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, "and, in particular, to take off the table a path to citizenship. So I hope that's what they choose to do."

That would be the wrong choice, says Rubio, the Florida Republican.

"If ... we can put in measures that ensure that we're ... not going to have another wave of illegal immigration, people are willing to support a bill that deals with the 11 million that are here now," Rubio says. "And if we don't, I don't think we'll have immigration reform."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, could end up voting next week to send the immigration bill to the full Senate, a move that could persuade other key Republicans to get behind it. But Hatch first wants the committee to vote on changes he has offered boosting the number of visas for highly skilled workers.

"If they want to pass this bill through both houses, they've got to give on those," he says. "I've got to have them."

But Hatch will have to get past the opposition of Gang of Eight member Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

"Some of his amendments are acceptable, with some changes, and some are unacceptable," Durbin says. "And, you know, when a senator basically says it's take it or leave it, [he] puts himself in a very weak bargaining position."

Adding to the bill's uncertainty is an amendment that Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has yet to bring up that would allow gay U.S. citizens to sponsor foreign spouses for green cards. Republicans in the Gang of Eight warn such a measure, if adopted, would be a deal-breaker.

Dick Durbin
(Sean Powers/WILL)
April 19, 2013

US Sen. Durbin Preparing Run for Fourth Term

Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is running for a fourth term.

The number two Democrat told Illinois Public Radio on Thursday that he has been preparing for the upcoming race, but is still waiting to make a formal announcement.

"I like this job," he said from his Capitol Hill office. "I'm honored to represent Illinois, and I'm doing some of the most important work of my life."

Durbin was recently part of the bipartisan group of eight senators who worked on immigration reform. He's also been involved in the gun control debates -- co-sponsoring a bill on gun trafficking restrictions. Before his time in the Senate, Durbin was a member of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1997.

The Democrat says he's eventually planning on making a formal announcement about his candidacy, but until then, he'll be busy planning, raising money and putting together the campaign.

If elected in 2014, Durbin would be one of the longest-serving members of the Illinois delegation in history.

Dick Durbin
(M. Spencer Green/AP)
March 23, 2013

They All Voted for DOMA, Now These Senators Are Split

The soul-searching over the Defense of Marriage Act went viral last week after Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a social conservative and original co-sponsor of the 1996 bill, sought out CNN to say something no one saw coming.

Portman said he'd decided to oppose DOMA and support same-sex marriage, two years after learning his college-age son was gay.



The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases next week, including a challenge to DOMA's constitutionality. The federal law defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.

More than 4 in 5 members of Congress voted for that law, but some who did are having second thoughts. Most of them are Democrats.

Democratic Reversals

Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law but now wants it overturned. This week, his wife, former Democratic senator, secretary of state and first lady Hillary Clinton did her own about-face. Without actually mentioning DOMA, Clinton spoke on a gay-rights advocacy group's website, making it clear she no longer opposed same-sex couples getting married.



"They are full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes marriage. That's why I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples," she said.

That shift aligns Clinton not only with President Obama, who now backs gay marriage, but also with every one of the 15 sitting Senate Democrats who voted for DOMA in 1996 and now oppose it. One is Patty Murray of Washington state.

"My state voted, and I voted with them, to allow marriages between gay and lesbian couples. I'm very proud of my state," she says.

Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, says personal experiences changed his mind.

"I think about my colleague, Sen. Portman, and his family situation. Mine is not that, but it certainly reflects a lot of friends that I've become close to over the years who are now in committed relationships, good people, some raising children," Durbin says. "I just felt at the end of the day, that this really is the civil rights question of our time."

Unwavering Republicans

But of the Senate's 14 sitting Republicans who also voted for DOMA, only Portman no longer supports it. Arizona's John McCain, whose wife and daughter have campaigned for DOMA's repeal, still backs the law.

"I have conversations with my children all the time on this issue, and many other people, and I respect Sen. Portman's viewpoint," he says.

Yet, McCain says he has not changed his mind.

Ten Republican senators who voted for DOMA signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the law. The lead author is Utah's Orrin Hatch, who insists he's not so far apart from Portman.

"Look, both of us believe that we should not discriminate against anybody. But where we do part is that I believe ... in the traditional definition of marriage that has existed for, some estimate, 6,000 years," Hatch says.

Personal, Not Partisan

Though she's no longer in the Senate, Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas has shifted her personal view of same-sex marriage.

"I certainly would vote to end it now. I think the time has come," she says.

Kassebaum voted for DOMA during her last year in the Senate, a time when no states recognized same-sex marriage.

Nine states and the District of Columbia do now. Kassebaum says it's time the federal government's laws acknowledged that reality, and that her fellow Republicans do the same.

"I'm sure people could say, 'Well yeah, right, she could say that, she isn't [in the Senate].' But I think it's personally the way I would feel," she says. "And personally, I would feel it shouldn't be necessarily a Democrat issue or a Republican issue."

Indeed, Portman says he described his decision to oppose DOMA as personal when he talked about it at a lunch this week with Senate GOP colleagues.

"I thanked them because I've had a number of people come up to me and express personal support for me and my family, and that's what I talked about," he says.

Portman says he isn't sure whether he will be the only Republican to reverse course.

"I really don't know. I didn't do this for political reasons, as you know, and I haven't really thought through the partisan politics of it," he says.

And yet, the strong bipartisan support DOMA once had is clearly gone. What backing it still has comes almost exclusively from the Republican side of the aisle.


Dick Durbin
(Sean Powers/WILL)
March 20, 2013

Top Senate Democrat Proposes Social Security Panel

The Senate's No. 2 Democrat said Wednesday that he's preparing a plan to create a commission to study Social Security's fiscal problems and send a proposed solution to Congress for guaranteed votes in both House and Senate.

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin says he's got bipartisan backing for the idea, which is patterned after President Barack Obama's 2010 deficit commission.

Social Security currently is spending more than it takes in in payroll taxes and relies on savings from previous surpluses to pay benefits. Those savings are estimated to run out in 20 years.

Durbin wants the commission to make recommendations to make Social Security solvent for 75 years. The panel would be expected to consider increases in the payroll tax, a higher retirement age and a lower annual cost-of-living adjustment for beneficiaries.

"You would basically say to a commission, within a very limited time frame, to come up with a proposal for 75-year solvency of Social Security and then — and this is important — it would be referred to both chambers on an expedited procedure," Durbin told reporters at a Washington breakfast sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.

"I'd like to get it done. I've proposed that to a number of people and they've been receptive to it on both sides of the aisle. I think we can move forward with it," Durbin added.

The commission would resemble the 2010 deficit panel chaired by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. That panel failed to produce the supermajority vote required to officially present a plan to Congress but has attracted praise from deficit hawks for its sweeping recommendations.

Durbin's proposed 18-member commission would contain an equal number of Republicans and Democrats but require 14 votes to send a plan to Congress.

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