July 18, 2013

US Senate Committee OKs Thomson Prison Funding

A U.S. Senate committee has approved funding to re-open the Thomson prison as a federal facility.

Sen. Dick Durbin is a member of the Appropriations Committee that approved $166 million Thursday to reactivate Thomson and two other prisons.

The money will also buy 1,000 prison beds from private contractors and expand a program to reduce recidivism.

The state opened the northwestern Illinois prison in 2001 but never fully opened it because of budget problems. The federal government bought it for $165 million last fall.

Durbin and Rep. Cheri Bustos -  both Democrats -  say the plan is to spend $25 million in the fiscal year that ends in September for upgrades and renovation and $168 million next year for equipment and staffing.

DeLoyce McMurray
(Brian Mackey/IPR)
July 03, 2013

Springfield Vet Honored For World War 2 Service In Segregated Unit

Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin was in Springfield Tuesday, presiding over a ceremony to honor a World War II veteran.

Four days after DeLoyce McMurray graduated from high school, he joined the Marines. But instead of training at Parris Island, McMurray was sent to Montford Point. That's where the segregated Marine Corps trained its African-American recruits.

While not as well-known as other black units like the Tuskegee Airmen, last year all 19,000 of the so-called Montford Point Marines were made eligible for the Congressional Gold Medal.

Surrounded by family and well-wishers, McMurray, 87, lamented his comrades who could not share in the recognition.

"My brother Wesley, who went in about a month before I did," McMurray said. "Winston Harrison. Rocky Ford. ... Oh, I could name so many. ... They're all dead. So I accept this medal for them."

McMurray served on Guam, Saipan and Wake Island, and helped with the wounded at Iwo Jima. In civilian life, he became a computer programmer for the Department of Defense, and was married to his late wife for 64 years.

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.

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