July 23, 2003


Illinois' two U.S. senators, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Peter Fitzgerald, are not a proverbial coosome twosome, politically, ideologically or personally. They are, in fact, polar opposites who make no secret of the fact that they detest each other.

The two senators have for the past 4 years, and presumably will continue to, cast roll-call votes which effectively neutralize each other. As the adjoining vote chart for 2002-03 indicates, they differed on 24 of 27 key issues, agreeing only on the Homeland Security bill, the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada and the blocking of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The senators' frigid and testy relationship could be described by a profusion of scholarly "A" words: acrimonious, abrasive, antidote, anathema and acerbic.

Republicans view the affable, bland, mild-mannered Durbin as a slavishly liberal tax-hiking Democrat who toes the party line on every critical issue and who masquerades as a moderate when he runs for re-election. The Republicans are glad that Fitzgerald's vote is an antidote to Durbin's. Conversely, Democrats view the aloof, individualistic, thin-skinned Fitzgerald as an extremist Republican who supports a right wing agenda, who toes the party line on every critical issue, and who won election by accident in 1998. The Democrats are equally pleased that Durbin's vote is an antidote to Fitzgerald's.

The two senators have very different visions for Illinois, as was demonstrated on the issue of expanding O'Hare Airport. When he ran in 1998, Fitzgerald promised to oppose any expansion of existing runways. Durbin, with the encouragement of both Mayor Rich Daley and Governor Rod Blagojevich, backed expansion. But Fitzgerald's threat of a filibuster blocked that expansion, which left Durbin positively apoplectic -- and looking more than just a bit foolish to his colleagues.

In fact, despite the close political divisions in the country, 37 of 50 states do not send a divided delegation to the U.S. Senate; 19 states send two Republicans, and 16 send two Democrats. Illinois is among the 13 states which have a split delegation, along with Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Rhode Island. It is likely that the three Southern states will send all-Republican delegations to the Senate after 2004 and that Illinois will switch to all-Democratic, as Fitzgerald is not seeking re-election.

Given the partisan acrimony prevalent in Washington, given the animosity that Republicans felt for Bill Clinton and that Democrats feel for President George Bush, and given the millions of dollars that the respective party campaign committees raised and spent to elect a majority in 2000 and 2002, it is to be expected that senators almost universally support their respective parties' agendas -- even if that agenda is simply to oppose the other party's agenda.

While some Republicans opposed the $720 billion Bush tax cut and even the compromise $350 billion cut (Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, John McCain of Arizona and Olympia Snowe of Maine), and only two Democrats supported it (Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska), and while eight Republicans including Fitzgerald opposed ANWR drilling, deviation from the party line was rare.

Durbin never deviated. On votes where the Democrats did not want to give Bush or the Republicans a victory, even if the outcome would have benefited Illinois, Durbin chose party over state. An egregious example of Durbin's slavish loyalty to his party was the Republicans' attempt to repeal the tax on social security income. Until 1993, half of recipients' benefits were taxable; Clinton and the Democratic Congress modified that provision so that individuals who earn more than $34,000 from all sources had to pay taxes on 85 percent of their social security income (for couples, the threshold was $44,000). The repeal attempt failed, with 47 or 48 Democrats voting against it, including Durbin. And Democrats still proclaim themselves champions of senior citizens.

Time and again, on fiscal matters, Durbin voted to increase spending and taxes. As the vote chart indicates, he backed a congressional pay hike, voted against every tax-cut proposal, and even voted to rescind the 2001 tax cut, which was already paid to taxpayers and which would have meant increasing taxes by $1.214 trillion to recoup those funds. He also backed an increase in foreign AIDS funding.

Durbin was one of only 21 Democrats to oppose the use of force in Iraq, although in 1995 he supported Clinton sending troops to Bosnia during that conflict. Durbin also supported having U.S. troops wear United Nations uniforms. Fitzgerald supported Bush on Iraq.

On abortion, Durbin is now a zealous advocate of choice. He backed a resolution reaffirming Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision ensuring the right to an abortion. Durbin also opposed a ban on partial birth abortions, a procedure performed during the last trimester, and he supported the availability of abortions at overseas U.S. military hospitals. Fitzgerald voted the opposite. Yet when Durbin was an obscure congressman representing a largely rural Downstate district around Springfield, he was a zealous opponent of abortion rights.

During the fading years of the Clinton Administration, when the Senate's Republican majority refused to confirm many Clinton appointees to the federal judiciary, Durbin, a Judiciary Committee member, fumed in outrage. Later, when Bush tried to appoint conservative Republicans to the bench, Durbin supported the Democrats' filibuster to block confirmation of two judges, Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, and fumed not at all.

Given the fact that Al Gore beat George Bush by a plurality of 569,605 votes (but won just 24 of Illinois' 102 counties), and given the facts that a Democrat was elected governor in 2002 and that the Democrats took control of the state legislature, it can be argued that Illinois is a Democrat-dominated state and that it should have two Democratic senators. That may well occur in 2004.

But whatever one may feel about Fitzgerald, he served one important function: He was an antidote to Durbin's opportunistic partisanship. On that basis alone, he will be missed.