- U.S. Senator representing Illinois
- Compared America’s treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the manner in which prisoners were treated by the Nazis, the Soviet gulags, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
- Staunch supporter of gun control, abortion rights, and organized labor
Born in November 1944 in East St. Louis, Richard Durbin was raised in southern Illinois by parents who were active trade unionists. After earning his undergraduate degree (in Foreign Services and Economics) at Georgetown University in 1966, he attended Georgetown Law School and received his Juris Doctorate in 1969. Durbin worked as Legal Counsel for the Illinois Lieutenant Governor from 1969-73, and for the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee from 1972-82, before serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983-96. He has been a Democratic U.S. Senator representing Illinois since 1996.
As a freshman member of the Senate Government Reform Committee in 1997, Durbin skillfully helped deflect the well-substantiated allegations that the Bill Clinton White House and the Democratic National Committee had received campaign contributions from Communist China to influence the 1996 elections. In 1998-99, Durbin was one of Mr. Clinton’s most ardent and effective defenders during the President’s impeachment proceedings.
In the aftermath of the Clinton administration, Durbin consistently provided vocal opposition to the presidency of George W. Bush. In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report blasting the CIA for its inaccurate pre-war judgments about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and absolving the Bush White House of any blame for the intelligence failures. Nevertheless, Durbin wrote a column in The Washington Post claiming that senior Bush administration officials “should have been more diligent in challenging the validity of analytical assumptions and the adequacy of intelligence collection and reporting.”
Durbin's voting record on immigration issues is worthy of note; on most occasions, he has voted against bills designed to strengthen the integrity of America’s borders and to maintain firm control over the influx of foreign-born immigrants. For example:
- In 1996 Durbin voted against mandatory workplace-verification programs.
- In 1997 he voted in favor of amnesty for nearly a million illegal aliens from Nicaragua and Cuba.
- In 1998 he led an effort to grant amnesty to 50,000 illegal aliens from Haiti, plus their families.
- In 2000 he voted in favor of amnesty for illegal aliens from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti.
- In 2002 he supported a bill to grant amnesty and in-state college-tuition benefits to illegal aliens; in 2003-2004 he co-sponsored another bill that contained similar provisions.
- In 2003, 2004, and 2005 he co-sponsored bills creating amnesty for illegal agricultural workers.
- In 2005 he voted against an amendment to provide funding for additional border-patrol agents.
- In 2006 he voted in favor of an Immigration Reform Bill that would have created a path to citizenship for all illegal aliens who had resided in the U.S. for at least five years.
- Twice in 2006, and again in 2008, he voted against bills to finance the construction of several hundred miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
- In 2007 he voted in favor of a proposal to end the use of a point-based immigration system, (i.e., a system that seeks to ensure that people with skills that society needs are given preference for entry into the United States).
- Also in 2007, he voted in favor of a bill to fund the REAL ID Act of 2005, which proposed to set minimal security requirements for state driver licenses and identification cards.
During his years in the Senate, Durbin has supported the use of military force by Democratic presidents but opposed it during Republican administrations. For example, on January 12, 1991 (during the George H.W. Bush presidency), Durbin voted against authorizing the invasion of Iraq pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. A few years later, however, the senator voted repeatedly to support President Clinton's military ventures in the Balkans and Iraq. But in October 2002 (when Republican George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office), Durbin voted against the joint resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq.
Although Durbin voted in favor of the Patriot Act in October 2001, he has repeatedly criticized it for what he perceives to be its excesses. In 2005 he introduced legislation, the “SAFE Act,” proposing to repeal several key elements of the anti-terrorism measure.
For an overview of additional key votes that Durbin has cast during his legislative career, click here.
In 2004 Durbin took advantage of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal to capitalize politically, introducing legislation to reaffirm the U.S. ban on torture and grilling White House counsel Alberto Gonzales on the issue during the latter's confirmation hearings to be Attorney General.
Durbin also joined with several of his Democrat colleagues in calling for the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and enemy combatants were being held. On June 14, 2005, Durbin went to the Senate floor and likened American techniques of interrogating the Guantanamo detainees to methods used by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Khmer Rouge. Specifically, after reading an account which claimed that detainees were being held in rooms that were either too cold or too hot, and where loud rap music was being played, Durbin said:
“If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.”
Durbin's remarks were subsequently exploited for propaganda purposes by anti-American organizations like Al-Jazeera and others. Nevertheless, Durbin initially refused to express remorse for his comments. Eventually, however, he issued a tearful apology on the Senate floor.
On September 18, 2008, Durbin participated in a closed-door meeting with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who briefed Durbin and other congressional leaders on the gravity of the financial crisis that was then hitting the American economy. The next day, Durbin sold off $42,696 in mutual-fund shares; before the end of the month, he had sold off another $73,000 in shares. Then the stock market collapsed. By October 3, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had plunged by 9 percent; by October 17, it was down over 22 percent. Critics characterized Durbin's sell-off as an act of hypocrisy, since he had previously complained that people who engaged in insider trading generally did not face sufficiently severe criminal penalties.
Durbin sparked controversy in July 2009, during the Senate confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor (who is of Puerto Rican heritage). Speaking to the media, Senator Durbin reflected on some of the confirmation hearings of previous years:
"When we [Democrats] asked questions of the white male nominees of a Republican president, we were basically trying to find out whether -- to make sure that they would go far enough in understanding the plight of minorities, because clearly that was not in their DNA."
In 2013 Durbin was a key member of the so-called “Gang of Eight”—four Democrat and four Republican U.S. senators—who mounted an effort to pass a sweeping, 844-page immigration-reform bill aimed at giving provisional legal status to at least 11 million illegal immigrants and placing them on a path-to-citizenship. The other Democrats on the panel were Charles Schumer, Robert Menendez, and Michael Bennet. A Politico.com analysis noted that their proposal, if passed, “would transform the nation’s political landscape” by “pumping as many as 11 million new Hispanic voters into the electorate a decade from now in ways that ... would produce an electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.”
In January 2015, Durbin and many Democrats objected strenuously when Republican House Speaker John Boehner—without first asking President Obama for his approval—invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress on March 3rd about the gravity of the growing Iranian nuclear threat and his “profound disagreement” with the deal that the Obama Administration was pursuing with Iran. On February 23, Durbin and fellow Senator Dianne Feinstein invited Netanyahu to meet in a closed-door session with only Democrats during his visit. Netanyahu declined the invitation the following day, saying in a written statement: "I regret that the invitation to address the special joint session of Congress has been perceived by some to be political or partisan. I can assure you that my sole intention in accepting it was to voice Israel's grave concerns about a potential nuclear agreement with Iran that could threaten the survival of my country." In response, Durbin said: "We offered the Prime Minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong. His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades."
During remarks on the Senate floor on February 26, 2015, Durbin likened President Obama’s recently issued executive orders on immigration (preventing the deportation of people who entered the U.S. illegally, and providing them with work permits and other benefits), to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Durbin said that Lincoln's “courage” to take executive action was an important moment in righting the wrongs of the “fatally flawed” Constitution. Said Durbin:
"Before any of us can serve in the United States Senate, we stand in the well of the Senate chamber and publicly take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. I know we all take that seriously, as we should. This is not just another government document. It is really the inspiration of this government and it still governs our actions to this day. Yet, if we view this document with honesty, we know that it was fatally flawed from the start. It got the issue of slavery wrong, in addition to some other issues. It got the issue of race wrong. And since the days when the document was drafted and signed, we have struggled as a nation to right that wrong. It has taken a long, long time.... We properly celebrate those moments in history where we finally moved on the air of the Constitution on race, and really move on a new path. We celebrate that day 152 years ago when a Republican President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, issued an executive order, an executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed 3 million slaves in America. It is proper that we celebrate that moment because America stepped forward because of that president's courage and the use of his executive power."
Durbin went on to criticize Republicans for obstinately standing in the way of racial reparations.
Angry that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not allow a vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch until a stalemate on abortion language in a human-trafficking bill was resolved, Durbin in March 2015 accused Republicans of racism: “Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar. That is unfair, it’s unjust, it is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate.”
In response, black Republican Senator Tim Scott called Durbin’s comments “factually and patently false,” adding: “It is helpful to have a long memory and to remember that Durbin voted against Condoleezza Rice during the 40th anniversary of the March [on Selma]. So I think, in context, it’s just offensive that we have folks who are willing to race bait on such an important issue as human trafficking. Sometimes people use race as an issue that is hopefully going to motivate folks for their fight. But what it does, is it infuriates people.”