Suburban members of Congress talk priorities as Democratic Senate gives them sway

As Sen. Dick Durbin readies for a historic role as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, members of Congress from the suburbs are dusting off bills on climate change and cheaper prescription drugs with the White House and Senate changing from Republican to Democratic hands.

It's a rare sweet spot for any political party. Democratic President Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday comes with his party controlling the House and becoming the majority in the Senate, but the trifecta could end in just two years if the 2022 midterm elections follow tradition.

"I think we have to be careful to accomplish everything we can on a bipartisan basis," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Naperville. "The main reason is that legislation sticks," unlike presidential executive orders.

Democrat Durbin, of Springfield, will replace Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham as Judiciary Committee chairman, shifting the balance of power, officials said. The last time an Illinois lawmaker led the Senate Judiciary Committee was during the Civil War.

Durbin is the Senate's No. 2 Democrat as party whip, and his new title will confer clout that benefits Illinois, political expert Kent Redfield said.

"Because he will be chairing the committee that will be handling judicial nominations and dealing with immigration legislation and voting rights/election legislation, etc., other members will want to be on good terms with him," said Redfield, emeritus professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

"If we get a big infrastructure bill, there would be specific water projects or rail projects that he can push," Redfield said, such as the development of high-speed train service between Chicago and St. Louis.

Durbin said his focus is the COVID-19 pandemic.

"That starts by ramping up the distribution of vaccines and improving testing across the board," he said. "We also have to provide additional relief to Illinois' unemployed workers, their families, and small businesses."

Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates created a buzz in 2020 as a potential vice presidential nominee and campaigned vigorously for Biden, who has nominated her for a vice chair position on the Democratic National Committee.

Duckworth's current Senate assignments include the Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. It's expected she will become chairwoman of a subcommittee once new assignments are handed out.

With a 50-50 Senate split and Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris available to break ties, the result should be "voting on sending $2,000 checks to struggling Americans and voting the many bipartisan bills that could actually help working families that Sen. Mitch McConnell has been blocking," Duckworth spokeswoman Courtney Jacquin said.

Senate President McConnell has blocked more than 300 bills, U.S. Rep. Sean Casten estimated. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer is slated to succeed him.

Casten, a Downers Grove Democrat, is optimistic the Climate Crisis Action Plan he worked on in 2020 will see daylight. The plan would "dramatically lower emissions, create jobs, and revitalize our infrastructure," Casten said. "I'm looking forward to working with the Biden team to deliver on that plan."

U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi is hopeful Congress will vote on the College Transparency Act that he wrote. It would track employment and graduation rates of students from individual colleges and majors.

The bill would "ensure that students and families have access to the accurate and comprehensive information they need to make informed choices about pursuing higher education," the Schaumburg Democrat said.

After the deadly riots Jan. 6 at the Capitol, U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider expects renewed bipartisan support for the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. The bill, reintroduced Jan. 19, would strengthen the federal government's powers to investigate domestic terrorism while offering resources to local police.

"Unlike after 9/11, the threat that reared its ugly head on Jan. 6 is from domestic terror groups and extremists, often racially motivated violent individuals," said the Deerfield Democrat, who came out early to support Biden in the 2020 primary.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat, is hoping for "serious debate in the Senate" on measures including a bill to require steps to prevent furniture tip-overs that can injure children; to collect data on police misconduct, require body cameras and change other policing practices; and to restructure Medicare Part D and cap out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs, spokesman Miguel Ayala said.

Foster hopes his long-standing push to repeal a ban on unique patient identifiers will see daylight in the Senate. It would allow electronic patient records to be shared among health systems, for example, and thwart people addicted to opioids from switching doctors to get prescriptions.

When he first came to Congress in 2008, Democrats held sway in the House, Senate and White House but failed to engage with Republicans, Foster recalled. The party lost the House in 2010.

The key in 2021 is collaboration, Foster said, and not to "turn everything into a partisan fight."

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Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden rallies support at a 2014 event in Vernon Hills for Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider. Schneider was among the first Illinois lawmakers to back Biden in 2020. Daily Herald File Photo
Senate Judiciary Committee members Kamala Harris of California and Dick Durbin confer at a 2019 hearing. Harris was inaugurated as vice president Wednesday, and Durbin is expected to be the next Judiciary Committee chairman. Associated Press
Outgoing Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Sen. Tammy Duckworth during a mock swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol on Jan. 3, 2017. Duckworth was considered as a potential running mate for Biden in 2020. Associated Press
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