PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse?
That prospect is not yet likely — and the “chairman” part would depend on Democrats winning not one but two Georgia Senate runoff elections in January to clinch a majority.
But events in Washington over the last 24 hours have opened up a path for Rhode Island’s junior senator to potentially become the top Democrat on the powerful committee that vets judges and writes the nation’s criminal code.
It began on Monday, when California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein bowed to growing pressure and agreed to step aside as the party’s leader on the Judiciary Committee when the new Congress begins in January. Feinstein had faced increasing criticism due to her advancing age — she is 87 — and her handling of the confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Whitehouse, who was first elected in 2006, is only fourth in seniority among the committee’s Democrats. But with Feinstein out of the mix and another senior Democrat — Vermont’s Patrick Leahy — expected to keep his top slot on the Appropriations Committee, that leaves only one other Democrat in his way, Illinois’ Dick Durbin.
Durbin, 76, signaled Monday night he would indeed seek to replace Feinstein. But that immediately raised questions about whether Durbin should be allowed to simultaneously hold both the party’s No. 2 job, Senate minority whip, and the top slot on Judiciary. Politico and NBC News were already reporting grumbling about that prospect on Tuesday.
Whitehouse, 65, initially reacted to the news about Feinstein by issuing a short statement congratulating her on her long tenure; he made no mention of the succession.
On Tuesday evening, however, he gave his first public indication that he is entertaining a challenge to Durbin if the Senate Democratic caucus votes on whether to let the Illinois lawmaker hold two coveted positions at once.
“In the wake of Ranking Member Feinstein’s announcement, I look forward to the question of succession on the Senate Judiciary Committee being decided by the caucus,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “I will abide by the caucus’s decision.”
It’s unclear how realistic Whitehouse’s chances are, since the eventual decision will come down to the murky internal politics of the Democratic caucus. And regardless of whether it goes to him or Durbin, the chairman’s gavel will remain in the hands of a Republican unless Democrats pick up both Senate seats in Georgia in January.
Still, it’s at least conceivable senators from the nation’s smallest state could simultaneously hold two of the Senate’s most powerful gavels next year, with Jack Reed in charge of the Armed Services Committee and Whitehouse at the helm on Judiciary.
Whitehouse has already emerged as a leading Democratic voice in the partisan battle for control of the judicial branch, as was in evidence during the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings. He used that spotlight to lay out his oft-discussed theory of a years-long effort by conservative groups backed by “dark money” to reshape the courts in the service of corporate and other special interests.
That full-throated critique has won Whitehouse lots of fans on the left.
“The next senator to serve as the lead Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee cannot wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum,” Brian Fallon, executive director of the progressive group Demand Justice, tweeted Tuesday. “It will take someone committed to undoing the damage Trump and McConnell have done to our courts, no matter what it takes.”
Fallon continued, “Sheldon Whitehouse, who would be next in line for the top spot on Senate Judiciary after Dick Durbin, has spent years trying to bring attention to the importance of the courts, and published reports exposing the partisan overreach and corporate bias of the Roberts Court.”
On the right, meanwhile, Whitehouse is portrayed as unhinged and conspiratorial-minded for the same views, making him a frequent target of The Wall Street Journal’s influential editorial page.
Earlier this month, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Whitehouse and a group of colleagues for a 2019 amicus brief they filed that warned the high court’s conservative bloc of potential consequences depending on how they handled a gun case.
“The senators’ brief was extraordinary,” Alito said in a speech to the Federalist Society, itself a frequent Whitehouse target. “I could say something about standards of professional conduct, but the brief involved something even more important. It was an affront to the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Whitehouse retorted on Twitter, “Right-wingers on the Court have no problem meddling in politics from behind robes, but how twitchy they get when you call them out!”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook