Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- On Nov. 16, as Congress raced to adjourn for Thanksgiving, Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin found time to sit down with Republican political activist C. Boyden Gray. It was unpleasant for Gray, who followed with what looked like a pre-arranged letter of apology to the senator. After that, Durbin was reported to have lifted the "hold" blocking Gray's confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the European Union (EU).

 That very day, Durbin engaged in public confrontation with Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, the Senate's president pro-tem. Durbin took the Senate floor to accuse Stevens of making it easier for oil executives to lie to Congress. When Stevens demanded an apology under the rules, Durbin refused on grounds the rules did not apply.

 I have been watching the Senate for nearly 49 years, and there once was a time when Durbin's busy Nov. 16 would have attracted attention. But it went virtually unnoticed. The Senate has hardened, and so has Dick Durbin. A career politician from downstate Illinois, he always was partisan, but he was viewed as an amiable fellow with a ready smile. Today, at 61, he leads the charge against George W. Bush and Republicans, firing all weapons at hand.

 Durbin's opposition appears to be the reason Gray's nomination by President Bush for the EU post has languished since July. Gray, a prominent 62-year-old Washington lawyer with distinguished public service, including White House counsel in the elder George Bush's presidency, was blocked by several senators from a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Durbin's opposition was the key.

 The Senate's arcane procedures do not require a senator to reveal his hold on a nomination, much less explain why. Durbin's opposition stems from his leading role in fighting Bush judicial nominations and Gray's chairmanship of the Committee for Justice (CFJ), an organization pressing for their confirmation. In 2003, Durbin asserted the views of William Pryor on separation of church and state disqualified him as a U.S. appellate court nominee. The CFJ ran an ad saying opposition to Pryor, a Catholic, sent a signal that "Catholics need not apply." Durbin, a Catholic, took umbrage.

 There appeared no way to get Gray confirmed until Durbin sat down with him Nov. 16. Neither side is describing what was said, but accounts have leaked out that it was not pleasant. After it was over, Gray sent -- by both fax and first-class mail -- a profuse apology for the 2003 ad.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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