Schumer navigates landmines from the left and the right as he assumes top Senate job
And he must keep his party unified despite a divisive debate over whether it’s worthwhile to try to even work with Republicans.
Schumer has to overcome bad blood from years of fierce battles with the very Republicans he’s sought to defeat but whose support he now needs.
“What this campaign taught me about Chuck Schumer is that he will say or do anything in order to win,” Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins told CNN after winning a hard-fought campaign against Schumer-backed groups in 2020. “It was a deceitful, despicable campaign that he ran.”
After serving four decades in Congress, the 70-year-old Brooklynite has now met his moment. He is in charge of muscling through legislation in a chamber split 50-50, confirming Biden’s appointments, overseeing the first impeachment trial of a former president, and shaping the debate over the Senate’s filibuster, which now grants Republicans significant power over major legislation.
His fortune reversed in early January, when Schumer witnessed Democrats win two seats in Georgia to take back the Senate. Then within three weeks, a mob assaulted the US Capitol, the House impeached President Donald Trump for inciting it and Biden was inaugurated. Minutes after he was declared Senate majority leader, Schumer exhaled on the floor, smiled, and said, “I need to catch my breath, so much is happening.”
Going from minority to majority
Since becoming Democratic leader in 2017, Schumer has served only as a minority leader, keeping his caucus together against the proposals of Trump and McConnell.
But serving in the minority is far different than the majority. Schumer will have to piece together a coalition from a diverse caucus to push legislation through the slow-moving chamber.
Schumer, who has cut bipartisan deals in the past, will have to showcase those deal-cutting bonafides while keeping at bay restless liberals. The Democratic leader himself may face a challenge from the left in 2022 from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 31-year-old democratic socialist phenom.
“He’s a very ideological guy in many ways but he’s also a creature of the Senate in his own way,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who once cut a major 2013 immigration deal with Schumer but was on the receiving end of a barrage of attacks from Schumer-backed groups during his 2020 reelection race. “He’s going to have to somehow deal with the energy of the left and create space for Biden to put some points on the board.”
It took Democrats a decade to take back Washington, and Schumer knows that the next two years could be his first and last in his powerful position. In 2014, he bemoaned the health care focused push of the early Obama years as a blown opportunity, arguing Democrats should’ve first boosted the economy.
In 2021, the economic and health crises are so great that Democrats want to address both at the same time. Schumer has called the country’s twin threats the worst in 75 and 100 years, respectively.
Schumer has to keep his entire Democratic caucus in line, while trying to appeal to about a dozen Republican senators, to pass massive legislation responding to both crises.
But crucial rank-and-file Republicans have already dismissed Biden’s plan. Collins has questioned why such a huge response is necessary, after Congress just passed a $900 billion bill in December.
Collins, a crucial vote on most legislation, has broader concerns about working with the Senate Democratic leader.
Last week, Collins told CNN it’s “absolutely true” that she would struggle to personally trust Schumer as she works to pass bills in the Senate over the next two years. She said at the time that the New York Democrat had not reached out to her or talked to her on the floor since the campaign. She said there were other Democrats, including Biden, whom she could trust.
Collins is particularly frustrated with Schumer over the attack ads from the Senate Majority PAC, a Schumer-aligned Super PAC, including a TV ad that said she “pocketed” $1.4 million from the drug and insurance industry while showing her reaching into her purse.
“What bothered me the most about the type of campaign Chuck ran against me is that he attacked my integrity,” Collins told CNN. “He actually ran an ad that called me corrupt and made it look like I was pocketing campaign contributions.”
“I remember the old Senate, where that just never would have been done,” she added.
Schumer’s office declined to comment for this article.
Ascent years in the making
In 2004, Schumer had a choice: run for governor or stay in the Senate. The future Democratic leader, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, offered him a seat on the powerful Finance Committee and to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 elections. He took the deal, giving him a national fundraising platform, the power to recruit new members and oversight over taxes, trade deals, health programs and Wall Street.
Phil Singer, a former spokesman for Schumer, told CNN that the New York senator was attracted to the legislative scope of the Senate.
“If you want to get something done meaningfully, that’s going to affect people’s lives in the long term, the Senate is the best place to do it,” said Singer, paraphrasing Schumer from a conversation they had at the time.
Schumer’s hard-charging campaign tactics at the DSCC in 2006 and 2008, and round-the-clock efforts to put his party in power since then, has hurt his relationship with Republicans. McConnell has not forgotten that Schumer’s Senate Democrats’ campaign-arm bashed him for supporting lax regulations and then bailing out Wall Street a dozen years ago.
The Trump era has not brought Schumer and Republicans, who he has long viewed as anti-government, any closer, as old allies from across the aisle retired and Schumer’s relationship with McConnell soured. The Schumer-McConnell relationship hit a new low in 2017, after Schumer voted against the nomination of McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, to be Secretary of Transportation.
The two talked sparingly during the Trump years and bashed each other publicly on the floor. Many senators hope the frosty relationship will thaw.
“I think he’s talking to Mitch, which we hope that will continue,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “I’m optimistic. He’s a consensus builder, not a dictator.”
But Schumer’s tireless campaigning has endeared himself to the Democratic caucus, and kept it united.
“He has held us together the last four years despite having senators that go from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, referring to the most liberal and conservative senators who caucus with Democrats. “It is harder in the majority.”
After Democrats failed to take the House and White House in 2016, Schumer expanded his leadership group to include both Sanders and Manchin. He held a Senate Democratic retreat in Manchin’s West Virginia to figure out Trump’s appeal, and pledged that Democrats and the Republican President could work on an infrastructure project together.
But by the end of Trump’s term, after daily denunciations of Trump’s conduct and the attack on the Capitol, Schumer said the President “should not hold office one day longer,” calling for his removal either by trial or invoking the 25th Amendment, neither of which have ever been done before.
Still, some on the left warily view Schumer as too close to Wall Street. Republicans from Trump to Graham have needled the Senate Democratic Leader as Ocasio-Cortez continues to weigh a potential run against him in 2022. Schumer, while dealing with his fragile majority, is trying to maintain his appearances with groups back home, holding regular Zoom calls even while fielding phone calls from Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“I think he’s very capable, smart, hard-working, tenacious. I’ve found him to be honest,” Graham told CNN. “He’s got a problem. He’s majority leader with a primary challenge looming over his shoulder.”
Schumer’s more immediate problem is managing his own caucus, which is divided over whether to eliminate the filibuster, the minority party’s main tool to block or slow down bills. Most Democrats want to get rid of it in order to pass much bolder legislation without requiring Republican support.
Manchin, who is leading a group to find the “moderate middle,” wants to keep the 60-vote threshold.
“Chuck’s a realist, he understands the numbers,” said Manchin. “Anybody pushing from the left, the numbers aren’t there. We’ll go center-left sometime, we’ll go center sometime, maybe even center-right some time.”
But others, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, want to eliminate it, pointing out that Republicans blocked former President Barack Obama’s agenda and Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland with the filibuster. The Republicans erased the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominations, after the Democrats had previously eliminated it for other judicial nominees, but that high bar is still in place for legislation.
McConnell tried to get Schumer to agree to protect the filibuster in exchange for agreeing to rules that will give Democrats their committee gavels.
“He wants a veto over every action that the majority will take,” said Warren. “Mitch McConnell is fine with getting rid of the filibuster for a United States Supreme Court nominee for a lifetime appointment but he’s not OK getting rid of the filibuster for unemployment relief for families that are out of work because of Covid-19?”
After Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema both publicly defended the filibuster, ensuring it would be preserved at least for now, McConnell agreed to a power-sharing deal with Schumer. McConnell said that “no Senate majority should destroy the right of future minorities of both parties to help shape legislation.”
But it still could. On Monday, Schumer told reporters, “All I can tell you is we are not letting McConnell dictate how the Senate operates. He is minority leader.”