Schumer prepares for his next challenge: Leading Senate Democrats

Schumer will play a crucial role in the Republican-controlled the Senate.
Sen. Charles Schumer
Sen. Charles Schumer

In 2012, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made an arresting offer to Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., whose 2010 special-election victory had upended President Barack Obama’s agenda: Help Democrats pass legislation to blunt the force of money in politics, he said, and they would not mount a serious challenge to Brown’s re-election. Brown agreed, Schumer recalled, but then changed his mind, and the measure failed.

In a blistering phone call, Schumer told Brown he would hunt down the most formidable candidate possible to crush him, and take pleasure from his downfall. His next call was to Elizabeth Warren. “How would you like to send Scott Brown back to Massachusetts?” he asked.

That instinct–at once conciliatory and combative–may serve Schumer well now that he is effectively the last man standing against President-elect Donald Trump and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The new Democratic leader of the Senate will have 47 senators behind him, more than enough to block most legislative initiatives that are not formed with at least a modicum of consensus.

But he will not have the role he had hoped for going into Election Day: majority leader. That position remains with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose inscrutable nature is a studied contrast to Schumer’s volubility.

“He’s got a job to do and I’ve got a job to do,” McConnell said. “I respect him. I think he’s very smart. And I think we’ll be fine. We both have our roles to play. I don’t expect him to enthusiastically embrace my agenda.”

Republicans are entering the next Congress in a fighting stance, seeking to undo much of Obama’s legacy. And many of them say they are looking forward to sparring with Schumer after years of enduring spats between McConnell and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the departing minority leader.

“The Senate is really like a family,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “And if the two leading members of the family have a sour relationship, it’s pretty hard on all of us.”

He added: “Chuck and Mitch have the opportunity to together be very strong leaders who can make a real difference in the Senate. They both value the Senate as the most important institution in the country for achieving big things. They both understand that this is a job that is very hard to get and very hard to do, and while they are there it ought to amount to something good for the country.”

At the same time, Schumer may find himself with more in common with his fellow New Yorker in the White House than most expect. Both men have long talked about major spending on infrastructure and each believes U.S. companies that move jobs overseas should face punishment.

But dealing with Republicans is only part of Schumer’s challenge. Senate Democrats will be largely cleaved into those facing re-election in two years–many from red states like Indiana, North Dakota and Montana–and a liberal flank empowered by the popularity of Warren and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The complexities of his new role, one in which listening is required as much as talking, and self-interest has to give way to consensus, would have once seemed ill suited for Schumer.

“Most people don’t evolve,” said Howard Wolfson, the New York political operative who worked on Schumer’s first race for the Senate, in 1998. “He is someone who has, in ways that enable him to be more successful than he would have been. If you think about him circa 1998, he was very focused on press, somewhat parochial in his view of the world and very partisan. He has evolved into someone who is very focused on results rather than flash and very much able and interested in working with the other party to get things done.”

Schumer has also ceded the spotlight–on the Sunday shows and even on major legislation–to colleagues with more pressing political needs. He has even learned to work with Republicans, hammering out deals while running on the treadmill in the Senate gym.

While still the same unselfconscious, mildly dorky Brooklyn Chuck–he frequently answers his colleagues questions by singing lyrics from “Hamilton” and is not above picking up an errant lo mein noodle that has fallen into his shoes with chopsticks and popping it into his mouth–he is now also self-actualized Chuck.

“I’ve become comfortable with who I am,” Schumer said. “I was a kid from Brooklyn when I got here. I thought, ‘What are they going to think of me?’”

His first Washington housemates, Reps. Marty Russo of Illinois, and George Miller and Leon E. Panetta of California, helped him. “They brought me into the house and taught me how to be a team player,” he said.

Schumer has ascended through a combination of his relentless work habits and his ability to raise vast amounts of money. His appetite for calling candidates, colleagues, donors and staff on his laughably retro flip phone at all hours, his willingness to attend fundraisers in the most far-flung section of Skaneateles, New York, on a Friday night, have earned him a rare kind of admiration.

“We like to say Schumer is a verb,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

In 2010, after Democrats maintained control of the Senate, defying the Tea Party wave that swamped the House, Reid created a leadership position for Schumer as a reward. Schumer seized that platform to to build a war room for both policy and politics, building up many deposits in his favor bank, particularly from newer Senate Democrats who helped him lock up the top leadership slot as soon as Reid announced his retirement last year.

Even for members who opposed him, the way Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., did on earmarks, Schumer has shown understanding.

“Chuck disagreed with me, but one day he stopped me and said, ‘Listen I know you feel strongly about this,’” she said. ‘If you feel you are getting trouble on this just give me a holler, and I will block and tackle.’ That’s when it occurred to me he was paying attention to a lot of us, not just those that could raise money.”

Schumer, partisan but often not particularly liberal, has also forged bonds with Republicans like Alexander and John Cornyn of Texas along the way. On the Judiciary Committee, he has worked with Cornyn to increase voting in the military and, most recently, on a bill to allow the families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to sue Saudi Arabia.

But Schumer’s greater challenge may be across the Rotunda. He is hopeful that he and Speaker Paul D. Ryan will bond over their love of tax policy. Both also support legislation to to bring home hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate profits now parked overseas.

“Ryan and I already have a pretty good relationship,” he said.

Another open question will be the degree to which Schumer can maintain his hard-charging style as his responsibilities expand. Now, after Senate votes, the real work begins, as staff members pile into his office at assigned time slots until well after midnight to present an issue of the week. From a high-level official who is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill, to remote maritime issues on Long Island, to the latest twist in a tax bill–all are discussed before Schumer, who cross-examines each messenger until he is satisfied.

Where did they get their information? What are the fine points of the policy? Which reporter should be clued in to the story?

Staff members vie for an early spot. The unlucky ones go home and make dinner and read their children “Harry Potter” before returning for a 10:30 p.m. grilling.

Schumer’s biggest leadership obstacle may be his hyperpreoccupation with New York. Racing to the Capitol off the last possible shuttle flight may no longer be an option. His biggest stand against the White House this year was when he pushed to override Obama’s veto of the Sept. 11 lawsuit bill, a hometown hit. He will have to balance the greater good of his members–many of them endangered moderates–with parochial interests.

“I’m from Brooklyn,” Schumer said. “Sometimes it helps me, sometimes it hurts me, but if I tried to be someone else I’d be worse than whatever I am.”

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