January 24, 2021

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Schumer poised to realize dream of Senate control — but with a razor-thin edge

5 min read

When Kamala D. Harris is sworn in as vice president Jan. 20, she will become the tie-breaking vote in Democrats’ favor, giving President-elect Joe Biden’s party control of both ends of the Capitol for only the third time in the past 40 years.

“It feels like a brand new day,” Schumer said at a valedictory news conference Wednesday morning. He made a new stimulus package, including the bid for $2,000 checks to individuals, a top priority in the new year.

Assuming both Georgia races go to Democrats, Schumer will instantly become a focal point of the Biden agenda, having to govern an evenly divided Senate without a single vote to spare and overseeing a caucus that runs the ideological gauntlet from a conservative from West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D), to a socialist democrat from Vermont, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I).

Across the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will also govern a narrowly divided chamber, with a handful of votes to spare on any bill that Republicans unilaterally oppose. But House rules are easier and more pliable for the majority, a courtesy Schumer will not enjoy in the Senate, where byzantine procedures will force the Democrat to search for GOP support on most legislation and simple-majority rules to confirm Biden’s nominees will require a balancing act to achieve near-perfect unity.

Schumer will have to balance all this with one eye on his own reelection campaign in 2022, as Empire State liberals are searching for a more progressive candidate to challenge his bid for a fifth Senate term — perhaps Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the rising star from the Bronx.

In the weeks leading up to the November election, when Democrats hoped for a convincing majority, Schumer repeatedly said “nothing is off the table” when pressed about ending 60-vote filibuster rules on legislation and expanding the Supreme Court. Democrats fell short on the original election night, but the Georgia races went to runoffs and opened up another avenue to a new, razor-thin majority.

With Manchin and several other Democrats leery of abolishing filibuster rules, Schumer will have to work with Pelosi and Biden on a very narrow track to achieve their legislative goals, using every parliamentary maneuver to get around McConnell’s expected opposition to almost every agenda item.

Despite those long odds, no president has ever entered the Oval Office with so much Washington experience matched with a cordial, decades-long relationship with the House speaker and Senate majority leader.

Longtime friends and advisers say no one is better prepared for this balancing act than Schumer, whose old-school flip-phone serves as the political nerve center for the caucus.

His predecessor, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), used to quiz Schumer about phone numbers when he was majority leader, because Schumer is so obsessive about checking in with his colleagues that he just memorizes their phone number.

“He’s a master of caucus unity,” Matt House, a former senior adviser in the Democratic leader’s office. “Being master of the modern Senate requires keeping the caucus together, and there is nobody better at that than Schumer. He works at it, his political ideology fits just right.”

Schumer, 70, has spent 40 years climbing the ranks of Congress, the longest tenure of anyone before rising to Senate majority leader.

He won his first House race in 1980 as Ronald Reagan won the presidency in a landslide. He joined ranks with a group of up-and-coming Democrats who chafed under the autocratic rule of veteran committee chairmen, agitating for more decentralized power.

Those early allies included Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who is poised to become majority whip later this month, and eventually Pelosi when she won a special election in 1987.

When Democrats lost the House in the 1994 elections, Schumer found himself looking for the next big move — coming in 1998, when he knocked off a three-term incumbent to win a Senate seat.

His early days were marked by an aggressive media approach, including holding weekly Sunday news conferences in New York to jump on issues that were gaining attention, from alleged Chinese efforts to secure a U.S. port to efforts to ban a dangerous caffeinated liquor.

But Schumer felt neglected by leadership in his first term and almost ran for governor, until Reid took charge and brought him into his inner circle in 2005, handing him full control of the campaign committee for four years. Schumer built the Senate majority that resulted in the filibuster-proof 60-vote margin in 2009, delivering the Affordable Care Act, an overhaul of Wall Street laws and other victories for the Obama administration.

He spent the next six years at Reid’s side and was ready to succeed him after the 2016 elections. Early that year, Schumer went to the vice president’s home at the Naval Observatory to ask Biden to be the top surrogate in Senate races, particularly in places like Indiana and Missouri, where other Democrats were not welcome.

The two first worked together more than 25 years ago, when Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote the 1994 crime bill, for which Schumer served as a lead sponsor in the House.

With Hillary Clinton seemingly poised for a victory that would also deliver a Democratic majority, Schumer bolted from New York soon after the polls closed and his easy reelection was official, flying back to Senate Democratic campaign headquarters to celebrate with Reid and Biden.

As returns trickled in, the celebration was canceled, and Biden stayed at the Observatory.

As leader, Schumer kept his caucus together on every major vote the past four years. Some Democrats like Manchin supported occasional Trump initiatives or Supreme Court justices, but not once did one of their votes provide the margin of victory.

And in a symbolic win, every member of Schumer’s caucus voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial last year.

His leadership team runs from Manchin to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), giving him constant insight into all corners of his caucus.

Despite that inclusive nature, rank-and-file Democrats often feel left out of perches of power, a grievance that played out in an internal caucus debate after the November elections that stripped some treasures away from more senior Democrats.

That initial gloom for Senate Democrats — not securing the majority despite Biden’s national victory margin of more than 7 million votes — gave way to an intense focus on the two Georgia runoffs.

Democrats felt optimistic going into Tuesday’s elections, given their success in turning out more than 3 million early votes. But no one planned a party.

Schumer spent Tuesday night at his home in Brooklyn with family. He called the Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, at least three or four times each, assessing where their races stood.

Finally, around midnight, he realized that it finally appeared to be his turn to walk down Senate aisle as the bells called his name: Majority Leader Schumer.

“Wow, who would’ve thought? As I said, this is not the path we chose to get here, but we’re here,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Paul Kane


2021-01-06 14:33:20


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