Schumer Ready for New Role

Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:14pm

Sen. Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) position as Democratic Conference vice chairman brings with it no funding, staff or designated authority. But having relinquished control of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Schumer is set to see an increase in power through this leadership vehicle.

The expected growth in Schumer’s influence is attributed largely to proximity and time. Whereas for the past four years the New Yorker spent several hours per day at DSCC headquarters managing elections, he will now be able to devote more time to crafting legislation and steering Conference politics in the Capitol.

Schumer’s vice chairmanship will remain bereft of the usual perks of leadership — funding and additional staff — although he will receive similar benefits if he becomes Rules and Administration chairman in the next Congress, a move that is widely expected. The Senator will continue to function as a leader without portfolio, with a hand in policy and strategy, while commanding the considerable loyalty of the 13 Democrats he has shepherded into the Senate since 2006.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) called Schumer an “integral part of our leadership team.”

“His insight, his strategy, his experience with winning elections — he gives us valuable advice,” Durbin said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) created the Conference vice chairmanship following the 2006 elections — when Democrats won six Senate seats and took back the majority — to give Schumer a seat at the leadership table. But the role didn’t come with any particular area of responsibility or purview. It still doesn’t.

Senior aides within the Democratic Conference say Schumer will do in the 111th Congress what he did in the 110th: act as a utility player who wears alternating hats as close Reid adviser, legislative craftsman, communications strategist and political tactician.

During the next Congress, Schumer is expected to act as an advocate within leadership for the newly elected Senate Democrats, some of whom represent Republican-leaning states and could face political trouble at home if the agenda of Senate Democrats and President-elect Barack Obama veers too far left.

Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon said his boss looks forward to continuing his work as a member of a leadership foursome that includes Reid, Durbin and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Conference secretary.

“He’ll continue to do whatever he’s asked to help out, which usually means a little bit of everything,” Fallon said.

Senate Democratic insiders declined to discuss where Schumer ranks in the hierarchy of Conference leadership.

Durbin, the Whip, is technically Reid’s No. 2, and he counts Assistant Majority Leader among his official titles. And there seems to be general agreement that Durbin is the second-ranking Senate Democrat, in fact as well as in name. However, Schumer isn’t necessarily viewed as the third-ranking Democrat in the Conference.

At least no one wanted to call him that.

Not only do Reid, Durbin, Schumer and Murray do whatever is necessary to achieve success for the Conference, stressed senior Democratic Senate aides, but all 12 Democratic Senators who are included within the leadership fold are integral to the decision-making process. Jim Manley, Reid’s chief spokesman, said the Majority Leader relies “heavily” on his team as a whole.

But to some off Capitol Hill, Schumer is often the most important member of the Senate Democratic leadership.

“He is incredibly influential and carries big juice. The key challenge for K Street is getting the issue on his radar,” said one Democratic operative who works downtown. “You never want him on the other side.”

Schumer is up for re-election in 2010 but is not expected to face a tough race given New York’s strong Democratic tendencies in recent years. He won a second term in 2004 with 71 percent of the vote, and he is considered on solid political footing at home in any event.

Democratic operatives close to Schumer expect that his decision to cede control of the DSCC to Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) will afford him more time to work with Reid on legislation and political strategy. Schumer also will continue raising money for Democratic Senate candidates, something he has proved to be particularly adept at.

Schumer’s power within the Conference is expected to increase, at least in part because he will now have more time to spend on Capitol Hill, whether in the Cloakroom just off of the Senate floor or focusing on Policy Committee work. Schumer’s arenas of interest in the 111th could include banking and regulatory issues, health care, the economy and taxes, and anything having to do with New York.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), whom Schumer helped elect in 2006, predicted that the New York Democrat would focus his efforts on helping the middle class grapple with the tough economy.

“He has always been focused on middle-class issues, economic issues,” Klobuchar said. “I think Sen. Schumer is well-suited to lead some of those efforts.”