Schumer: Caucus Controls Its Own Destiny

Posted December 3, 2010 at 6:26pm

Shakeups in the Senate Democratic leadership structure have raised questions about who will wield the power next year over a diminished and bruised caucus. But newly installed Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer said the answer is simple: all 53 of them.

“The caucus is going to be the decision-maker,” the New York Senator said in an interview Friday, tamping down talk that his new role has enhanced his own clout or made him the heir to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Three weeks ago, Reid surprised his caucus, including fellow leaders, by picking Schumer — who already serves as his No. 3 deputy — to oversee a massive reworking of the way the caucus coordinates public relations, policy and floor operations. Part of that means merging the Democratic Policy Committee, which primarily issues legislative papers, and Reid’s communications “war room.”

That led some Democrats to believe Reid had ceded a lot of his own power to Schumer, who is known for maximizing his influence wherever he gets a foothold and whose ambition for the leader job is well-known.

But Schumer said his new job, along with that of new DPC Vice Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), would be to marshal the resources of the caucus, not to dominate it.

“I am not going to make the policy or do all the press or do all the politics. But our job is to coordinate it all, and make sure it comes together,” he said.

He added, “Sometimes around here we have not been unified. Our policy, our politics and our press are running on separate tracks, and as a result, all three are weaker. They should be unified.”

One senior Senate Democratic aide said the new post could cut both ways for Schumer. While it enhances his Member-to-Member relationships, his performance in the job could make or break his chances of succeeding Reid.

“It’s not that he has more power,” said the aide. “He’s got more responsibility.”

Still, even rank-and-file Democrats remain confused about how the newly configured DPC will work — and just how much power Schumer will have.

Asked last week who would be the ultimate decision-maker on what bills come to the floor, Sen. Mark Warner tightened and pursed his lips. The Virginia Democrat only nodded when asked whether his silence meant he simply didn’t know.

Sen. Mark Begich, whom Reid recently asked to take over the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, said the DPC’s structure is “still evolving.” But the Alaska Democrat seemed to indicate Reid’s power would be weakened by the new entity. 

Like Schumer, Begich said he envisioned “more of a collective environment,” where decisions would be reached from within the rank and file. Indeed, several junior Members — such as  Begich, who is a member of the class of 2008 — said they want decision-making to be more “bottom-up” than “top-down.”

“I think it’s a mechanism for getting broader caucus input into our decisions, and that I think will make it a better decision-making process with more cohesion and everybody feeling that they got their chance to have their say,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) said. 

But Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), who noted the outlines of the new DPC have not been articulated, said Reid “still calls the shots.”

Though he won’t officially take over DPC until next year, Schumer said leaders have been trying to make the caucus “much more inclusive” already.

“I’m amazed at the talent in our caucus, and it wasn’t used enough,” Schumer said. 

He continued, “I’m not going to get into specific details here, but there’s going to be far more inclusiveness and sharing of responsibility for policy, politics and press among Members of the caucus.”

As evidence of the change, he pointed to a coordinated effort on the floor last week in which Democrats attacked Republicans for a letter suggesting they would block all legislation until the Senate dealt with taxes and the economy. Part of the effort involved asking unanimous consent to pass bills dealing with tax breaks and job creation and getting a predictable GOP objection to the move.

Schumer called the moves “a microcosm” of what’s to come.  “We’re showing the middle class we’re on their side. Our press, our politics and our policy are all on the same page. We’re not doing anything else … and we’re putting the Republicans on the defensive.”

Schumer also said the marathon caucus sessions Democrats have had since they returned for the lame-duck session have been more than just grievance sessions.

“One of the reasons we’ve had longer caucuses is because the caucus is becoming more of a decision-maker group,” he said.

Overall, Democratic Senators appear to support the change to the DPC. After all, members of the 2006 and 2008 classes were primarily behind the move after complaining that the 2009 health care debate wasn’t well-coordinated.

Reid’s role will continue to be to “work with his whip to continue to keep caucus unity, work with Republicans to move legislation forward, work with the chairman of the DPC to make sure that the decisions Reid is making are also going to be synced up with a message strategy, and working with the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] chairman to make sure the policy we’re putting forward is beneficial to our Members, especially those who are up in 2012,” the aide said.

Schumer echoed that point, saying of the entire leadership team, “We are all in this together. We’re a united leadership team, and we’re going to sink or swim together.”

Some Democrats pointed out that Reid has never embraced the role of chief messenger anyway, and they noted his penchant for making impolitic remarks. They also note that Republicans have long tasked their deputy leader — currently Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) — with coordinating the party’s message.

As another Senate Democratic aide put it: “The idea is this new DPC construct helps both Reid and the caucus get better at the things they need to get better at. … And it’s a way for Schumer to do what he’s good at.”

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.