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Chuck Schumer Navigates the Resistance

The Senate’s Democratic leader wants to get along with everyone. Now he finds himself between Scylla and Charybdis

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Charles Schumer waves an American flag after unveiling the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal for Our Democracy’ platform in May. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Charles Schumer waves an American flag after unveiling the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal for Our Democracy’ platform in May. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Back when he was policy director for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Jim Kessler had a conversation with his boss about working with a high-profile Republican. This is how it went, according to Kessler.

Schumer: I can call Newt, he likes me.

Kessler: Newt doesn’t like you. He can’t stand you.

Schumer: No, no, no. He likes me.

Kessler: He can’t stand you!

Despite the odd pairing, in the end Newt Gingrich, the Republican and former House speaker from Georgia, and Schumer, who was serving his first term as the Democratic senator from New York, did work on an issue together. (It was around 1999, and might have had to do with the Bronx Zoo — no one can quite remember.)

That Schumer went out of his way to work with a man widely considered to be one of the godfathers of our current freakball political climate is an early example of how Schumer has operated all these years. It is his brand: reaching across the aisle, sometimes inexplicably, many times to the anger of his own party, and often when the hand on the other side is clenched in a fist.

Those who know him and have worked with him say he’s built on that reputation in his year and a half as the leader of Democrats in the Senate.

“I think if the environment was right, if Donald Trump was not president, or if it was a different Donald Trump” — like the one from the 2016 campaign who essentially ran as an independent — “Schumer would be at the forefront and the caucus would be at the forefront of trying to get things done,” Kessler, now a senior vice president at Third Way, an advocacy group, said. “He loves to get things done.”

It’s true that in many ways, Washington is more polarized by the presidency of Donald Trump than ever: Democrats held together to vote against Republican-authored legislation on tax cuts and health care. No one seems close to coming up with a solution to immigration and guns. For many, the death of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain last month marked the end of the line for the type of senator who would buck his own party and surprise people.

And within his party, Schumer’s leadership and instincts toward bipartisanship are currently being put to their toughest test in what is essentially the Washington version of Scylla and Charybdis: the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Liberal activists are desperate to stop the confirmation of the judge who currently sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, but it’s not at all clear how that can be achieved. Despite a 51-49 majority, no Republican senator has given even a slight indication of voting against him.

Schumer’s office declined to make him available for an interview, though in a statement Schumer said that the strength of the caucus “comes from its diversity and our unity,” and that he has “relied on the guidance of a wide range of our members, ranging from the most liberal to the most moderate.”

Schumer’s moderate tack has attracted internal fire as he retreated from lines he drew in the Kavanaugh fight. In July, he told reporters he would not schedule a meeting with the Supreme Court nominee unless the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Judiciary Committee came to an agreement on releasing documents from Kavanaugh’s time in the federal government. But in August, Schumer relented and met with the judge. Over the summer, during a rally outside the Capitol, Schumer thundered that the nomination was a “moral issue for America” adding: “This is an issue that we cannot lose.”

But what does the campaign for “not losing” look like? About the only thing Schumer has urged his colleagues to do is to hold off on coming out as a “yes” vote on Kavanaugh. Liberal groups say he has come up short in not pressuring safe-seat Democrats to state their early opposition and create a drumbeat against the nominee while tightening the screws on moderate Republicans.

Roiling matters further is the question of what will become of the nomination in the wake of recent accusations made by a woman who alleges Kavanaugh assaulted her during a time when both were in high school

On Sept. 5, a dozen liberal groups, including Indivisible, Democracy for America, Demand Justice and Friends of the Earth issued a letter blasting Schumer. “The Supreme Court is on the line and you are failing us,” the letter reads, arguing that Schumer’s balancing act of trying to shield vulnerable Democrats up for re-election by allowing them latitude on their vote is “strategically and morally wrong.”

Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible, said Schumer needs to take a more robust approach on this front. “That’s his job as minority leader: It’s to identify votes that are defining for the party and keep them together,” he said. “If he fails to keep his caucus together on this, he may very well go down as the minority leader who lost Roe v. Wade.”

Democrats in leadership say that such an argument would be fair only if Democrats fail to hold together and are the deciding votes that push Kavanaugh’s nomination over the top.

[Jeff Flake: Kavanaugh Accuser ‘Must Be Heard’]

If you look closely though, Schumer is quietly getting things done in 2018, more so than at any time in recent memory, and he’s played a big hand in something of a restoration: a Senate that is, however tentatively, starting to function again.

Look no further than the appropriations bills that passed on the floor — nine of 12 — minus the so-called poison pills that have sunk legislation in the past. Consider the farm bill, another must-pass bill that in the recent past has been hobbled by partisan sniping. A bipartisan rewrite of the Dodd-Frank bank bill divided Democrats but passed the Senate in March. None of these would have gotten as far as they did without Schumer’s blessing.

Indeed, Democrats in the Senate say perhaps the most significant achievement for Schumer is his mending of relationships in both parties following the departure of Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader.

“There’s no comparison, from my standpoint,” said Joe Manchin III, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. “Schumer’s much more open, understanding, and is inclusive.”

Reid and Manchin never got along, to the point where Manchin publicly blasted Reid following the election of Trump, saying that the then-minority leader’s words “needlessly feed the very divisiveness that is tearing this country apart.” And so, in Nov. 2016, Schumer named the West Virginia Democrat to a position on an expanded leadership team, a move Manchin said he suggested to Schumer because he felt the rest of leadership didn’t necessarily speak for him or his constituents.

Manchin sees his job as serving as a liaison to Republicans on issues where the two parties can work together and preventing Democrats from veering too far to the left.

“I’ve been able to sit in there and say, ‘This is not what we do. This is not who we are. If you want to be in the minority for the rest of your career, go to the far corners of the world.’”

But both parties point to Schumer’s improved relationship with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader from Kentucky, as crucial in getting things working again.

“One thing is for sure, Chuck Schumer is not Harry Reid,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University professor who had an up-close view of things when he was a scholar in residence, most recently in 2016 with Reid, where he sat in on senior staff meetings and saw just how polarized Washington had become. “By the time Reid left, he was not on speaking terms with Mitch McConnell. Schumer has made it his job to establish and repair personal relationships with the Republican leadership.”

That relationship has sometimes been mended indirectly, Baker said. Both Schumer and Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas frequently cross paths in the Senate gym, and in the past they have hashed out plans during their workouts that are then taken to McConnell. But the work with Cornyn has dissipated in the last year and a half, say those with knowledge, and both McConnell and Schumer have direct, open lines with one another.

McConnell himself acknowledged that reality in June during a public question-and-answer session with Politico, when he declined to dwell on his past dealings with Reid but said his relationship with Schumer was “excellent.” He disputed the notion that discourse had deteriorated in the Senate, saying he considered their back-and-forths “quite civil.”

“We’re not at each other’s throats on a daily basis,” he said.

David Popp, a McConnell spokesman, said the two have an “above average working relationship.” He is dismissive of the idea that the Kavanaugh nomination could jeopardize future work together. “The leaders made it clear we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.

Schumer often seeks out Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina when he wants to work with Republicans on an issue.

Democrats agree that repairing relationships has helped pave the way for some of the more significant legislative accomplishments this year. “I think Sen. Schumer has developed a strong working relationship with Leader McConnell,” said Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, “and the progress we’re making on bipartisan appropriations bills is an indicator of that.”

‘Work like grownups’

Schumer considers himself an institutionalist, and this spring he was approached by an ally who shares that philosophy in a quest to get the appropriations process back on track.

When Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy became the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee last year, he was eager to re-engineer a process that had fallen apart completely in the past two decades.

For most of this century, spending bills had been written in leadership offices or been heavily influenced by the president. A multi-thousand-page omnibus was typically dumped on Congress at year’s end as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Everyone hated it, yet no one pushed for change. Leahy and the new Republican chairman of the committee, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, hatched a plan to package the 12 spending bills together and leave out poison pill policy riders. Schumer and McConnell agreed on the plan.

As Leahy put it: “I said, ‘Let’s bring it back, work like grownups. Otherwise, what’s the sense of being here?’”

The result was nine spending bills passed in the Senate, the most in that chamber since fiscal 2000.

Conferencing has been relatively brisk too. A quarter of the annual spending bills passed Congress last week and await Trump’s signature. And this week, the Senate could take up a deal on a two-bill package that also includes a stopgap funding measure designed to avoid a shutdown for any federal agencies that don’t get done on time.

Leahy said Schumer played an important role in giving Democrats the space to do the work. “It makes it easier with Schumer and McConnell agreeing with us, but we were going to do it no matter what,” he said.

Still, other Democratic appropriators think Schumer deserves praise. “I think everyone gets to share in the credit on that one,” said Brian Schatz, a liberal Hawaii senator and the top Democrat on the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee. “I’m happy to see us moving methodically and in a bipartisan fashion. And that wouldn’t have happened without Chuck wanting it to happen.”

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 07: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., make their way to the Senate floor after announcing a two-year deal on the budget earlier in the day on February 7, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, here in February, say they keep lines of communication open. Some see their comity as an antidote to the daily chaos surrounding the Trump presidency. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In a news conference in late August, McConnell went out of his way to praise Democrats. “Our Democratic colleagues in the Senate are to be commended for cooperating with us,” he said.

Some experts see the Senate shift toward comity as an antidote to the daily chaos surrounding the Trump presidency. “The normal political institutions in Washington are getting sick of the carnival,” said Sean Theriault, a University of Texas professor who has studied the rising polarization in Congress. “And so they’re like, ‘Whatever’s happening at the top, that doesn’t mean that the gears of government can’t still work.’ And so I think you’re seeing a little bit of that in the Senate.”

Another case where Schumer let his caucus go its own way was in a high-profile fight this spring over legislation that chipped away at the landmark Dodd-Frank bank regulation bill. For years, Republicans and a large number of Democrats had complained that smaller state and community banks were being punished with onerous federal oversight, including annual stress tests. Such regulations were put in place following multiple taxpayer bailouts of large financial institutions following the financial crisis of 2008.

Coons, who voted for the bill along with 15 other Democrats, said in that instance, like others, Schumer provided some latitude. “He allows members to make their case and gives us some room to explore legislating and policy initiatives even when they may not make the majority of our caucus happy,” he said.

A hard time saying ‘no’

Not making the caucus happy was an understatement. Early this year, when the bill was making its way to the floor, liberal senators led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts accused Democrats who tinkered with the law of “voting against working Americans.” Many, like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who is fighting to keep her endangered seat this fall, were angered by the rhetoric, saying that Warren had misled the public about the potential downsides of the bill.

The rewrite of Dodd-Frank, which passed in March, bitterly divided red-state Democrats and northeastern liberals.

In this case, Schumer acquiesced to lawmakers who were interested in working on the bill, saying that if they could get it out of committee, he would not try to block it. Schumer, who was once famously dubbed “the senator from Wall Street” for his prolific fundraising from such moneyed interests, ultimately voted against the bill.

But his desire to reach out to Republicans and encourage colleagues to build similar bridges has also fueled grumbling within the party and is not without risks.

“Schumer has a very hard time saying no,” said one congressional insider familiar with how things have played out this year, but insisted on anonymity to speak candidly. “He’s over here with the ranking members saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll run an airtight operation, we won’t give an inch.’ And over there with the in-cycle senators handing out passes, essentially, saying, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s do this banking bill that will split our caucus in two.’”

UNITED STATES - JULY 16: Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., conducts a news conference in the Capitol where he criticized President Donald Trump's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Some have grumbled that Schumer can’t say “no.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A senior Schumer aide, who also asked not to be identified to speak frankly, said that sort of criticism is misplaced. “I think people have that impression because he is eager to hear from all sides of the caucus,” the aide said. “He is not someone who tends to favor one ideological wing of the caucus over another.”

On the specific criticism of the Dodd-Frank rewrite, the aide argued that a large number of Democrats were “pretty well set” in their determination to pass something and that there was little he could do to reverse that.

Yet progressives both in and outside Washington are convinced Schumer’s get-along approach in the age of Donald Trump is the weakest of weak sauces. Others fault him for failing to slow down Trump’s judicial nominations. Many were upset that he did not wield leverage on unrelated must-pass legislation to secure a deal for so-called Dreamers — immigrants who were brought here illegally as youngsters. They also point a finger at him for not more forcefully opposing the nomination of Gina Haspel as director of the CIA and Mike Pompeo for secretary of State, both of whom received a handful of Democratic votes on their way to confirmation.

Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who has his own tough re-election fight this fall, said Schumer’s way is not the arm-twist, but the smooth-talk. “One of the common inaccuracies around here is that Schumer tells me what to do or anybody what to do,” he said. “He’s never said, ‘Jon, you’ve gotta vote this way. Dammit, I need you!’ He’s never done that.”

Or as Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and minority whip put it when asked about Schumer’s style: “I’ve been at this a long, long time. You try to put pressure on a colleague and it just doesn’t work. You can talk to them, explain your point of view. But ultimately, it’s an individual and personal choice.”

Democratic leaders say concerns over potential Republican attacks in the run-up to the election are playing into what’s happening. “If your goal is to have all the Democrats vote ‘no,’ the worst thing you can do if you’re in leadership is to publicly say how those red-state Democrats need to vote,” said the Schumer aide. “That only feeds into the Republican argument that they’re doing what they’re doing only at the behest of Chuck Schumer and national Democrats. If you want the entire caucus to be together and vote ‘no’ you need to allow the space for that to happen.”

Schumer has also angered progressives over a matter that has captured much less attention, but is still hugely important: the confirmation of federal judges. In all, 68 federal judges have been confirmed under Trump. In the last few weeks, Schumer has allowed 13 judges to be confirmed without a recorded vote (two others got a recorded vote), allowing Democrats to get home and campaign.

Some liberals, like former Harry Reid adviser Adam Jentleson, argue that Democrats should throw as much sand in the gears as they can when it comes to confirmation votes, especially to lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary. He pointed out in a series of posts on Twitter that just one Democratic senator would need to be on the floor to object to yielding back cloture time, a maneuver that would significantly slow down the process, and could end with fewer lifetime appointments. Indeed, McConnell’s gambit to keep the Senate in session in August had a twofold objective: prevent red-state Democrats from campaigning while pushing through as many lifetime appointments as possible. In this case, McConnell won big.

Brian Fallon, another former Schumer aide, has for the most part backed his former boss in his position as minority leader. But as the new head of the dark money group Demand Justice, which launched this spring and is bankrolling a $5 million campaign to stop Kavanaugh, Fallon has been more pointedly critical in recent weeks.

Following McCain’s death in late August, Schumer floated the idea of naming the Russell Senate Office Building after the Arizona Republican. A day later, Republicans, including McConnell, put the brakes on the idea. At the same time, the group of judicial nominees sailed through as Democrats concluded it would be far better to leave town to campaign rather than stay to vote on judges who would have won confirmation anyway. Fallon tweeted: “McConnell to Schumer: Screw you on your McCain tribute idea. Now help me fast-track 15 Trump judges for a lifetime appointment.” He followed that up with a quote to Bloomberg News in which he called Democrats’ actions on the judges a “pathetic surrender” and deflating ahead of the Kavanaugh hearings.

The Schumer aide pushed back against these arguments, saying comparing Kavanaugh to the federal judges, all of whom had support from Democrats in their home state, was wrong: “Those are not the same fight and acting as if the two are the same is disingenuous.”

Moreover, Schumer was working behind the scenes on a relatively obscure matter: the renomination of Mark Gaston Pearce to the National Labor Relations Board. Conservatives had pushed to replace Pearce, the former chairman, in hopes of getting more pro-management rulings since the post is an important one and Republican appointees only narrowly control the board. A deal was struck to unbottle other pending Trump nominations and Pearce’s nomination was sent over to the Senate in late August.

Whether the progressives’ irritation builds into something more threatening to Schumer’s leadership could hinge on how much, if any, momentum the party’s left wing sees in the midterm elections and whether Democrats are successful at winning back any control in Congress. With more Democratic power, it’s conceivable that Trump would see fit to reach out and strike new kinds of deals — a potentially dicey position for Democrats, and Schumer, given his eagerness to work across the aisle.

Still, Schumer’s position as leader, at least at this point, remains a question only to those outside Washington. The only prominent person who has weighed in against Schumer as leader for the next Congress is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Blue Dog Democrat from Arizona who is running for a seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.

This year, Schumer has worked more with Republicans and supported Trump’s position on nominees and legislation more than he did in 2017, according to statistics compiled by CQ. Yet his support of Trump is scant by opposition-party leader standards.

Going back to a similar moment in time — 2001-03, the first two years of George W. Bush’s administration — then-Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota supported the president’s position more than 70 percent of the time. That figure plummeted in the first two years of Barack Obama’s administration, when then-minority leader McConnell supported the president’s position just over 43 percent of the time. Schumer has averaged a meager 34 percent support score.

‘I am not in charge of them’

Carol Kellermann is one of Schumer’s most trusted outside advisers. She has known him since their college days, and served as his chief of staff when he was a member of the House. She is now president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group in New York, and talks with him most every week and sometimes more often than that.

She hears the complaints that many progressives are making: “You should get senators to do this, that or the other thing!” She’s heard Schumer’s response to this argument: “I can’t get them to do anything. This is a group of 49 strong-minded, capable people, that’s how they got there. I am not in charge of them.”

Said Kellermann: “I think it’s the way he feels in general: I am not in charge of them.”

Importantly, she thinks Schumer has stepped back from the spotlight on a number of occasions, no small feat for a man with a reputation as a publicity hound. “People joke about, ‘You don’t want to get between a camera and Chuck Schumer,’ but he knows that members need to take the lead on certain things.” She sees Durbin’s lead role on the Dreamers and Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey’s role on a bipartisan net-neutrality bill that passed the Senate as examples of that.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 1: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., talk as they walk through the Capitol before a procedural vote on tax reform in the Capitol on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Schumer walks through the Capitol with Sen. Richard Durbin, who took the lead on Dreamers this Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Perhaps the worst point so far this year for Schumer was the shutdown in January over the Dreamers.

“That was not the greatest moment for the caucus,” said Kessler, the former policy director. “But it was a no-win situation. They made their stance, and when you’re in the minority, there’s only so much you can do.”

Schumer, whose middle name is Ellis, for the island in the Hudson River, instead accepted a deal on a series of future votes on the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — none of which ended up coming close to passing. Most progressive groups were enraged at the result.

Ezra Levin of Indivisible said the original sin occurred back in September 2017, when a number of must-pass bills were up: a continuing resolution to fund the government, raising the debt limit, and disaster recovery funding. It was then — shortly after Trump had rescinded DACA, when the matter was front-and-center — that Schumer should have used his leverage, Levin and others said. “It could have been a defining moment for Democrats,” he said, “for those that were standing up to the Trump administration. And they didn’t.”

In the midst of the fight over DACA, Schumer made an eye-popping offer to Trump that would have given the president full funding, or roughly $25 billion, for his beloved border wall, in exchange for a deal on DACA. Many were taken aback when the offer became public. But when Trump reportedly asked for more on his end of the deal, including an end to so-called chain migration, Schumer withdrew the offer.

Eight words

In his 2007 book, “Positively American,” Schumer spends a good deal of time dwelling on the things Democrats need to stand for, and the party’s historic problem of rallying around a core message. He has been preoccupied with the “Contract With America,” the 1994 rallying cry by the Gingrich Republicans. He believes a campaign message can be boiled down to eight words that speak to core values. (In 2004, from his perspective, those winning words were War in Iraq. Cut Taxes. No Gay Marriage.) But Democrats have produced no such message this year.

“I don’t think they’ve really come up with a good one-phrase yet,” said Kellermann, though she quickly noted: “And I don’t think that’s his responsibility.” Indeed, even though Schumer once ran the Democrats’ campaign arm, it’s really the job of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which in June settled on a campaign message around corruption, voting reforms and other small-bore ideas.

In July of last year, Democrats rolled out a set of proposals called “A Better Deal,” focusing on infrastructure, trade and the minimum wage. It was meant to lure Trump-voting Democrats and independents, but has not exactly caught on.

A person who worked on the “Better Deal” message, but who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was crafted so “the entire caucus can stand behind it, from Joe Manchin to Elizabeth Warren. And the importance of it is that Democrats just need to show there’s something they’re fighting for than just fighting against Trump. And insofar that it does that, it’s a success.”

Still, when pressed on the lack of enthusiasm around the message, the person acknowledged: “Something like that can only do so much for Congress. It’s very hard to message nationally from Congress.”

Where Schumer’s leadership goes from here could largely be determined in the next few months. If Democrats remain a minority in the Senate, as seems likely, and the Republicans maintain control of the House, little will likely change. But what if the House goes Democratic? Would Trump finally seek to work with Democrats on issues like infrastructure? Or trade? If so, they might have a hard time resisting. On the other hand, a Democratic House would be the launching pad for wide-ranging investigations into Trump, making bipartisan cooperation difficult in such a climate.

And if the Senate goes Democratic, it would also be a boon to those seeking a stronger check on the administration and could put the brakes on Trump’s judicial nominations. But some see a narrow Democratic win as a possible trap.

“What would be a worse set of circumstances for Chuck Schumer to operate under?” wondered Theriault, the University of Texas professor. With a mere 51-49 majority in the Senate, he said, “all the Democrats are going to expect him to stop what’s going on in Washington, D.C. But of course, what’s going to happen is that Donald Trump is still going to be in the White House after the election. So now you’re going to have these rampant expectations from the base that everything should be normal again. But he’s going to have very little power because Trump is still president.”

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