Chuck Schumer's summer winning streak boosts Democrats' midterm hopes as Republicans worry about a momentum shift

·8 min read
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, standing at a lectern bearing a sign that reads "Courage to Act," addresses reporters during an outdoor press conference held beside the Washington National Monument.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on June 7, 2022 in Washington, DC.Nathan Howard/Getty Images
  • Senate Democrats are feeling hopeful after a string of wins thanks in part to Chuck Schumer.

  • The weekend's passage of a reconciliation deal caps weeks of maneuvering by Schumer as majority leader.

  • The snowballing victories come as Democrats vie to retain control of the Senate this fall.

Guiding the Democrats' sweeping reconciliation bill through the 50-50 chamber is a major win for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer following a year-and-a-half of intense negotiations, mounting frustration, and armchair quarterbacking by those who feared he didn't have it in him to muscle things through.

Schumer called the hard-fought reconciliation deal, which passed August 7 with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote, "one of the defining legislative feats of the 21st century."

"To Americans who've lost faith that Congress can do big things. This bill is for you. To seniors, who face the indignity of rationing medications, or skipping them altogether. This bill is for you," Schumer said on the Senate floor after Sunday's marathon voting session. "And to the tens of millions of young Americans who have spent years marching rallying, demanding that Congress act on climate change. This bill is for you."

The package would cut prescription drug costs, provide tax credits to bolster renewable energy production, and raise taxes on profitable corporations to offset the costs. It now awaits a vote in the Democrat-controlled House where it's expected to pass.

Wrapping up the $700 billion package caps a legislative burst that includes the microchip production-boosting CHIPS bill, the veterans' health-related PACT Act, and a NATO expansion vote prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Schumer watchers see his summer maneuvering through a sharply-divided Congress, Republican blockade — and with President Joe Biden mired in low approval ratings — as important steps to cementing his legacy.

He even got a nod from an unlikely lawmaker; Sen. Josh Hawley, a staunch conservative considered a likely 2024 GOP presidential contender. The Missouri lawmaker wrote that Republicans "better be willing to fight" if they retake control of Congress this fall after getting rolled by Democrats who "came to do something."

The wins are not just for Schumer, but also for Biden, whose legislative agenda has largely hinged on Democratic congressional leaders managing their slim majorities.

"We'll never be able to repay the debt we owe to those who have worn the uniform, but today, Congress delivered on a promise to our veterans and their families," Biden wrote on Twitter, adding, "The PACT Act will be the biggest expansion of VA health care in decades. We should all take pride in this moment."

 

Even though all 50 Senate Republicans voted against the bill, former President Donald Trump chastised Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for failing to stop it, accusing the Kentucky Republican of getting "played like a fiddle" by Schumer and Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer points to the image on Rosie Torres's cell phone while she video calls her husband, veteran Le Roy Torres who suffers from illnesses related to his exposure to burn pits in Iraq, after the Senate passed the PACT Act at the U.S. Capitol August 2, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer with Rosie Torres, wife of veteran Le Roy Torres who suffers from illnesses related to his exposure to burn pits in Iraq, after the Senate passed the PACT Act at the U.S. Capitol August 2, 2022 in Washington, DC.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Coming at the right time

Multiple Democrats said the rolling winning streak is happening at just the right time — three months before voters decide control of the next Congress.

"This has certainly been the most productive period of legislating that I've seen. Other than in periods of complete collapse, like during the Great Recession or during COVID," said Sen. Michael Bennet a Democrat of Colorado, who is on the ballot this fall.

Others gave Schumer credit for pulling off the pre-recess momentum shift with Biden still underwater in the polls.

"It would be a mistake to say any of these things could have happened organically," Rodell Mollineau, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said of Schumer's contribution to the recent flurry of activity.

Mollineau added that just because Schumer's not out there twisting arms to bring Democratic swing voters, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, into line doesn't mean he isn't hustling behind the scenes.

"Sometimes he's leading from the front. Sometimes he is in the back," Mollineau, a co-founder of political consulting firm Rokk Solutions, told Insider. "But he's still making sure that his imprimatur is on these achievements."

Competing priorities

Some critics say Schumer wasted time earlier in the session trying to stave off potential progressive primary challengers rather than focusing on ways to beat McConnell's legislative blockades.

"As far as I'm concerned, he spent the last year-and-a-half more concerned about his primary campaign than he was running the Senate, despite the fact that he never had a credible primary challenger," one Democratic strategist told Insider.

Shoring up his left flank proved distracting during a critical stretch of time, the strategist added.

"I saw a lot more focus on the Green New Deal and legalizing weed, for instance, instead of focusing on the nitty-gritty of handling the Senate," the strategist said, adding, "He spent all this time running back to the state every chance he could, focusing on issues that weren't going anywhere in the Senate at a time when the Senate was struggling to get anything done."

Part of that struggle involved keeping conservative Democrats Manchin and Sinema on the same page as progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Michael Fraioli, a Democratic fundraiser and founder of campaign consulting firm Fraioli & Associates, said of Schumer's daily grind.

"I think Schumer's doing a great job," Fraioli told Insider, heaping praise on the four-term lawmaker for taking the chaos of the often bitterly divided chamber in stride. He said recycling pieces of the previous reconciliation bills Manchin and Sinema rejected sooner rather than later would have been nice, but added that Schumer helped put Biden-backed nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court.

"That is a legacy which will last decades," Fraioli said.

Back in New York, Park Slope retiree Marvin Ciporen, 78, gave Schumer props for battling on, even in the face of adversity.

"Don't forget that Schumer held a Democratic caucus together when they were in the minority, and if he hadn't been that effective, the Republicans would've gutted the Affordable Care Act," Ciporen told Insider. "So he deserves that kind of credit for unifying the caucus."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, surrounded by Democratic colleagues (from L to R) Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Patty Murray of Washington, speaks to reporters during a Capitol Hill press conference in Washington, DC.
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference on the upcoming procedural vote to codify Roe v. Wade at the U.S. Capitol Building on May 05, 2022 in Washington, DC.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

'We've really done a lot, haven't we?'

Schumer's Democratic colleagues, including some of those on the ballot this fall, spoke highly of his stick-to-itiveness.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who is running for a third term, praised Schumer for plugging away on difficult issues even under dire circumstances. "He's certainly doing the best he can given an evenly divided Senate and the challenges of COVID," Blumenthal told Insider.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat of Ohio, said even incremental wins can be consequential in today's hyperpartisan Senate.

"Republicans give tax cuts to rich people and appoint judges that take away civil rights and human rights. We move forward on things that really affect people's lives in a positive way," Brown told Insider at the US Capitol.

Democrat Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado said he never doubted Schumer could sew it all up. "This whole project to get the most significant climate rescue bill in history done was always in the cards. It was just too important," Hickenlooper told Insider between Senate votes.

"It's been an incredible period, no question about it," Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said of the recent spate of policy wins.

The reason everything came together the way it did, according to Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, was because of Schumer's collaborative nature.

"What I appreciate is that the leader is listening to members;  he's bringing people together," Lujan told Insider at the US Capitol. "And everyone that would ask me, leading up to this, if the deal was dead, I would say, 'No, there's always time.' As long as you have time, you can always find something that you can agree upon in the Senate."

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii beamed a bit when Insider asked her how Schumer was handling the workload.

"We've really done a lot, haven't we?" Hirono said in the Senate subway. She added, however, that Democrats need to keep at it when they return from recess, listing voting rights, gun reform, and abortion rights as top priorities.

"These are issues that will not go away," Hirono said.

Read the original article on Business Insider