On legislative tightrope, Schumer is leaning more to left

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) talks with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as they celebrate outside the U.S. Capitol Building after news that the White House intends to extend the eviction moratorium in place because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., August 3, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein (Evelyn Hockstein / reuters)
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  • Chuck Schumer
    Chuck Schumer
    American politician
  • Kyrsten Sinema
    Kyrsten Sinema
    United States Senator from Arizona

WASHINGTON - As the coronavirus pandemic began to ravage the United States in the spring of 2020, Sen. Charles Schumer gathered some leading liberal economists to meet virtually with top Senate Democratic leaders and staffers to think through the federal government's response.

Lawmakers were already entertaining upward of $2 trillion in spending - a stunning amount by Washington standards. But the economists made the case that conditions were ripe for not just a rescue of the economy, but a restructuring of it, and participants recalled that Schumer had one persistent question: What if we went bigger?

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That posture represented an unmistakable evolution for the 70-year-old New York Democrat, who spent years advocating for modest, poll-tested policies as he helmed his party's campaign and messaging arms while also resisting efforts to target the financial industry and wealthy Americans, a core constituency in his home state.

Now, as Senate majority leader, Schumer has firmly cast his lot with a growing liberal bloc in his caucus that is increasingly comfortable with a more muscular federal government - and the higher taxes and spending needed to underpin it. He has repeatedly advocated for a "big and bold" economic agenda, one that can show Americans how government can play a productive role in their lives, and he has orchestrated a delicate legislative process for enacting it.

"Chuck has been out there for years making the case that government can be a positive force," said Daniel Squadron, a former Schumer aide who co-wrote a 2007 book about building a "middle-class majority" with the senator. "The universe of what's possible has expanded, and this moment in particular, coming out of a once-in-a-century crisis, both requires and allows for solutions that are of a different scale than anything we've seen in a long time."

But Schumer's strategy is hanging by a thread. Two moderate senators, Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., balked at the $3.5 trillion spending level that Schumer brokered in his office over the summer, prompting Democrats to chop their ambitions in half. And on Monday, Manchin threatened to tank the "Build Back Better" bill entirely, raising objections to "budget gimmicks" and "shell games" after spending months in close consultation with Schumer over what sort of bill he might be willing to accept.

The precarious moment has exposed Schumer to new criticism inside the Democratic ranks, from both sides of the political spectrum. Some liberals are airing frustration that the majority leader has not been able to do more to keep Manchin and Sinema on board with the agenda that they - and President Biden - have advocated. Moderates, meanwhile, believe Schumer - among other party leaders - should have been more clear-eyed from the start about the thin margins in both the House and Senate and scaled back ambitions accordingly.

"We have to be as bold as the votes will bear, and we have always needed to set better expectations about what the votes could bear, given that we have a 50-50 Senate and a four-vote margin basically in the House," said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a leader of the centrist Blue Dog Democrats, who aimed her comment at party leaders generally.

Schumer declined to be interviewed through a spokesman, but he acknowledged in a written statement that his approach to politics has evolved as the problems facing the nation have worsened, citing rising income inequality, racial inequality, the climate crisis and the threats to democracy posed by former president Donald Trump's attacks on the 2020 election.

"The world has changed and the needs of families have changed, and so the policies must adapt to address these challenges," Schumer said. "All of these things require big, bold action and a vigorous response from the federal government, and that has been what I have fighting to deliver in the Senate."

Schumer's left turn has been underway since at least 2016, when he won the battle to succeed Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as the Senate Democratic leader and made moves to beef up his bona fides with the party's liberal wing. He added Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., fresh off his near-miss run for the Democratic presidential nomination, to the Senate party leadership and backed a Sanders ally, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., to chair the Democratic National Committee.

Going into the 2018 midterm elections, Schumer helped lead an effort to recast the party's agenda, consulting widely with liberal economists that were pitching a much more aggressive government role. He embraced a favorite adjective to describe the new platform: "It's not going to be baby steps," he said in a 2017 ABC News interview. "It's going to bold."

The new agenda, rolled out in July 2017 in conjunction with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other party leaders, included key elements that would be incorporated into the present legislative push: infrastructure spending, paid family leave, child care subsidies, lower prescription drug prices and significant new college aid.

Meanwhile, there were other signs that Schumer was becoming increasingly comfortable with once-fringe economic ideas. In February 2019, for instance, he joined with Sanders to endorse a tax on stock buybacks, a proposal that now appears as a major element of the Build Back Better framework. He embraced an effort led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other lawmakers to summarily cancel federal student debt.

The evolution only accelerated as the pandemic took hold - and speculation mounted about a potential 2022 primary challenge that Schumer might face from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., or another young leftist.

"He really started to ask himself: What is going on in the economy, and who do I need to be talking to to understand it?" said Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal New York think tank that Schumer and his aides have routinely consulted with in recent years. "He has become a leader in recognizing that a new economy is possible, and he's done this even if he's had to negotiate to lead a caucus that doesn't 100 percent agree with that, with no margin for error."

But those close margins, and Schumer's decision to embrace an expansive policy vision, have made the process of drafting the bill a white-knuckle ride - one that critics fear has been politically damaging to Democrats as they risk failure on delivering vast policy promises.

The centerpiece of that process has been a "two track" approach meant to navigate the vast agenda through a 50-50 Senate: A infrastructure bill passed with Republican support moving alongside a party-line bill containing the rest of the domestic to-do list, passed using special budget rules to skirt a GOP filibuster.

That approach has maximized Democrats' ambitions, but it has fueled a messy three-month negotiation process that has empowered House liberals to hold the Senate-passed infrastructure bill hostage as leverage to secure passage of the other bill. Promises of free community college, paid family leave and universal dental and vision coverage for seniors have dropped out of the bill, and other elements have been scaled back. In that time, Biden's approval ratings have dropped precipitously, and front-line Democrats have become increasingly fretful about the political consequences.

"The go-big-and-settle strategy may be a good legislative strategy, but it is a terrible electoral and political one," said Simon Rosenberg, a former Clinton White House official and veteran adviser to centrist Democrats.

At times, Schumer has appeared to be a bystander as the two centrist senators have radically reshaped the domestic policy legislation. Some senators were stunned last month when they learned Manchin had privately committed in July support a bill that was less than half the size of the $3.5 trillion package Schumer had publicly proclaimed. And Sinema's unwillingness to embrace tax hikes and other policies supported by virtually all of her Democratic colleagues sparked fury.

Schumer has been mindful of the criticism. When Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., a veteran member of the House Ways and Means Committee, teed off publicly on the Senate leader to a Politico reporter last month, Schumer called him before the day was done to quell the dispute.

Pascrell, in an interview, said he was incensed that Sinema had single-handedly gutted the revenue package that House tax writers had carefully assembled, including hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue from corporate and individual rate hikes. They were blindsided that any Democratic senator could be opposed, he said, and Schumer should have made an earlier, more aggressive effort to change her mind.

"I said to him: I know what you have to put up with. But you knew this early. This was not just, 'I have a difference of opinion.' This was an essential change," Pascrell said last week.

He recalled that Schumer replied that he was doing everything he could to build support for the legislation. "Maybe he is," Pascrell said. Justin Goodman, a Schumer spokesman, declined to comment on the exchange.

Other reviews have been more positive - including from some of those on the left who have been eyed as a long-term political threat to Schumer.

Despite months of rumor and speculation, Ocasio-Cortez has given no outward indication she is entertaining mounting a primary challenge to Schumer next year, and another young left-wing member from the state praised the senior senator in a recent interview.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who beat a veteran incumbent in a Democratic primary last year, called Schumer "one of the hardest-working people on the Hill and that I've ever met in my life" in a recent interview and said he was "listening to the people throughout New York state" in pushing for an expansive economic agenda.

Last month, notably, Schumer became the most prominent New York Democrat to endorse democratic socialist India Walton over incumbent Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who is pursuing an independent write-in campaign after losing the Democratic primary.

"As much as me, as an impatient outsider, new progressive, wants to see things move a bit more urgently, I think he's handled it methodically but also intelligently, so I give him credit for that," Bowman said, citing the tight Senate margin.

But he stopped short of delivered an early endorsement for next year's primary. "A lot is going to ride on what happens with this bill and what happens with voting rights, which is the next huge, huge fight," he added. "He's well regarded throughout the state. But now he knows, and we know, that we have to deliver at this moment because if we don't, why vote for any progressive next year?"

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