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Senate Democrats are publicly divided over infrastructure strategy. The caucus' most conservative senator openly rebelled against the party’s signature elections bill. And two of Chuck Schumer’s members keep clashing on military sexual assault reform.
It’s enough to invoke a bit of pity for the voluble New Yorker who holds the reins of a 50-50 Senate. There's a growing feeling on the Hill that Democrats are already running out of time to deliver on years of promises.
As Schumer ally Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) put it: “Poor Chuck! He’s got the weight of the world on him.”
The majority leader has hugely consequential issues bearing down on him, such as climate change, Whitehouse said in an interview, “and he has no margin to work with. And an implacable and amoral opponent in" Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“There’s nobody that I can think of who could do it better than he does,” Whitehouse added. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean it’s easy on him.”
To the outside observer, Schumer’s strategy of letting maverick Senate gangs try to negotiate legislation and allowing disagreements to play out among his members might look a bit like chaos. But he keeps his members so close, with telephone calls and personal meetings, that none are criticizing him for his leadership style. Even his Republican counterparts insist there’s a method to the madness.
Schumer himself is a happy warrior who rarely shows that the weight of the job troubles him. He concedes being majority leader is tougher than uniting the minority, but he always pairs that with a love for his job and his 49 Democratic colleagues.
He has, however, taken an increasingly realistic view on the prospects for President Joe Biden’s agenda given a majority that ranges from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the left to Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin on the right. With those constraints in mind, he recently promised to pursue the “biggest bold action that we can get.”
“America needs big, bold change and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen,” Schumer said in a brief interview.
Asked about whether he should be tougher on his resistant members, he responded: “Unity brings us strength and success. That’s what’s worked every time on every tough challenge in the past. And it’s going to continue to work that way.”
Schumer triumphed in passing a long-sought China competitiveness bill this month and kept his party together through the toughest issues of the last four years: Donald Trump’s two impeachments, Obamacare repeal attempts, GOP tax cuts and Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. And he made considerable progress this month rallying his party around a strategy that gives Biden a little more time to negotiate with Republicans on infrastructure, with a unilateral fallback approach if the talks drag on much longer.
But after vowing that “failure is not an option” on voting rights, he’s staring down a potential major defeat thanks to the constraints of the GOP’s filibuster power and internal divisions over whether to kill the 60-vote requirement or keep trying to work with Republicans. Manchin’s opposition to his party’s bill has brought a new wave of scrutiny to Senate Democrats, and Schumer himself.
Progress on gun safety, immigration reform and police conduct is also unsteady at best, with no breakthroughs on those issues after weeks of talks. His New York Democratic colleague Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has taken to the floor seven times to try and force a vote on her long-sought military sexual assault reform, only to be stopped every time, usually by Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Bipartisan infrastructure talks have staggered along for nearly two months now.
Still, the tasks at hand aren't quite as urgent as what Schumer faced when he first took over in January: a new majority and president, a pile of Cabinet confirmations, an impeachment trial after the Jan. 6 insurrection and responding to the Covid crisis.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a frequent Schumer combatant and longtime workout partner, said Schumer’s style “strikes me as a little unconventional.” Yet Cornyn believes, beneath the daily drama, there’s a grander plan afoot.
“I always know what Sen. Schumer’s priorities are,” Cornyn said. “To beat the Republicans in the election.”
Schumer’s style of letting his members publicly work out their differences is undoubtedly different than the tighter grip on party priorities held by his predecessor, former Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. (Reid also had larger majorities to work with.) It’s also vastly divergent from GOP leader McConnell, whose single-minded pursuit of judicial nominations may never be equaled.
The 70-year-old Brooklynite is more eager to let it all play out and pursue the messy process of legislating in an evenly divided Senate. And his members seem fine with the laissez-faire approach. Gillibrand said she would rather have Biden lean on Reed to relent and allow a quick vote than have Schumer use his procedural powers to force the issue, burning a week of floor time that could be used more efficiently on something else.
When asked about Schumer’s strategy, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) replied that he “would not use the word chaos.” Instead, he said Schumer has a “solid plan.”
“He’s still on a good path. And he’s managing what is a very diverse caucus,” Heinrich said, adding that Schumer is “engaging when he needs to engage to get to the next level. But not micromanaging every little piece and part. Because that’s what builds buy-in, especially from the members that are closer to the edge of our caucus.”
Schumer's toughest voter to sway is happy with where things are. Before the Senate broke for the weekend, Manchin praised his leader by name for allowing bipartisanship to have a chance: “I really appreciate Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, going through this process that we’re all benefiting from."
Manchin is in the middle of a motley negotiating group trying to force bipartisan action on infrastructure, helping secure a tentative deal announced Thursday that is still short of details. Budget Committee Chair Sanders (I-Vt.) favors a different approach, pledging to move a bill as soon as he can that would allow Democrats to exclude Republicans.
“For many, many decades the United States Congress has worried about the needs of the rich,” Sanders said. “Now is the time to pay attention to the working families of this country.”
Asked if Schumer is addressing those priorities well, Sanders demurred: “OK, good.” He then got on an elevator and ushered himself away.
Internally, Schumer shored up his position last week by laying out a detailed blueprint for how to secure big infrastructure spending as well as other priorities like paid leave and tax increases for the rich at a Tuesday caucus lunch. His members left the room confident that regardless of whether they strike a deal with Republicans, there is a path to success on another massive tranche of spending.
“We’re not going to sit around and wait til forever. We’re also trying to develop the other track so we’re ready to go so it’s not, 'Oh darn, let’s start this,'” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democratic leader.
Despite the building pressure, the setbacks this year have been few and far between for Schumer, at least when it comes to his fellow Democrats. Aside from divisions on the minimum wage and other issues related to the coronavirus bill, his caucus all voted for the final compromise as well as Trump’s second impeachment, the Jan. 6 commission and a pay equity bill.
Now, internal defections may be just over the horizon as the Senate prepares to consider the elections bill. But at the moment Schumer seemed most troubled that his China competitiveness bill, the Endless Frontier Act, was renamed with a boring acronym before it passed the chamber.
“I loved that name,” Schumer lamented last week. “But some people thought it had to do with covered wagons or something. So we changed it to USICA.”