Chuck Schumer finally breaks through
When Stacey Abrams delivered the news to Chuck Schumer that she would not run for the Senate, she touted someone else who was decidedly not a household name in national Democratic circles.
“The only recruit who I didn’t get who I wanted was Stacey Abrams. She said to me, … ‘There’s a candidate who is every bit as good as me: Warnock,’” Schumer recounted in an interview this fall. “As usual, Stacey was right.”
At the time, however, it did not seem at all likely that Raphael Warnock would be the one who finally put Schumer over the top. Yet the Black preacher’s surprisingly strong performance alongside Jon Ossoff has done what two promising November Senate cycles failed to do in 2016 and 2020: make Schumer majority leader.
“We sure did not take the most direct path to get here, but here we are,” Schumer told reporters a few hours after learning he would soon take the majority in the January runoffs. “It feels like a brand new day.”
Schumer helped seize Democrats’ last majority in 2006 at the helm of the party’s campaign arm and has been strategizing on how to take it back since their 2014 wipe out.
Now Washington will find out if Schumer is cut out to govern the Senate during extremely high stakes: a new president confronting a crippling pandemic, a 50-50 Senate and fractious Democratic caucus, not to mention a GOP reeling from President Donald Trump’s post-election meltdown.
The two wins in Georgia offer Schumer both relief and new challenges. His path to reelection and through a 2022 Democratic primary in New York appeared easier after his party shocked the world in Georgia Tuesday. But his stewardship of the narrowest of majorities will also bring pressure on him to deliver amid his party’s ideological fault lines.
Democratic unity during the Trump era has been one of Schumer’s successes, but that’s been far easier to accomplish in the minority. In the majority, he will have to get Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on board with Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), over and over and over again, or Joe Biden’s agenda will quickly stall.
“What unites us is a desire to improve the lives of the American people. What divides us is strategy, tactics,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Republicans, he said are “divided not by ideology but whether or not one is supportive of the premise of democracy itself. And that seems like a tougher caucus to manage.”
Schumer spoke to Biden on Wednesday morning and said he pledged to the Biden administration he will have a “partner” in the Senate Democrati caucus, which will advance “bold change.” But he said he hadn’t yet talked to GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, and the two will need to put their bad blood aside to figure out how exactly Senate control will work with the chamber evenly divided and a Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties.
Schumer, who will be the first Jewish Senate majority leader, once enjoyed close relationships with key GOP senators like John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of South Dakota, sometimes serving as a back-channel negotiator before he was Democratic leader. But Republicans are now bracing for Schumer to run them over.
Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who used to work out with Schumer in the Senate gym and echoed many Democratic criticisms of Trump, lamented that Schumer will not be “as good as Mitch McConnell would have been and has been” as majority leader. Still, he said they enjoy a fine relationship.
One difference between Schumer and the tight-lipped McConnell is that Schumer is in constant contact with his members, calling them constantly on his flip phone, which rang several times at Wednesday’s press conference. That won’t change, allies say, and Schumer fielded calls from Democrats all morning on Wednesday. Schumer said he also spoke to both Warnock and Ossoff multiple times on Tuesday night from his home in Brooklyn as he tracked the election.
But Democrats did say they expected the Senate floor to look very different — and more active — than it did under McConnell, who prioritized judicial nominations and legislation he could pass with majority votes. The Kentucky Republican largely steered clear of big debates over immigration reform or infrastructure, which would require Democratic buy-in to obtain the supermajority requirement needed for most legislation.
“I have a friend where you ask him how he’s doing he always says, ‘Compared to what?’ So, compared to our current leader, [Schumer] will be a great improvement,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “He believes that when bills come to the floor, we should have the opportunity to debate them and offer amendments to them. So that will be a change.”
How far the party will go remains to be seen. Already, Manchin is asking for “a new era of bipartisanship in Washington,” while others want to see Democrats embrace ambitious progressive proposals — and overrule Republicans, if necessary.
“Democrats need to deliver,” said Sen. Warren (D-Mass.) in a recent interview. “There are things we can do without the Democratic Senate. But a lot more we can do if we’re in a Democratic Senate.”
Warren has teamed with Schumer to push Biden to use his executive authority to cancel student loans unilaterally, and Senate Democrats will weigh whether to do the same on other issues. Though killing the filibuster is unlikely, the party can pass major legislation through budget reconciliation by a simple majority. Both Trump’s tax cuts and the Affordable Care Act were passed through that maneuver.
Priority number one will be Covid aid, and Schumer said specifically the Senate will focus on approving $2,000 stimulus checks, which Ossoff and Warnock campaigned on. Schumer declined to say on Wednesday whether that would be a narrowly tailored bill like the House passed in December or the underpinning of a larger relief package.
But as he figures out his agenda and how to get Biden’s Cabinet confirmed, the Senate map will always be on Schumer’s mind. In many ways, the top priority of a Senate majority leader is to stay Senate majority leader, and 2022 is shaping up to be a rugged battle for Senate control. Warnock will be up for a full term, and a handful of swing states will see competitive races.
Some of Schumer’s members want to see his reign take on a purple hue, even as Democrats regain full control of Washington for the first time in a decade.
“We need folks working across the aisle,” said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is also up for reelection. “At times we see a lot of that, at times we don’t. It’s important to the future of our country that Democrats and Republicans work together to solve these problems regardless of who is in charge.”