Republicans buoyant about their newfound power in Washington, D.C., still have to contend with a powerful figure in the opposing party.
The Senate’s new Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, is well known in Washington political circles as perhaps the dominant player in helping fellow Democrats defeat Republican opponents.
Schumer, the 65-year-old New Yorker and former chairman of Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, did not get the results he hoped for this time.
Republicans retained control of the Senate in Tuesday’s elections, meaning Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will remain majority leader in January.
But although he won’t assume that title, Schumer continues to be a strong force in Congress as he tries to satisfy liberals pushing for a more progressive agenda while indulging a pragmatic inclination to negotiate deals with Republicans.
“It is time for the country to come together and heal the bitter wounds from the campaign,” Schumer said in a statement on election night, echoing one of Donald Trump’s own remarks.
The New York senator is the hand-picked successor of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will retire in January. Reid, majority leader until Republicans captured the Senate in 2014, backed Schumer over Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chamber’s current second-in-command.
Supporters say Schumer, currently the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, is uniquely positioned to lead his colleagues and strike consensus with President-elect Trump, a Republican from New York, and other congressional leaders.
Indeed, Trump already has supported Schumer financially. He has donated $8,900 to Schumer campaigns since 1996, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Trump has said he is “close to Schumer in many ways.”
“Schumer will do everything in his power to get things done and break the gridlock in Washington,” said Jim Kessler, a former legislative and policy director for Schumer who was involved in passage of major legislation on crime, gun control, and domestic violence.
“He will work with the most progressive Democrats and the most conservative Republicans to make progress for the middle class and the country,” Kessler added in a statement to The Daily Signal.
Yet Schumer’s inclination to deal will be tested as emboldened Republicans try to ram through their agenda, just as Democrats did when they had total control during President Barack Obama’s first term.
Democrats still hold 48 Senate seats, enough to block most legislative initiatives by employing the filibuster.
“The role he will be expected to play in the Senate changed pretty dramatically after Tuesday’s [election] results came in,” said Jim Manley, former top adviser to Reid, in an interview with The Daily Signal.
“While he [Schumer] has made clear he hopes to try and work with Republicans to get things done, the reality is House Republicans will try to send one bad bill after the other to the Senate and he will do what he can to block those he doesn’t like. Most of the caucus views him as a bulwark against a Republican generated nightmare and are going to want him to stand tough.”
Despite these limitations, observers and advocacy groups say, Schumer will look to advocate specific policy solutions in subject areas that could attract Republican support.
When he takes over from Reid as Senate minority leader in January, Schumer may try to reform the nation’s criminal justice system and to make a big spending push to improve roads and bridges.
Schumer also is expected to seek an overhaul of corporate taxes, which advocates of lower rates say would keep businesses from leaving the country.
Neil Sroka, communications director of Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee, said many Republicans support some of these initiatives, especially easing the nation’s criminal justice laws and changing tax rules.
“What’s interesting is that after a very divisive 2016 election, there are some notable points of agreement between Democrats and Republicans on what needs to be done,” Sroka told The Daily Signal in an interview. “It’s just about going through and discussing how we go about doing that.”
This optimistic attitude reflects recent statements Schumer has made publically to outlets such as The Washington Post and Bloomberg Politics.
“It’s showing people that government can help them and be a force for good, which is what I want to try to do as majority leader,” Schumer told The Washington Post last month. “That, in a small way, is what I’m trying to do.”
Ally for Democrats’ Wish List
Schumer has a long history of working on issues that have broad Democratic support.
He was a participant in the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan Senate group that helped convince the chamber to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws three years ago, before the legislation stalled in the House.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz, negotiated with Schumer as a Gang of Eight member.
“My experience with Chuck on that and other things is he wants to move legislation,” Flake told The Daily Signal in an interview. “He has a very different personality than Harry Reid, and different tactics. I don’t see him taking the position Reid took, which was to basically protect your members from tough votes. I think he [Schumer] is more pragmatic and wants to get things done.”
Before Trump won, allied groups had hoped to lean on Schumer to help pass comprehensive immigration reform next year that includes a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, says he has restrained expectations now.
“The Donald Trump version of immigration reform as far as we have seen is mass deportation and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border,” Noorani said, adding:
I think Schumer, Democrats, and a number of Republicans will have the opportunity to stand in the way of what could be some pretty harmful legislative proposals. But a lot of what Trump wants to do he can do without legislation.
Democrats likely will face similar resistance to another priority issue: toughening the nation’s gun laws.
Schumer was considered a key player in enacting the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a 2003 law that made background checks a requirement for gun purchases from licensed dealers and requires a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. He was also a main strategist for inserting an assault weapons ban into the 1993 crime bill.
“Like he has before, Senator Schumer will support gun safety measures that go hand-in-hand with respecting Second Amendment rights,” said Erika Soto Lamb, chief communications officer for Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement to The Daily Signal.
Expanding gun control likely will be a nonstarter for Trump. He has called for enforcing gun laws already on the books and for aggressive prosecution of violent criminals who use firearms.
With Democrats in the minority, Schumer may look to undertake a more pragmatic agenda.
Despite the divide on Capitol Hill in recent years, opportunities exist for agreement between the parties, observers say.
Schumer is expected to push for the Senate to vote on bipartisan legislation—the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act—that would reduce mandatory sentencing penalties for certain drug crimes considered to be nonviolent.
McConnell, worried about splitting his caucus in a presidential election year, refused this year to allow the full Senate to vote on the legislation, which passed the Judiciary Committee and attracted sponsors such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a staunch conservative—and Schumer himself.
“There’s not anything magic or tragic about what happened this year — it was just politics,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and a former executive director of the House’s Republican Study Committee. “I think it’s teed up now in a really good way.”
Ring, in an interview with The Daily Signal, says Schumer has a mixed record on criminal justice.
He was a supporter of the 1994 crime bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, that imposed tougher prison sentences, put more cops on the streets, and gave money for more prisons. That bill is cited by some as the leading reason for overcrowded prisons and higher spending on the criminal justice system.
“Because Schumer has scars from the crime bill fights of the 1990s, he views his job as not allowing Democrats to get hurt on this issue anymore,” Ring said, adding:
He is very attuned to that, and very sensitive to not letting Democrats getting cast as soft on crime. But the politics have changed. You don’t have to be cautious when you have Senators Rand Paul [R-Ky.] and Mike Lee more out there more than anyone in your caucus. I hope his political antenna accounts for this change.
Schumer is also likely to find at least some Republican support for increasing infrastructure spending and overhaul taxes, specifically for businesses.
“He will do what he thinks is right, even if that means disagreeing with friends,” @RepEliotEngel says of Chuck Schumer.
“Corporate tax reform—specifically the repatriation of corporate earnings trapped abroad—and infrastructure are possible areas of common ground,” said Cesar Conda, a former chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who also has advised House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Conda told The Daily Signal: “Schumer is very transactional. If you can reach a deal with him on an issue, you can take it to the bank that he will follow through.”
Bloomberg Politics reported this week that Schumer and Ryan already had been negotiating a deal on overhauling corporate tax rates before Ryan became House speaker in October 2015.
“You’ve got to do what’s possible,” Schumer said. “There is a possibility of compromise for international tax reform provided it’s attached to a broad, strong infrastructure bank.”
Trump, meanwhile, has pledged to “build the next generation of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, seaports, and airports.” He has said he would spend more than the $275 billion in direct spending on infrastructure over five years proposed by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton before he defeated her.
‘Battle’ Between Democrats
Yet unity on these issues won’t come easy, because Schumer will face scrutiny from his own party.
For example, the liberal wing of the party, emboldened from the successes of Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is resistant to pairing infrastructure spending with corporate tax reform.
“The question of how to pay for infrastructure spending will be a battle not just between Democrats and Republicans, but within the Democratic Party,” said Sroka, of the liberal group Democracy for America. “We would advocate not tying it to the giant giveaway to corporations that many people are trying to enact with international tax reform.”
Indeed, liberals are demanding a seat at the negotiating table, a burst of confidence—and relevance—that Sroka insists won’t get in the way of passing legislation.
“The progressive movement is very different than the tea party,” Sroka said. “Although we sit on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, the progressives are not against compromise. We believe you can comprise politically without compromising your values. So let’s start with the progressive position and go from there.”
Liberals do have at least one thing in common with Trump—their opposition to trade deals such as Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. That agreement is likely dead.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., has known Schumer for more than 40 years, which explains why he can recite the Harvard-educated senator’s perfect SAT score.
“I always joke with Chuck that there is nothing he can do to impress me more than getting a perfect 1600 on the SAT,” Engel, 69, told The Daily Signal in an interview. “To get a 800 on reading and math is unique. Very few people are great at both of those things.”
The two friends crossed paths early in their professional lives, serving together in the New York State Assembly in the late 1970s.
There, Engel expressed admiration for Schumer’s willingness to defy norms, and to define himself. Engel says Schumer was the first legislator he knew in the state assembly to appoint a press secretary.
“He’s always been aware of the benefits of publicity to advance his views,” Engel said.
Schumer, Engel contends, has shown similar independence in Congress and proven willing to challenge the ultimate Democratic leader, Obama. Schumer was critical of the timing of Obamacare’s passage and he went against the president on two major foreign policy objectives.
Schumer, like Engel, opposed the Iran nuclear deal last year and helped override Obama’s veto of a bill passed last summer to allow victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families to sue Saudi Arabia.
To Engel, this shows Schumer won’t be afraid to buck liberals in his caucus, or Republicans.
“He will do what he thinks is right, even if that means disagreeing with friends,” Engel said.