At their first sit-down as party leaders in December, Chuck Schumer pledged to tell Mitch McConnell exactly what’s on his mind going forward — no subterfuge or backbiting.
“You and Harry didn’t get along,” Schumer recalled saying, referring to his predecessor, Harry Reid. “Each of you thought the other was a liar. But I’ve learned in life if people think people are liars, sometimes they misconceive things when they don’t know the whole story.” Schumer went on: “Mitch, I’m from Brooklyn. I will tell you what I think. Sometimes you’ll like it, sometimes you won’t. But I’m not going to try to surprise you.”
Schumer wasn’t kidding about laying it all out in the open. The Democratic leader is now predicting victory over McConnell in two partisan confrontations about to come to a head, over the Supreme Court vacancy and a potential government shutdown. Never mind that the Democratic Party is in its weakest state in more than a decade.
“They’re in charge. Government shuts down, it’s on their back. We have leverage,” Schumer said in a lengthy interview in his Capitol suite, the same spot where Reid held court with reporters. If Democrats block Neil Gorsuch and McConnell kills the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, “the onus is on them.”
The Democratic leader from New York has been in the job less than three months — and largely relegated to the sidelines. Republicans have pursued an almost entirely partisan agenda, but will need Democratic votes to fund the government and — short of invoking the so-called nuclear option — confirm Gorsuch.
If Schumer emerged from the election in an accommodating mood, those days appear long gone. The New Yorker made clear he’s itching for a fight. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play: Prevail and he’ll open his tenure as leader showing he can take on President Donald Trump and win. Lose, and the bravado looks like a lot of talk.
Democrats notched a huge win last week when the Republican Obamacare repeal effort crashed and burned in the House. Though Schumer was largely a bystander in the GOP’s partisan process, he called it the “most consequential” moment of his young tenure and kept his party from working with Republicans.
But in many ways the Democratic leader’s most critical work is just beginning.
He will be judged by his party on whether he can prevent Gorsuch’s confirmation, any further attempts at repeal of Obamacare and President Donald Trump from forcing Congress to pay for a border wall in a must-pass funding bill next month. This summer, the debt ceiling will need to be raised to avoid a default. And next year, he’s defending 25 Senate seats.
His relationship with McConnell is largely untested, and in crisis situations it often falls to the Senate leaders to negotiate on behalf of all of Washington. The two have barely talked as leaders, negotiating most Senate business through aides, and the Democratic leader was surprised in an interview to learn McConnell’s first name is “Addison” — a popular bit of trivia on Capitol Hill.
People close to both men are starting to worry about how the next few months between them will develop.
“I don’t think they’ve had a good chance to get started on a relationship,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “Democrats are in such a state of shock, and Schumer’s having to respond to that. It really makes it difficult for him to develop a relationship with the majority leader that I would hope they could.”
The trial by fire will begin next month, as negotiations to fund the government past April 28 begin in earnest and McConnell seeks to jam through Gorsuch’s nomination in a fight that could end the filibuster for high court nominees.
Schumer is confident he can block McConnell from filling a Supreme Court vacancy by clearing the 60-vote threshold — and that McConnell might not have the votes to gut the filibuster to get Gorsuch through.
“There’s been an almost seismic shift in the caucus,” against Gorsuch, Schumer said. As for McConnell changing the rules in response, the minority leader added: “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. … There are people in his caucus who really don’t want to change the rules, OK?”
Schumer also insists he has the “upper hand” in negotiations to keep the government open, reasoning that Republicans will get blamed for a shutdown even if it’s Democrats who vote down a spending bill because it contains funding for the border wall.
Schumer is no stranger to audacious predictions, but he’s had a spotty record of late. Last year, he ventured that Senate Republicans would turn against McConnell’s Supreme Court blockade. He also forecast that a new “generation” of Democrats would be ushered in by Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election.
In an interview in January, McConnell cited Schumer as an example of the kind of overconfidence that can backfire against a party. When asked about Republican prospects of picking up Senate seats across a fertile battleground map in 2018, McConnell noted the widespread predictions last year that Democrats would win the chamber. He suggested that Schumer became a bit too enamored with Democrats’ favorable 2016 map and started “measuring the curtains” as potential majority leader.
Schumer said he doesn’t calibrate his statements based on how they might be judged for “posterity or history.”
“I say what I think. Generally I have a pretty good record,” he said. “But I make mistakes. I sure did with the Hillary campaign. And the only consolation is, so did everybody else.”
Despite his minority status, a seething liberal base and crises looming, Schumer seemed in exceedingly good spirits last week as he chomped on Cheerios and slurped on a Diet Pepsi during an interview. He sprawled out in his chair, quizzed this reporter on his background and recounted being shaken down by crooked police in Montenegro.
McConnell’s allies believe Schumer’s relaxed air and bullishness about his party’s positioning belies his actual situation. They say McConnell is a far more seasoned negotiator than Schumer and is not facing the kind of pressure from the base that liberals are putting on Democrats.
“Left to his own devices, Chuck is” pragmatic, said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Republican leadership who works out alongside Schumer in the Senate gym. “But he’s got so much pressure on him from his left in the caucus. And that’s where the center of gravity in their caucus is.”
Schumer has disappointed Republicans with his moves to the left in recent weeks. He urged Democrats to avoid talking with the GOP about health care and is encouraging them to stay there until the GOP abandons its position of repealing Obamacare.
Democrats would work with McConnell only if “he would tomorrow say, ‘We’re not going to repeal, we’re going to work to improve it,'” Schumer said.
In contrast to McConnell’s unilateral decision within hours of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last February to refuse to take up a replacement until after the presidential election, Schumer arrives at these positions only after protracted conversations with Democratic senators. He constantly speaks to his members individually, even memorizing their phone numbers on his signature flip phone rather than program them.
“His M.O. has been to consult endlessly. He’s like a vacuum cleaner in absorbing ideas and reaching out at all hours of the day or not. He’s talking at 11 o’clock at night,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Democrats say they’ve been surprised by his enthusiasm given the grim position his party is in. And so is Schumer.
He said he fell into a deep funk for three days after Clinton lost and Democrats blew their best chance at taking back the Senate until 2020. But on the fourth day, Schumer says, “it was like a thunderbolt hit me, almost a message from God.”
“I said to myself if Hillary won and you were majority leader, the job would be more fun and it would be a lot easier. And most importantly you’d get to do some good things,” Schumer said. “But with Trump as president and you as minority leader, the job is much more important. That has fueled me ever since.”
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