Facing a party in turmoil, with moderates and progressives battling to sway its direction after a devastating election, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer decided to try to make everyone happy.
The newly elected top Senate Democrat navigated a potentially messy fight between two party leaders on Wednesday and expanded his team to include disparate voices, from the liberal Bernie Sanders to the moderate Joe Manchin. It’s not a move without risk for the New York senator.
His leadership team now numbers 10 senators, a potentially unwieldy group that encompasses more than a fifth of a 48-member caucus poised to be a leading spear of opposition to President-elect Donald Trump. Schumer’s moves to diversify the leadership ranks comes on the heels of Trump’s success among blue-collar voters and as liberals try to keep pushing the party to the left.
“We’ll unite our caucus and speak to the blue-collar worker in West Virginia and Michigan as well as the people who live along the coasts,” Schumer said after a remarkably quick leadership meeting, which featured no contested races. “We can unite the disparate factions of our party and country. Our whole leadership team is emblematic of that. Our team is ideologically and geographically diverse.”
Schumer headed off a showdown between Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) for the No. 2 whip job, which Durbin will keep. Retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) typically invited Durbin, Murray and Schumer to crucial decision-making meetings, but those “Big Four” sessions apparently won’t continue under Schumer.
Under the new structure, Durbin will remain whip while bequeathing his title of assistant Democratic leader to Murray, who Durbin said is now No. 3 in leadership. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) will head the party’s messaging arm as chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the No. 4 job.
Senate Democrats are the last line of defense against Trump’s agenda because of the chamber’s supermajority hurdle. They’re expected to oppose any attempt to repeal Obamacare and slash tax rates, among other policies. At the same time, they want to work with him to pass a massive infrastructure package and crack down on Chinese currency manipulation.
On top of that, Democrats must defend 25 Senate seats in 2018, including five in deeply conservative states and another five in traditional battlegrounds that Trump won.
“We are certainly the firewall,” Stabenow said.
“We’re unified in our desire to make it clear how potentially disastrous this administration could be to the country,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “And we’re unified in communicating a message to working-class voters that we’ll fight for them.”
Schumer has not yet landed someone to lead the party’s campaign arm at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen of Maryland has emerged as a leading choice. The opening was left unfilled even as the rest of the leadership team was formed.
Meanwhile, Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) have joined the lower rungs of the caucus’ brass, as has Manchin (D-W.Va.). They join Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mark Warner of Virginia in a caucus structure so large that rank-and-file Democrats struggled to explain the arrangement.
“I can’t remember past that. Truthfully I can’t,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), after naming the top four Democratic leaders.
“There are new members. And I’m not sure I get them straight,” added Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Schumer cast the burgeoning team as more in tune with Americans disgusted with the status quo after voters rejected Hillary Clinton and declined to give Democrats the Senate majority. Indeed, the elevation of Sanders adds the party’s most high-profile disrupter to the leadership ranks. He’ll join Warren, who was part of Reid’s leadership circle.
Sanders, however, will continue to identify as an independent, an unusual situation for a Democratic leader to be in, to say the least. He ran for president as a Democrat but has long called himself an independent in the Senate, one who caucused with Democrats.
Still, the centrist-minded Schumer is taking a “big tent” view of his party, rather than catering to the party’s emboldened left, which supported Sanders over Clinton. In some ways, he must: Senators like Manchin will be facing an electorate in red states that overwhelmingly supported Trump.
Manchin, who met privately and at length with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier this week, described his mission in the new post as finding ways to work with the GOP and Trump.
“My job is going to be to reach across the aisle,” Manchin told reporters. “If we disagree, we’ll have a disagreement. Hopefully I can reach out and find if there’s a pathway forward.”
All 10 Democratic leaders will now attend leadership meetings, a vintage form of triangulation for Schumer, who will face skepticism from liberals for his ties to Wall Street and his deal-cutting inclinations. He said he will not replay the tactics of McConnell, who as minority leader designed an opposition strategy that constantly frustrated Reid.
“We’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Republicans, working with soon-to-be President Trump on issues where we agree. But we will go toe-to-toe against the president-elect whenever our values or the progress we made is under assault,” Schumer said.
The dynamic between Murray and Durbin will be especially important given the internal jockeying for power. Murray had refused to rule out a challenge to Durbin for well over a year, preserving her leverage until the last moment.
“It’s an odd thing. I had two titles,” Durbin said. “Patty is going to be No. 3 with the title of assistant leader. And we’re going to work together as we have.”
The party is also undergoing some churn at the committee level with the retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will move over to replace her, while Feinstein will assume Leahy’s spot as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, which oversees Supreme Court nominations.
Warner will step into Feinstein’s current role atop the Senate Intelligence Committee. And with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) retiring as the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) will step into that role. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) will replace Carper as the top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel.
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