Chuck Schumer: the man who must steer the Biden agenda

Chuck Schumer has spent more than a dozen years thinking about how Democrats might exercise power if they controlled the US Senate.

The veteran lawmaker from New York was first put in charge of electing more Democrats to the upper chamber of Congress in 2005. His party picked up 14 seats over the next four years, giving Democrats control of the Senate and propelling his colleague, Nevada senator Harry Reid, to the post of Senate majority leader.

More than a decade later, Mr Schumer, 70, has taken up that mantle, after Democrats won back the Senate by the smallest possible margin in two closely fought run-offs in Georgia. The 100-member chamber is split 50-50, with vice-president Kamala Harris able to cast a tiebreaking vote.

That presents Mr Schumer with quite a task: he will need to balance the interests of his increasingly progressive party with the need to reach across the aisle to Republicans wrestling with how to govern in a post-Trump era.

“He finally got the job that he has wanted for a long time,” said Jim Manley, a longtime adviser to Mr Reid. “But the problem is he is getting it under some really tough circumstances.”

Mr Schumer became majority leader last Wednesday, following the swearing-in of Ms Harris as vice-president and Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff from Georgia as senators.

He did so at a time of unprecedented rancour, just two weeks after the violent siege on the Capitol that many Democrats have blamed on their Republican colleagues, in particular Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.

Mr Schumer’s first task was ironing out a schedule for a Senate impeachment trial for former president Donald Trump on a charge of inciting the Capitol Hill insurrection — one that would leave time to confirm Joe Biden’s cabinet appointments and consider his ambitious proposals for another $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief.

Mr Schumer announced late Friday that he had struck a deal with Mitch McConnell, his Republican counterpart, for a trial to begin on February 9.

But the two men are still locked in tough negotiations over an “organising resolution”, or power-sharing agreement, for how to run a Senate that is divided down the middle. The upper chamber has been so finely balanced only once before, for a handful of months in 2001, and the leaders need to agree on how to divide sought-after committee assignments and structure important votes.

Mr McConnell has said he will not sign any deal unless Mr Schumer agrees to preserve the filibuster, an arcane rule that requires 60 senators to back legislation for it to become law. Progressives want the filibuster to be scrapped so they can pursue more liberal policies such as statehood for the District of Columbia, while centrists like Mr Biden and Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, have said the convention should remain.

Mr Schumer faces a formidable opponent in Mr McConnell, a more experienced senator who spent the past six years in the majority, first standing in the way of Barack Obama’s legislative agenda and later using his authority to confirm a record number of conservative judges.

“The Senate is not working right now, at all,” said Mr Manley, who described the upper chamber as “incredibly toxic”.

“It is going to be up to [Mr Schumer] to figure out a way to get it up and running so they can start focusing on the legislative agenda.”

At a press conference last week, reporters asked Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House who has a firm grip on her caucus and has proved to be a deft dealmaker with Mr McConnell, whether she had any advice for the new Senate majority leader. Ms Pelosi demurred, saying she “wouldn’t think of giving him any advice”.

Mr Schumer’s former aides insist he is the man for the job.

“He still thinks of himself, in many ways, as an outsider trying to prove himself,” said Stu Loeser, a communications strategist and former senior aide to Mr Schumer. “He works really hard to out-think, out-strategise and out-hustle everybody else.”

Mr Schumer grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn attending public schools — including a high school whose alumni include Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — before going to Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

But he never practised law, instead joining the New York state legislature before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1980. Nearly two decades later, he ran for Senate, ousting a longtime Republican incumbent.

Mr Loeser said his former boss had a knack for finding compromise.

“He has been able to outmanoeuvre the Republicans on substantive issues for more than 20 years,” Mr Loeser said. “He is not doing it through demagoguery and he is not doing it through insults. He is doing it by figuring out a way to make it in their interest to work with him.”

Risa Heller, a communications strategist and another former Schumer aide, said: “He knows every detail of everything that you can imagine, every policy detail, he knows everything about every county in New York state.”

Mr Schumer visits each of New York state’s more than 60 counties at least once a year, and spends as many nights as he can at home in Brooklyn, rather than in Washington, DC.

“He was a United States senator, rising through the ranks of leadership, and missed fewer of his daughter’s basketball games . . . than any of the other dads, and those dads were working in Manhattan,” Mr Loeser said. Mr Schumer, who is married to Iris Weinshall, a longtime New York City official, has two grown-up children.

Mr Schumer’s allies insist his omnipresence in New York would help him stave off a rumoured primary challenge from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman representing parts of the Bronx and Queens.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez arrived in the House two years ago after defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in a primary campaign that focused on him for being largely absent in his district.

Mr Schumer’s aides defend his ubiquity on national and local news by arguing it is important that the senator’s constituents see that he is working for them. But it has attracted derision too. Bob Dole, the former Republican senator, once noted that the “most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a television camera”.

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