WASHINGTON — Shoes off, an almost-empty container of leftovers, an unfinished glass of wine — this was the exhausted portrait of one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington after Senate passage of President Joe Biden’s sweeping health, climate and economic package.
New York’s Chuck Schumer effectively moved from minority to majority leader of the U.S. Senate on the morning of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, and he has helmed the chamber through a tumultuous, messy and yet surprisingly productive run with the longest evenly split 50-50 Senate in the nation’s history.
Methodical he is not, as the crumbs scattered on the senatorial carpet in his office off the Senate floor attest.
But with a willingness to broker politically unpleasant compromises and a New Yorker’s drive to keep pestering his colleagues, Schumer is using his party’s fragile control of the Senate for substantive, sizable accomplishments unseen in recent years.
“Persistence. I persist,” Schumer said in an interview late Sunday evening after the round-the-clock session and Senate passage of Biden’s bill.
The $740 billion package, less than once envisioned but still huge, would be a big legislative win for any president and his party. For Biden and the Democrats, it builds on long-running aspirations of lowering health care costs, taxing big corporations that skip paying their share and launching the nation’s largest investment, some $375 billion, to fight climate change. With revenue raised from corporate taxes and allowing the federal government to negotiate some prescription drug costs with pharmaceutical companies, the remaining $300 billion goes to deficit reduction.
Not everyone is cheering Schumer.
Republicans deride the Democrats’ effort as “yet another reckless taxing-and-spending spree,” as Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell put it. Over the weekend, he argued that the Democrats have mistaken their slim control, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking vote, as a mandate for far-reaching policy goals.
And the 755-page bill comes on top of a string of similarly pared-back initiatives, deep disappointments for the party’s liberal wing. But some have been backed by Republicans with rare bipartisan accord, adding up to a Congress with unexpected gains.
The toughest gun violence measure in a generation, a bipartisan effort to tighten who can own guns, is now law. This week Biden is about to sign into law a $280 billion bipartisan bill to boost the semiconductor industry as well as a nearly $300 billion measure to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
By themselves, Democrats muscled through a $1 trillion COVID-aid package that McConnell calls a buffet of “all-you-can-eat liberal spending.” But McConnell and Republicans joined Schumer in passing the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill for the nation’s roads, broadband and other needs.
In addition to legislation, over the past 18 months under Schumer’s leadership the Senate held the nation’s fourth-ever presidential impeachment trial, eventually acquitting Donald Trump on charges he incited the Capitol insurrection; ratified the accession of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, and confirmed the first Black woman, Ketanji Brown Jackson, as a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This is the longest there’s ever been an evenly divided Senate, and it is a real tribute to leader Schumer that he has managed to corral all 50 Democrats behind a legislative agenda,” said Sen. Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat.
“Remember, any one of those would have been the biggest bill passed in the Congress. Oh, didn’t we do a huge bipartisan infrastructure bill last year? That was the biggest in a generation? And before that the American Rescue Plan? Yes, we did.”
Unlike previous highly productive sessions of Congress, Schumer does not enjoy the big majorities typically required to get work done. The filibuster tradition, with its 60-vote threshold to advance most measures, is a powerful tool wielded by McConnell and Republicans (and Democrats, when they are the minority party) that can block almost any initiative.
With zero room for error, Schumer has relied on a vital skill — talking
When he first became Democratic leader, in the minority then, he famously expanded his leadership team to include almost half the caucus, ensuring all segments — from Bernie Sanders on the left to Joe Manchin more to the right — had a seat at the table. His flip-phone has become such an integral part of his communication strategy that Schumer now holds it up as a prop, a reminder of how he works.
And then there are the dinners.
After Manchin abruptly walked away from talks with Biden over the party’s original Build Back Better proposal, Schumer invited the West Virginia senator out to dinner.
“I said look, Joe, we have to get something done here,” Schumer recalled.
Over spaghetti and meatballs the day after Valentine’s Day at an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, Schumer got down to business.
“And I said, Look, you have a lot of clout here. You proved you’re willing to stop the whole thing. But I got to get 49 senators to vote on this. This can’t just be what you want,” Schumer told the former governor he had recruited to run for the Senate a decade ago. “There’s got to be a compromise.”
That willingness by Schumer to take the political bad with the good — in Manchin’s case, the coal-state senator’s insistence on policies for the oil and gas industry that liberals deplore — infuriates liberals and somewhat threatens Schumer’s hold on power.
Sanders lambasted the final package as insufficient, even as he voted for it, and Sanders’ fellow progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been eyed as a powerful New York Democrat who could one day challenge Schumer in a primary election. There are several senators who could imagine themselves as the majority leader some day.
Schumer’s view: “My job is to get things done.”
“It’s very easy to be a Mitch McConnell,” he said about the Republican who prided himself on sending to the “graveyard” bills from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats when he was majority leader.
“It’s easy to stop things, particularly in a Senate that’s designed to stop things. It’s hard to get things done.”
Schumer has always wanted to be the leader of the Senate since his election more than 20 years ago. But even he was somewhat surprised when two Georgia Democrats, Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, won their Jan. 5, 2021, special elections, tipping the majority.
At 4 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 6, Schumer got word of the final election night tallies. He was delivering a Senate speech as the presumptive leader just hours later when a Capitol police officer grabbed him by the shirt collar and pulled him from the floor.
Ushered to a secure location as the mob of rioters loyal to Trump stormed the Capitol, he and the other congressional leaders agreed to return to session that night, determined to finish certifying the presidential election and move on to the the work of the new Congress.