WASHINGTON – With polls leaning toward a Democratic takeover of the Senate, Sen. Chuck Schumer suddenly faces the possibly of morphing into the upper chamber’s most powerful figure, charged with trying to place what many voters disparage as a derailed train back on line.
Schumer, Brooklyn born and raised, isn’t as well-known as some of his Empire State colleagues, folks like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the woman he may wind up working with if she succeeds in her own campaign for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But members of the Democratic caucus profess confidence in his abilities.
“I call him the Jewish LBJ,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) told the Washington Post.
The renowned Lyndon Baines Johnson, Senate Democratic leader in the late 1950s before becoming vice president and, eventually, president is generally upheld as the archetypical Senate majority leader, spirited, tough and relentless.
And while Schumer shares some of those qualities, LBJ had something the lawmaker headed for his fourth six-year term won’t – a strong Democratic majority. Navigating a route through ever-rebellious Republicans with major issues pending would stretch anyone’s skills.
Should Democrats gain control of the upper chamber, Republicans will find themselves dealing with a devilishly smart lawmaker – Schumer graduated first in his class from James Madison High School in Brooklyn before earning undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. He is also a calculating political operative, more strategically inclined than his predecessor, the retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The man is not shy. It’s often been said the most dangerous spot in Washington, D.C., is between Chuck Schumer and a television camera. Yet he obviously carries the confidence of the Senate Democratic Caucus, outmaneuvering potential rivals, particularly Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), his former D.C. roommate who is technically first in line behind Reid, having served as Democratic whip for 12 years.
But Schumer quickly wrapped up the succession question and is already laying the groundwork in case Democrats capture the majority. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, the numbers analyst supreme, currently gives the party a 71 percent chance of reaching that goal on Nov. 8. Schumer already is looking ahead, telling John Harwood of CNBC that it is “more likely than not” that he will assume the powerful position of majority leader.
Schumer is on record saying that his priority for the 115th Congress, other than the budget and other necessary matters, is immigration reform. A bill he sponsored with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2013, which provided unauthorized aliens a path toward legal status, passed the Senate in a bipartisan manner, 68-32, before bogging down in the House.
He also intends to look at the manner in which U.S. companies pay taxes on foreign-earned profits. Citizens for Tax Justice reported earlier this year that firms like Apple and Microsoft avoided paying taxes amounting to $695 billion last year by leaving those funds overseas. Schumer wants to find ways to collect that money and use it on a large infrastructure program.
Schumer has a history of working with Republicans, which should offer some relief given the strained relationship that existed between Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, for many years. Without criticizing Reid, who was also known to issue cutting remarks about other GOP lawmakers, Schumer told Harwood that his Republican colleagues can expect to hear from him over the phone often, asking, “What is on your mind? How can we work in a way that you and I can, or my caucus and your caucus can, agree on things?”
His bipartisan reach extended beyond immigration reform. In 2001, after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in his own New York City backyard, Schumer negotiated with then-President George W. Bush a $20 billion rescue package. He worked with the GOP on the USA Patriot Act and sponsored legislation with then-Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to allow for surveillance of suspected terrorists not connected to a foreign government.
And he has not always worked in lockstep with his own party. He famously criticized President Obama for the timing associated with passage of the Affordable Care Act, asserting that it should have been back-burnered in favor of legislation aimed at boosting the middle class.
He also parted company with the administration over the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran — and continues to defend his opposition — and a measure to permit the victims and families of victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia. On that, he bitterly chided the president for vetoing the measure and drove the override effort. He later, along with others on both sides of the aisle, acknowledged that some changes might have to be made in the bill that passed.
Of course this nod toward comity could prove meaningless if McConnell, back in the minority under this scenario, returns to using the filibuster to block legislation on a consistent basis. McCain, Schumer’s old partner in the immigration reform battle, has already stated that Republicans will stand against any nominee to the Supreme Court that Clinton might make if she is elected president. Schumer may also have to deal with an even more conservative majority in the House, with several GOP moderates on the vulnerable list, although he is said to have a decent relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“I believe we have to get things done,” Schumer told Harwood. “I don’t want to just put things on the floor of the Senate that fail [then] say, ‘See? We tried,’ and go home and use it as an election issue.”
Schumer could also find a friendly face down Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s almost forgotten that he served shoulder-to-shoulder with then-New York Democratic Sen. Clinton from 2000 to 2008.
It’s not unusual for two senators from the same state and the same party to feud openly and behind closed doors. Former New Jersey Democrats Frank Lautenberg and Bob Torricelli famously hated each other. Republicans Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, were known to share a dislike.
That apparently was not true with Schumer and Clinton, at least after the first few months together, although their personalities differ – Schumer more aggressive than the composed Clinton. The points of irritation — and there were some — proved few and far between. Clinton appreciated the fact that Schumer stuck with her during her unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign and he is thought to be well positioned to represent White House interests on the floor of the Senate and work closely with Clinton, should she win.
Their relationship actually pre-dates their time together in the Senate. In 1994, while a member of the House, Schumer emerged as the prime sponsor of the so-called Brady Bill, named for former Reagan press secretary Jim Brady, who was seriously injured in the assassination attempt on the GOP leader, which required background checks on gun purchases. Some in the administration of Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, worried about the potential fallout from the measure. First Lady Clinton supported the bill and it eventually passed.
“We basically think alike,” Schumer told the Associated Press. “We have the same legislative approach: Let’s reach out to get the other side and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”