Schumer becomes new Senate majority leader

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BY ALEXANDER BOLTON – 

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has achieved his long-held dream of becoming Senate majority leader after three new Democrats were sworn into the Senate by Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday following President Biden’s inauguration.

The victories by Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia earlier this month create a 50-50 party split in the upper chamber and give Democrats the majority because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is the tie-breaking vote.

After falling short in 2016 and again in November, Schumer has finally ousted his nemesis, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who raised tens of millions of dollars himself to stave off the Democratic takeover.

“What a good morning it is. We sure did not take the most direct path to get here but here we are,” an exultant Schumer said the Wednesday morning after the Georgia runoffs shortly after issuing a statement declaring that Democrats would recapture control of the Senate after six years in the minority.

“As majority leader, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will have a partner who is ready, willing and able to help achieve a forward looking agenda,” he said in a victory statement at the time.

Schumer kept expectations of a Democratic sweep in Georgia muted after Democratic candidates failed to knock off GOP incumbents in Maine and North Carolina in November. Senate Democrats had thought they were favored in both states.

Schumer sought to regain political momentum last month by championing a call to increase the size of stimulus checks in a year-end COVID-19 relief package from $600 to $2,000.

He kept senators in Washington the week after Christmas and working on New Year’s Day to highlight Republican opposition to larger stimulus checks. Under his leadership, Democrats forced Republicans on four straight days to block votes to increase the size of the checks.

Schumer said following the runoffs that he would meet with members of his caucus to put together their agenda for 2021, highlighting legislation to send out $2,000 checks as a top priority.

The changing of guard will be especially sweet for Schumer after this year’s bitter fights over former President Trump’s impeachment trial in January and February and last month’s brawl over the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The 70-year-old New York lawmaker left little doubt in his colleagues’ minds over the past decade that his ultimate aspiration was to become the most powerful person in the Senate.

He was the principal architect behind the Democratic takeover of the Senate majority under then-President George W. Bush in 2006 and helped expand the Democratic majority to a filibuster-proof 60 seats in 2008 and 2009.

Along the way, Schumer helped Senate Democratic fundraising reach new levels and worked closely with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on messaging and political strategy during former President Obama’s two terms in office.

“It’s huge. Nobody has worked harder to accomplish the goal of being in the majority than Chuck Schumer. He has worked tirelessly to achieve that result,” said former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who served with Schumer on the Senate Finance Committee and alongside him in the chamber for 14 years.

“Chuck Schumer’s going to have a big smile on his face and it will be stuck there for a long time, but he’s also a realist and knows how very difficult it will be to govern,” Conrad added. “It will be a very difficult institution to manage, especially in this very toxic political environment we currently have in this country.”

Schumer will become the first Senate majority leader from New York and the first Jewish majority leader, making history along with Harris, who will become the first woman to serve as vice president.

He didn’t spend a lot of time in recent months laying out the Democratic agenda for 2021 should his party recapture the Senate, but in August he pledged to work with Biden to “bring bold and dramatic change to our country.”

“We will make health care affordable for all, we’ll undo the vicious inequality of income and wealth that has plagued America for far too long, and we’ll take strong, decisive action to combat climate change and save the planet,” he said at the virtual Democratic National Convention.

He is expected to work in close coordination with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), with whom he has stayed in lockstep during negotiations this year on successive coronavirus relief packages.

He faces some difficult leadership decisions right off the bat. The biggest one is whether to support an effort to scrap the Senate’s legislative filibuster, which requires most consequential legislation to muster the support of 60 senators before advancing to a final up-or-down vote.

Schumer for months has deflected questions about the future of the filibuster, which Republicans could use to blunt Biden’s agenda during his first 100 days.

Schumer may also come under pressure from some liberals to support adding more justices to the Supreme Court to counterbalance the influence of the three justices appointed by former President Trump, including Amy Comey Barrett, whom Republicans rushed to seat on the high court before Election Day.

“We’re united in wanting big, bold change, and we’re going to sit down as a caucus and discuss the best ways to get that done,” Schumer said Wednesday morning.

The Democratic leader responded to pressure from some colleagues and outside groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and Demand Justice to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Feinstein eventually stepped down after several conversations with Schumer, making way for Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) to take over leadership of the panel.

Matt House, a longtime Schumer aide, predicted the newly minted majority leader will emphasize issues that broadly unite his caucus, building on a strategy he used effectively while Democrats were in the minority.

“He is energized. The caucus is ready to go. There’s a lot of pent-up legislative energy that he is going to be tasked with channeling,” he said. “One thing that he’s done really well is to emphasize issues that are broadly popular in the country and on which there is caucus unity.

“The idea of providing significant and immediate relief to those who need it is as popular in West Virginia as it is in Massachusetts, which he is clearly leaning into,” House added.

Schumer has the reputation as a quintessential New Yorker among his Senate colleagues. He is known to be politically aggressive and ambitious but also someone with a pragmatic side willing to cut big deals, such as the comprehensive Senate immigration reform bill he put together with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2013.

“Chuck Schumer is formed by an experience of growing up in New York. He is highly competitive. … He’s unrelenting. And that has really contributed to his success because Chuck Schumer is not going to quit unless the last dog is hung,” Conrad said.

Schumer’s march to the top Senate leadership position has been steady and relentless over the past 15 years.

He made his move into the Democratic leadership by chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in the 2005-2006 election cycle, when Republicans controlled a 55-seat majority.

Democrats were given little chance of capturing the Senate majority in the 2006 election because of the large GOP lead in seats, but the most competitive races all broke in their direction as an anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War wave flipped control of both chambers of Congress.

In 2008, Schumer helped expand the Democratic majority to 60 seats by presiding over an eight-seat gain during his second stint as chairman of the DSCC.

Schumer cemented his reputation as a prolific fundraiser by pulling in huge amounts of cash.

The DSCC raised $121.4 million during the 2006 cycle, $32.6 million more than the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), even though Republicans were in the majority.

In 2008, the DSCC raked in $162.8 million, compared with the NRSC’s $94.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks fundraising.

Reid rewarded Schumer’s efforts by naming him vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference in January 2007 and chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee in January 2011.

Schumer was viewed as a de facto co-leader of the Democratic caucus during Reid’s final two years as Senate minority leader in 2015 and 2016.

Israel Klein, a Democratic strategist and former Senate aide who worked for Schumer from 2005 to 2009, said Reid brought Schumer into the leadership in part to help craft the party’s messaging.

“Schumer has always been extremely talented on messaging and the politics and getting that right,” he said.

He said “Chuck brought a lot” to the fight against Bush’s ill-fated effort to reform Social Security, against which Senate Democrats led the fight and helped revitalize their party heading into the 2006 midterm election.

Democrats successfully branded Bush’s reform initiative as a push to privatize the program.

Schumer, a former member of the Senate Banking Committee, was known earlier in his career as a champion of Wall Street, which helped him raise large amounts of money, but he has distanced himself from the financial services industry in recent years as he has climbed the leadership rungs of the Democratic Party.

Schumer and his Democratic colleagues thought they were likely to win the Senate majority in the 2016 election under would-be President Hillary Clinton.

That dream, however, shattered in the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, when it became clear that Trump would pull off a huge upset and Republicans would keep a slim 52-seat majority.

Schumer at first pledged to work with Trump on areas of common ground such as trade policy, infrastructure spending and taxing the profits earned by wealth managers and oppose him on issues where they disagreed.

“I hope on the promises he’s made to blue-collar America on trade, on carried interest, on infrastructure, that he’ll stick with them and work with us, even if it means breaking with the Republicans who have always opposed these things,” Schumer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” days after the 2016 election.

The honeymoon period, however, proved to be extremely short.

Schumer received a jolt in early 2017 when thousands of people gathered outside his home in Brooklyn to urge him to “show some spine” and “resist Trump.”

After voting for Trump’s nominees to head the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA and to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Schumer buckled down and opposed the president’s other high-profile nominees, including Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, who was tapped to lead the Transportation Department.

Schumer’s dreams of becoming majority leader appeared dashed again after Senate Democrats underperformed sky-high expectations going into the November general election.

House, the former Schumer aide, said that recapturing the Senate majority in Tuesday’s runoff races is vindication for the senior New York senator.

“Everyone in that caucus recognizes how hard his job is and how hard it is to win a Democratic majority given how many red and purple states there are now,” he said. “The same patience, grit and effort that he put into winning the majorities in ’06 and ’08 have finally come back to fruition now.”

While many Democrats expected a “blue wave” on Nov. 3, Trump surpassed his poll numbers by winning 74.2 million votes, more than any other presidential candidate in history except for Joe Biden.

McConnell later credited Trump with helping pull GOP Senate candidates, such as Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, to victory.

But Trump’s highly controversial behavior in the last several weeks, which several Republican senators privately described as erratic, became a political headwind for former Sens. David Perdue (R) and Kelly Loeffler (R) in Georgia.

The president angrily tweeted earlier this month that the two runoff Senate races in Georgia were “illegal and invalid” as he continued to push debunked theories about election fraud in Georgia.

Gabriel Sterling, the Georgia voting systems implementation manager, expressed concern at a news conference that the actions of Trump and his supporters could depress Republican voter turnout.

 

Source: The Hill

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