“He’s a watchdog to make sure nobody in the caucus shoots ourselves in the foot before the hearings,” one Senate Democratic aide said. “This guy hasn’t even had a hearing yet. You can’t be jumping to conclusions yet.”
Indeed, Schumer has caught some of his critics off guard by tempering his criticism of Roberts, even as he continues to raise questions about whether the nominee has the right ideology and temperament for the job.
The effect has been to provide Democrats time to stall while Judiciary Committee aides pore over thousands of documents in search of materials that demonstrate Roberts’s conservative views on abortion, school busing, affirmative action and equal pay as a counterweight to early reports about his affable personality and pleasant demeanor.
Beyond that, Schumer has emerged as a leading force in his party this year, helping to shape party strategy on nominations even as he spearheads the Senate Democratic election effort, pushes China on trade policy and works to aide New York from his new seat on the powerful Finance Committee.
Telephoning this reporter by cell phone on a Saturday as he walked down 7th Avenue in Brooklyn to get a haircut, Schumer, 54, reiterated some of the questions he has been asking since Bush nominated Roberts last month.
“Is he going to be a mainstream judge … who interprets law, rather than an ideologue?” he asked. Meanwhile, Schumer continued to press the Justice Department to release documents that Roberts wrote while working in the solicitor general’s office. Any refusal, he said, “is just going to put a greater onus on Judge Roberts to answer questions fully and forthrightly. … That means the hearing is very, very important.”
If Roberts is incomplete or evasive in his answers, Schumer added, “that’s going to give a lot of people pause to think.”
With no Democrats having publicly stated they will support Roberts, several Senate aides suggested this week that the confirmation hearings could be prolonged and contentious, despite press reports that Roberts could eventually be confirmed with 60 or 70 votes.
For example, Democratic staff members estimate that there are as many as 1,500 documents that Roberts signed as the principal decisionmaker while serving as a deputy in the solicitor general’s office. Those could yield further questions and requests for information that could slow the hearing the process, complicating Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) plan to take up the nomination on the floor by Sept. 26.
Schumer insisted that he has not made up his own mind on how he will vote and said he isn’t aware of any Judiciary Committee Democrats who have either. He has met privately with Roberts twice and presented him with a detailed list of questions about the court and insisted that he has no intention of “grilling” Roberts.
“No one’s looking to play gotcha,” he said.
With his proliferation of press conferences and press releases, Schumer has made himself among the most outspoken senators on the nomination, besting even the formidable Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in coverage and influence.
Schumer can boast that an effort he began years ago to focus questioning of nominees on ideological questions rather than technical matters has taken root. That has made him one of the Democrats Republicans most love to hate.
“Since Chuck Schumer began his surrogacy to introduce ideological litmus tests into judicial confirmations, and heated up the rhetoric, Republicans have had a gross pickup of nine seats and a net of six,” said Manuel Miranda of the conservative Third Branch Conference. “As a New Yorker, I am charmed by the guy. As a partisan, I thank God that he is in the Senate. For Republicans, Democrats like Schumer, [Barbara] Boxer [Calif.], [Dick] Durbin [Ill.] and Kennedy are an asset.”
Schumer gained a seat at the Democratic leadership table when he assumed the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) this year. Relying on his well-heeled New York connections, he has surpassed Republicans in fundraising and kept Democrats competitive by scoring some recruiting coups — notably clearing the field for Pennsylvania state Treasurer Bob Casey to challenge Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
“He’s got serious access to Harry Reid,” said one Democratic lobbyist. Should the outspoken Schumer ever have trouble reaching his party leader in the Senate, he can always turn to his longtime housemate, Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat.
Schumer’s fundraising efforts on behalf of others appear to have won over Democratic colleagues. The DSCC raised $22.6 million through June, compared to $20.9 million raised by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“Now that he’s working on behalf of the caucus, people feel good about things,” the Senate aide said, although the lobbying source called the $2 million in contributions from Schumer’s own sizable campaign war chest last year “a buck short and an hour late.” Schumer had more than $20 million in the bank at the time.
Schumer, elected to the New York state Assembly at 23 and to Congress before 30, exhibited his tenacity long before the latest fights over nominations. “I persuaded the caucus to vote down [Judge Miguel] Estrada because he was totally disrespectful of the committee,” Schumer said.
He has hoped to emulate the record of constituent service of the man he defeated, Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), and was instrumental in assembling an aid package for New York after the Sept. 11 attacks. Schumer got a chance to focus on national issues such as trade and healthcare when Reid put him on Finance after he agreed to take the DSCC job.
But even as he emerges as a major player in the Senate, Schumer finds it hard to stay out of the shadow of New York’s junior senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who leads all Democrats in early polling for the 2008 presidential nomination.
During his walk to the barber, a woman approached Schumer to say he ought to run for president, but Schumer didn’t let the compliment go to his head. “Don’t worry. It doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “It’s Brooklyn.”