By Alexander Bolton - 06/25/13 09:00 AM EDT
The expected passage of immigration reform this week will hand Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) the biggest legislative triumph of his Senate career and bolster his case to someday become Democratic leader. [WATCH VIDEO]
Schumer strenuously avoids speculation about his political future or talk about what will happen when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decides to step down.
“Everyone knows he is a great political strategist and a great communicator. Now they know he’s a consummate legislator,” said Jim Kessler, who worked for Schumer before becoming the senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a Democratic think tank.
Schumer has had other significant legislative accomplishments in the upper chamber. He helped push $20 billion in funding for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks through a GOP-controlled Senate; he added the college tuition tax credit to the 2009 stimulus package; and he secured funding for the cleanup of Hurricane Sandy last year.
Kessler ranked passage of the immigration bill with Schumer’s biggest victory as a member of the House, the 1994 crime bill. Schumer made a name for himself as a legislator by passing a controversial ban on assault weapons despite the ambivalence of the then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas).
Schumer minted his credentials as one of the nation’s sharpest political strategists by serving as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2006. His reputation grew when he served another cycle in that role and helped expand the Democratic majority to 60 votes.
The longtime knock on Schumer is that he is über-partisan — not the best trait for the leader of a chamber that traditionally relies on bipartisan compromise to get anything done. Some Republicans in the upper chamber, most notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), are not fond of Schumer.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the chief Republican co-sponsor of the immigration bill, was initially leery of working with Schumer because of his partisan reputation. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another member of the Gang of Eight, had to persuade McCain that Schumer was sincere about moving a bipartisan bill.
“He’s been often described in the past as a fierce partisan, a very political person by nature, but in this particular instance he has demonstrated real willingness to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans,” said Jim Manley, a former senior Senate Democratic leadership aide. “It’s impressive that Republicans in the Gang of Eight put aside their views of him as hyper-partisan to work on this proposal.”
Schumer butted heads with Reid and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) over the target vote count for final passage of the bill.
At the outset of the floor debate, Schumer set the ambitious goal of passing it with 70 votes, while Reid and Durbin argued that negotiators should focus more on passing a strong bill with 60 votes. Schumer argued a strong bipartisan majority would put more pressure on the House to act; Reid urged him not to worry about what would happen in the House.
Reid on Friday admitted Schumer’s strategy was the correct one.
“No one — no one [of] 100 senators — no one other than the senator from New York thought we could get 70 votes,” he said on the Senate floor. “I doubted he could get 70 votes. He knows I doubted that. No one in this body thought we could get 68, 72 votes except him.”
Reid says he plans to run for reelection in 2016. As long as he can fend off GOP opponents in the purple state of Nevada, Reid has the top Democratic job in the Senate for as long as he wants it, say Democratic aides. But he will have served eight years as Senate majority leader by the end of next year, when he turns 75 years old, and could change his mind on seeking a sixth term.
Schumer would have been the favorite to take over Reid’s spot even without Senate passage of the immigration reform bill, but the anticipated win rounds out his leadership résumé.
“He’s so overwhelmingly in position to win a leadership race,” said a former Democratic Senate chief of staff.
The former aide said Schumer has enhanced his reputation for getting things done.
“People just view him as a very powerful force,” said the source. “We may need a powerful force, if we lose the majority [in 2014]. We may need a powerful force, if we lose the presidency [in 2016].”
Durbin is Schumer’s most likely rival to succeed Reid. He has also played a major role in putting the immigration reform bill together; he’s one of the bill’s co-authors, as a member of the Gang of Eight, and built political momentum for immigration reform as a longtime champion of the DREAM Act.
Durbin faced down Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in private negotiations over capping work visas, according to Senate sources, and gave the green light for a pivotal deal with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on H-1B visas.
But Schumer was the one who reached out to Graham to put the Gang of Eight together, and he’s taken the lead throughout the negotiations.
A victory on immigration would take the sting out of Schumer’s high-profile legislative disappointment earlier this year, when a bipartisan deal to expand background checks for gun sales collapsed.
“I think it’s a significant accomplishment,” said former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who once held the third-ranking spot in the Senate Democratic leadership. “There have been many attempts to pass immigration legislation. Obviously this has required a lot of patience with the group of eight legislators that Chuck put together.”
Schumer invoked the memory of former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the legendary Senate dealmaker, the day he and his colleagues unveiled their legislation.
“He’s a worthy successor to Ted Kennedy, and that’s saying a lot,” Graham told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published Friday.
Manley, who worked nearly 12 years as Kennedy’s press secretary, joked it might be a bit too early to put Schumer on that kind of pedestal.
“There is only one Ted Kennedy. God broke the mold after he made Sen. Kennedy,” he quipped.