Despite outreach to GOP, no thaw for Schumer, McConnell

Sen. Charles Schumer has made inroads with Republican colleagues over the last few months, but his relationship with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) remains icy.

The third-ranking Senate Democrat from New York praised McConnell warmly last week after the Republican leader brokered a deal that raised the debt ceiling and opened the government. Yet, that friendly gesture has been received suspiciously.

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“My hat goes off to Sen. McConnell. He’s in a very difficult situation politically and once he saw that Speaker Boehner [R-Ohio] and the House were tied in a total knot, he knew he had the obligation to step up, even if it might hurt him in his campaign,” Schumer told reporters after the deal passed overwhelmingly.

“I respect that. I think everyone of my Democratic colleagues respects that and it’s something that I’ll remember,” he said.

Schumer has tried to strengthen his relationships with Republicans this year by reaching out to them on Senate rules reform and immigration reform. Many on Capitol Hill believe he wants to break the stereotype that he is a partisan bomb thrower.

“At the end of the day, Schumer is the consummate legislator and he recognizes the only way to get anything done in the Senate is to do it in a bipartisan fashion,” said Phil Singer, a former senior aide to Schumer.

But McConnell simply doesn’t trust Schumer. The GOP senator’s inner circle suspects Schumer is trying to create problems with conservative voters in Kentucky by praising him so publicly. McConnell is facing a primary challenge and a competitive general election next year.

McConnell has chafed at Schumer’s decision to call his new proposal to take the power to raise the debt limit out of Congress’s hands the “McConnell Rule.”

“Calling the permanent debt hike the McConnell plan is not a compliment,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.

The bad blood between Schumer and McConnell dates back to 2008, when Schumer was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and McConnell was running for his fifth term.

McConnell felt Schumer, who represents many constituents who work for New York’s financial industry, acted in bad faith by imploring Republican leaders to support a Wall Street bailout bill and then allowing the Democratic campaign arm to blast McConnell with ads targeting his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

“Chuck Schumer pulled one of the dirtiest, most underhanded moves I’ve ever seen in a campaign by imploring McConnell and others to vote for TARP and then turning around and approving a DSCC ad attacking McConnell on TARP,” said a GOP strategist. “It was lowdown, dirty and I doubt McConnell would ever — ever — forget it.”

A source close to Schumer, however, disputed that version of events.

“He never pushed for McConnell to vote for TARP,” said the source, who argued that Schumer as DSCC chairman was not allowed under campaign finance law to preview ads run by the committee’s independent-expenditure wing.

“It was run as an independent expenditure. He can’t know or approve or sign off on an independent expenditure ahead of time,” the source said.

The frosty relationship makes it more difficult to get things done in the upper chamber because Schumer is one of the Senate’s chief dealmakers and almost nothing gets passed without at least the GOP leader’s tacit approval.

Schumer and McConnell need to have a working relationship if Schumer succeeds Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as the chamber’s top Democrat, which many of his colleagues expect.

Strategists think Schumer is thinking ahead.

“It could be that Schumer is looking at the future and trying to make sure there’s a relationship, at least in being able to communicate with each other even though their goals are completely different,” said Stuart Roy, a GOP strategist and former senior aide to McConnell.

Singer said, “I draw on the Book of Ecclesiastes: There’s a time for partisanship and there’s a time for cooperation. When somebody is in a campaign setting and playing the role that the DSCC chair is supposed to play, they’re going to carry out the functions associated out with that position.

 “In the current dynamic, Schumer’s not head of the DSCC. He has a role in the leadership and plays a role in helping Harry Reid get things done,” he added.

Schumer’s allies believe there are signs that McConnell will warm up to Schumer as an agent for compromise.

In early March, McConnell met with Schumer to discuss campaign finance proposals the GOP leader had in mind regarding coordination restrictions. Schumer has jurisdiction over campaign finance issues as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. 

A source familiar with the behind-the-scenes deliberations that led to last week’s fiscal deal said that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) informed Schumer he had been tapped by McConnell to serve as the leader’s proxy and instructed to reach out to Schumer.

Schumer had been in talks with several Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.). But when Alexander informed Schumer on Oct. 9 that he was the only lawmaker empowered as McConnell’s proxy, the negotiations became immediately more focused, according to the source familiar with the talks.

After Schumer and Alexander made sufficient progress, they set up a meeting with Reid and McConnell, which took place on Oct. 12.

A source familiar with the negotiations said McConnell later thanked Schumer personally on the Senate floor for his role in putting the fiscal deal together. A senior GOP aide, however, said that’s not true.

According to the alternative narrative, McConnell merely approved Alexander’s request that they meet privately with Schumer and Reid on Oct. 12.

That meeting lasted for about an hour but failed to yield a conclusion.

“Schumer got Reid in the room and Alexander got McConnell in the room and it didn’t work out,” said the senior Republican aide.

After that meeting, McConnell then called Reid — not Schumer — directly and worked out the deal, according to the source.

But another person familiar with the negotiations said the contours of the deal Reid and McConnell finalized was put together by Schumer and Alexander: language funding government and raising the debt ceiling until early 2014, and a mechanism to begin debating a way to end the automatic cuts known as sequestration.

Reid and McConnell later finalized the end date of the stopgap as Jan. 15 and the expiration of the debt limit as Feb. 7, said that source.