How Schumer rose to the top

When it comes to winning influence with Democratic senators, few can hold a candle to Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

That’s why Schumer is set to succeed Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) as Democratic leader, and why Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) is in danger of being on the outside looking in on the next Senate Democratic leadership team.

Most of the caucus owes Schumer political chits for various services he has rendered — ranging from fundraising help to arranging extra office space and doling out desirable Capitol hideaways from his old perch as Senate Rules Committee chairman.

Schumer built the foundation of his clout by chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and 2008. He exceeded expectations in both cycles, first by picking up six GOP seats to capture the Senate majority and then netting another eight to put his party on the cusp of a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority.

{mosads}Thirty-one Senate Democrats have come to the upper chamber since Schumer took over the DSCC in the 2006 cycle, three-quarters of the 43 Democratic lawmakers who will return in the next Congress.

Schumer was also quick to help colleagues visiting New York City.

“If a member told him they were visiting New York because they had a kid in school or were going on vacation, he would help them secure tickets to a Broadway show or a Yankees game,” said a former Democratic aide.

Former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Schumer provided invaluable support when his family members had medical emergencies in New York.

“When my brother was in the hospital in New York and gravely ill I called Chuck and he was very helpful in making contacts with the hospital people I needed to talk to,” he said.

“My daughter was in an emergency room in New York. I called Chuck Schumer and within 15 minutes I was talking to the head of the emergency room. Those are things people don’t forget,” he added.  

Schumer is one of the most social members of the caucus. He is religious about working out in the Senate gym every morning, as much to nurture friendships as to keep his waistline in check.

He and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have co-hosted Monday night wine-and-cheese receptions for colleagues in the so-called “inner sanctum” across the hall from the Senate dining room on the first floor of the Capitol. He once arranged a trip for colleagues to Brooklyn and organized a mass bike ride for them to point out the local sights.

A Democratic aide noted that Schumer used his power on the Rules panel to “solve problems” and pointed out that hideaways are distributed on the basis of seniority. Even so, the Rules gavel gave Schumer plenty of opportunity to interact with newly arrived colleagues.

Democratic sources say Durbin calculated that by quickly recognizing Schumer as the next Democratic leader he would secure an endorsement to remain whip in 2017. But they say Durbin acknowledged political reality too late and should have begun positioning himself as Schumer’s No. 2 months if not years ago.

“Durbin was in a posture to try to take on Schumer and didn’t build support to be his second in command. He tried to build a cause for running against Schumer and fell flat on that. He shouldn’t necessarily get the whip’s job as a consolation prize,” said a Democratic aide.

A former Democratic aide said Schumer may prefer to see Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.), the fourth-ranking member of the leadership, take the whip’s job because she’d be less likely to contest his strategic vision.

“Chuck does not want people around him who will buck him. He wants Patty Murray who never considered running against him. She’ll do for him whatever he tells her to do,” said the source.

Other Democratic sources offer a more generous interpretation of Schumer’s motives. They say Murray has established a stronger power base within the caucus than Durbin and Schumer does not want to offend colleagues by shutting her out of the whip’s race by giving Durbin an early endorsement.

“Schumer’s got his own race. Endorsing others for other leadership slots, you wouldn’t expect,” Conrad said. “If you look at the history of these races, people going for these leadership spots have not endorsed others for other leadership slots. Everyone runs their own race.”

Democratic aides say Murray has strong support among the women of the Democratic caucus and earned a reputation as a pragmatic dealmaker by crafting a deal with former House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at the end of 2013 to lift caps on military and domestic spending.

Murray built her own pile of political chits by chairing the DSCC in 2002 and 2012. No other Democrat wanted the political job ahead of the 2012 cycle, which was expected to be a tough one for Democrats. But Murray defied prognosticators by picking up two seats.

She also had an opportunity to work closely with colleagues in a leadership role as former chairwoman of the Budget Committee.

“I think Durbin’s constituency is perhaps not as defined in the sense that he’s not been head of the DSCC, he’s not been a committee chair, so he’s not had the same opportunity that Patty has had,” Conrad said.

“But, you know, Dick Durbin to me is one of the heroes of that caucus. He has taken by a very large measure the speaking load representing the Democratic caucus,” he added.

While Reid kept much control over the caucus’s whip operation when he ascended from the No. 2 spot to Democratic leader in 2005, he gave Durbin significant responsibility to rebut Republicans on the floor.

One former Democratic aide said Durbin has focused on legislating and carrying the lion’s share of many floor debates. These services may not curry the same political favor as hosting fundraisers but are nevertheless indispensible to colleagues, the source added.

“Durbin has been on the floor every single day doing his job instead of raising money,” said the former aide. “Talk to any senator, Durbin’s a tireless workhorse and Schumer is a tireless fundraiser.”

Reid gave Durbin a big boost last week when he endorsed him for whip in a private phone call.

Durbin claims Schumer also promised to back him for the whip’s job when the two former housemates had a private conversation during last week’s budget vote-a-rama.

Durbin says Schumer agreed to endorse him for whip in 2017 after the Illinois lawmaker promised to back Schumer’s bid to succeed Reid. Schumer’s spokesman, however, has since disputed that Schumer made any promise in return.   

Tags Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Harry Reid

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