Dem duo poses test for Trump, GOP

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOcasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown MORE (D-Calif.) has emerged as the senior partner in her relationship with Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw US women's soccer team reignites equal pay push MORE (N.Y.), and he appears happy to defer to her in the interest of maximizing their shared power.

With Pelosi in charge of the House, Schumer now has more power over his caucus and seems thrilled to have an enforcer on the other side of the Capitol.

ADVERTISEMENT

Going forward, it means that Pelosi, who calls President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE’s proposed border wall “immoral” and jokes that she might be willing to chip in $1 for the project, is poised to set the outside limit of what Democrats will accept in a new round of border security negotiations.

“Pelosi is very much the senior partner in the relationship, and I think Schumer has accepted that. He understood that institutionally she was in a superior position,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who served three fellowships in former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTrump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Impeachment will reelect Trump MORE’s (D-Nev.) office.

“I don’t think it was painful for him. I don’t think ego got in the way,” Baker said of Schumer. “Considering senatorial ego, it was a particularly gracious display on Schumer’s part.” 

The new power dynamic became apparent immediately after the November midterm elections, when Schumer quickly walked back his offer to provide $1.6 billion in funding for border fencing after it became clear that Pelosi would not support it.

Schumer underscored his close allegiance with Pelosi by later insisting that she attend any negotiations he had with Trump, foiling the president’s effort to set up one-on-one talks.

Heading into the current stalemate over border security, Republicans saw Schumer as more willing to cut a deal on wall funding and dismissed Pelosi as preoccupied by her scramble to overcome internal defections and secure 218 votes to become Speaker.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund MORE (R-Ky.) invited Schumer to his office on Dec. 18 in hopes he would accept what he called a “reasonable” offer that could “thread the needle on border security.”

He later blamed Pelosi for holding back Schumer from striking a deal.

“I believe that incoming Speaker Pelosi has little latitude to make a deal, and that may be Sen. Schumer’s view as well. You can ask him, but my impression is that the incoming Speaker feels she doesn’t have the latitude to settle this,” McConnell told reporters at the time.

Republican senators predicted that once Pelosi was elected Speaker, it would be easier to cut a deal on Trump’s wall and that Schumer would be the go-between.

But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, Pelosi set the terms of what Democrats were willing to accept, and Schumer has stuck by her side.

Pelosi and Schumer issued at least four joint statements at the start of the shutdown, staged a joint televised response to Trump’s Jan. 8 prime-time address to the nation calling for the border wall, and held an event with furloughed federal workers on Jan. 9. They also hosted a press conference declaring victory Friday after Trump announced he would sign a bill temporarily reopening the government.

Schumer’s Senate allies say that relationship is going to stay the same between now and Feb. 15 as a special Senate-House conference committee tries to come up with a border security compromise before government funding runs out again.

“Whatever is done, they will both agree to it. Period,” said Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann Stabenow It's time to let Medicare to negotiate drug prices Trump judicial nominee says he withdrew over 'gross mischaracterizations' of record Trump judicial nominee says he withdrew over 'gross mischaracterizations' of record MORE (D-Mich.), who described their teamwork as “excellent.”

She said there’s “not a chance” that Schumer might announce support for a proposal that doesn’t get the green light from Pelosi.

Jim Manley, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide, said Republicans misread the Schumer-Pelosi alliance.

“The idea that there were some White House aides that thought at least in the beginning they could drive a wedge between Pelosi and Schumer is just amazing to me and shows how little they understand how the Hill really works,” he said. “Their whole strategy of divide and conquer is doomed to failure.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Schumer has known Pelosi since former Rep. George MillerGeorge MillerPelosi names new chief of staff Dem duo poses test for Trump, GOP Lawmakers honor retiring Calif. Reps. Waxman, Miller MORE (D-Calif.) introduced them at a weekly dinner of House Democrats in 1987, when Pelosi was first elected to the lower chamber.

Schumer often tells the anecdote about the time when Miller, who was his housemate, brought Pelosi to the dinner and introduced her as the woman who was going to become the first female Speaker.

“Schumer, I think, has always been impressed with her political skills, so I don’t think it has taken any amount of time at all for him to have a full trust in her instincts about how to navigate the situation over the last couple months,” said Brian Fallon, a former senior aide to Schumer.

The two leaders now talk several times a day.

“They talk constantly. During the shutdown it was probably five or six times a day,” said a senior Democratic aide. “They both like to prepare a lot for meetings so typically they meet ahead of time. If there’s a White House meeting, the two of them will huddle in advance and work out who says what.”

And Schumer often tries to ingratiate himself with his counterpart by telling elaborate jokes.

“He’s always trying to tell her jokes that make her laugh,” the source said. “Sometimes there’s success, sometimes there’s not. They’re all really long stories, long convoluted stories. Sometimes they’re funny.”

The friendly banter, often over the phone, is a notable difference compared with Pelosi’s relationship with Schumer’s predecessor, Reid, who was famous on Capitol Hill for being terse and to the point. And he was no fan of talking at length on the phone.

Before key meetings, Pelosi and Schumer often hash out a game plan, dividing up key points for each to stress at pivotal moments.

Their teamwork played to perfection at an Oval Office meeting with Trump in early December, when the president, who is used to dominating a room, was kept off balance by alternating salvos.

Pelosi argued Republicans didn’t have enough votes to pass a spending bill with border wall funds through the House, and Schumer harped on Trump’s repeated threats to shut down the government.

Trump quickly grew frustrated and committed a major gaffe by declaring that he would have no problem forcing a shutdown, proclaiming, “I will take the mantle of shutting down.”

Senate Republican leaders were left in stunned disbelief after the meeting. They had prepared talking points blaming Democrats for the Schumer Shutdown 2.0 — a reference to a quickly aborted attempt to extract protections for “Dreamers” in January a year ago — but shelved them after Trump told Schumer and Pelosi “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”

Efforts by Senate GOP moderates such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates MORE (Maine), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderTaylor Swift thanks Cory Booker for signing Equality Act petition Taylor Swift thanks Cory Booker for signing Equality Act petition Senate health panel to move forward on package to lower health costs next week MORE (Tenn.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHouse passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams House passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump MORE (Ohio) to build a centrist bloc to force both sides to the negotiating table also had trouble attracting Democratic support.

Democrats insisted that a bipartisan letter urging compromise had to garner signatures from at least 20 fellow Democrats before they would agree to send it out.

One Senate GOP aide complained that centrist Democrats immediately reported developments back to Schumer and were hesitant to agree to anything before checking in with him.

Fallon, the former Schumer aide, said that in the January 2018 shutdown “Schumer staked out a pretty clear, resolute position” but “he had moderate members of his own caucus self-form a little rump group with people like Susan Collins and it moved the center of gravity from Schumer” toward Trump and the Republicans.

A bipartisan group of senators quickly rallied around a proposal to reopen the government without doing anything to help Dreamers, forcing Schumer to quickly back down, Fallon argued.

“That was an illustration of the difference between being the leader of your party in the Senate and Pelosi’s status as the Speaker,” Fallon said. “There’s no rump group over the last six weeks during this shutdown that was going to be able to negotiate out from under Pelosi. Pelosi is the last word across both chambers.”

Centrist Democrats such as Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle MORE (W.Va.) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Democrat: Trump Mexico tariff threat 'hopefully' a breaking point for GOP MORE (Del.) say they are open to reaching a compromise with Trump on the border wall.

“I’m not going to sit here and say, I refuse to spend a dollar on border security that includes any fencing, like the 700 miles of fencing we already have,” Coons told CNN on Monday.

But with Pelosi in charge of the House, his influence is diminished.

“I see people like Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Democrat: Trump Mexico tariff threat 'hopefully' a breaking point for GOP MORE going on television and acting like he doesn’t share Pelosi’s opinion. Well, guess what? Her opinion is what counts,” Fallon said. “She’s the only Democrat that matters in terms of expressing an opinion because that position is so powerful that she gets to call the shots like that.”