Schumer works to balance a divided caucus’s demands

Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is perfecting a delicate balancing act. 

Schumer must keep a caucus that includes liberals and centrists unified in a Senate where Democrats can’t afford a single defection.

To do so, he’s pursued bipartisan accomplishments meant to polish President Biden’s bona fides as a centrist, while promising progressives big, bold action down the road. 

The question is how long Schumer can keep his caucus on the same page, with growing challenges coming.  

The toughest decision may be deciding when to say time is up for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other moderates in the Democratic caucus to reach deals with Republicans on issues as diverse as infrastructure, background checks for gun sales and police reform. 

“I think the task is difficult because the party doesn’t really have a singular identity and that makes it very difficult,” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist. 

Schumer isn’t yet ready to shut down the outreach effort to Republicans, but without signs of significant progress soon, liberals in the Senate will lose patience. 

“That string is going to get real short real fast,” said Jarding. 

“You run the risk the longer you try to court the uncourtable,” he added. “Right now, the clock is the Democrats’ friend. Pretty soon it’s going to be the enemy. … My caution would be, ‘Don’t wait too long.’ ”

Some Senate Democrats have privately expressed skepticism about reaching a deal with Republicans on infrastructure or any other issue. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just this week said no GOP senators will back Biden’s proposals to spend more than $4 trillion on a host of initiatives, including infrastructure. 

A much more scaled-down package — Republicans have offered an infrastructure bill costing less than $600 billion — remains a possibility.

Schumer’s dual strategy comes with an important caveat: Inaction is not an option. 

That helps him justify to liberal colleagues the need to wait for centrists to pursue compromise with Republicans and also sets up the argument to centrists that they will need to join the rest of the team if Democrats finally opt for budget reconciliation to pass Biden’s biggest priorities. 

“What’s been governing his strategy is a real laser-like focus on actually getting things done and being less governed by whether that happens on a partisan or bipartisan basis. I think it’s recognition that most people in the country don’t care about the process, they care about the end result,” said Matt House, a former senior aide to Schumer. 

“That allows the caucus to engage in bipartisan discussions where bipartisan may be the best path to getting things done but it also allows for Schumer and the caucus to be aggressive and bold on the partisan front where Republicans aren’t willing to go along,” he added. 

Schumer has kept his Democratic colleagues together by being in constant contact, regularly soliciting them for advice and also keeping an ear open to their needs and concerns. 

Asked at a press conference in February how he would keep his 50-seat caucus unified, Schumer held up his flip phone and declared: “This is my answer.” 

He also meets with Democratic senators in group settings and individually. He resumed in-person caucus meetings on Tuesdays and also holds leadership team meetings on Mondays and breakfast meetings with about 20 senators every Tuesday. On Wednesdays he holds a meeting with all the Senate Democratic chairs by video conference and on Thursdays a caucus-wide Democratic Policy and Communication Center meeting by video conference. 

Schumer urged Democratic colleagues last month at their first in-person caucus meeting of the year to reach across the aisle and find Republican partners to craft bipartisan bills that can pass with 60 votes on the floor. 

And he’s put a new budget reconciliation bill on hold to give centrists such as Manchin, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) more time to explore the possibility of compromise on a scaled-down infrastructure package. 

He says he plans to move a new budget resolution — which would open the door to a second reconciliation package to bypass a GOP filibuster — but has said little about its timing. 

Schumer racked up two bipartisan legislative accomplishments last month when the Senate passed the anti-Asian hate crimes bill 94-1 and the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act 89-2. 

At the same time, Schumer has given media interviews to influential progressive media figures such as MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, to whom he emphasized his behind-the-scenes effort to increase Biden’s initial proposal of $1.3 trillion for pandemic relief to $1.9 trillion. 

He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in January “we need strong bold action and we’ve got to get it done,” citing economic inequality, racial inequality and the need to expand voter access — points he has repeated at press conferences throughout the first three months of the new Democratic majority.   

He has also done several interviews with nontraditional media, including African American and Hispanic press, and used specific outlets to get his message out beyond the usual readers of Beltway and national political media. 

He appeared on The Verge to talk about his Clean Cars for America proposal, a component of Biden’s American Jobs Plan, and gave an interview with to explain how the American Rescue Plan would help restaurants recover from the pandemic. 

Schumer also spoke with Marijuana Moment to talk about his cannabis legislation and appeared as a guest on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” 

He has teamed up with prominent progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a member of the “squad,” to call on Biden to forgive student loan debt and with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), another squad member, to provide Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance to New Yorkers who lost loved ones to the pandemic.

Ocasio-Cortez is sometimes mentioned as a potential primary opponent to Schumer, but some observers believe he is nullifying the chance of such a challenge in 2022, when he faces reelection.  

“I think Schumer has worked to satisfy the demands of progressives of New York state by acting as the liaison for President Biden’s programs on Capitol Hill. His status in the Senate and his long incumbency have undermined the ability of others to beat him in the primary,” said Harvey Schantz, a professor of political science at SUNY Plattsburgh. 

House, the former Schumer aide, said the Democratic leader will come to a decision with his entire caucus about at what point to cut off talks with Republicans. He said Schumer will move “when members of the caucus see that working with Republicans is just not a viable option.” 

“There’s a large chunk of the caucus whose first instinct is to work with Republicans. That’s not a bad instinct, you have to let that play out,” he added. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Angus King Charles Schumer Elizabeth Warren Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Joe Manchin Mark Warner Mitch McConnell Rachel Maddow Stephen Colbert
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