- Chuck Schumer is now the most powerful of the country’s 100 senators.
- The Senate majority leader needs to notch wins on President Biden’s agenda to keep that title beyond 2022.
- To do that, the New York Democrat is leaning on an arcane budget technique that requires just 51 votes.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Chuck Schumer’s flip phone is one of the hardest working artifacts in Washington.
That’s clear to anyone who has watched the Senate majority leader navigate the labyrinth of tunnels below the US Capitol, his throwback technology glued to his ear as he carefully manages the 49 Democratic-aligned colleagues who constitute his fragile power base.
In reality, Schumer’s most prized assets in the evenly-divided Senate are Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote, and some arcane budget rules that allow him to overcome Republican opposition in pursuit of turning President Joe Biden’s agenda into law with only Democratic support.
Ask Schumer and of course he’ll insist the partisan route is not his preferred method.
“I’m trying to have the Senate be far more bipartisan than it was,” the New York Democrat told reporters earlier this week. In this instance, he was talking about a pending anti-Asian hate crimes bill that Republicans are now interested in collaborating on as unprovoked attacks plague the nation.
“When the Senate’s given the opportunity to work, it can,” Schumer added.
But the Brooklyn native is also no dummy.
He knows he’s trapped in a post-Trump Washington where Democrats and Republicans have little incentive to cooperate with each other, and where the wonky ways of process and procedure are shaping up to be the go-to strategy if he’s going to succeed in his new role as the most powerful of all 100 US senators.
This is personal for Schumer. What he’s able to accomplish over the next 18 months will go a long way toward determining if Democrats can maintain their Senate majority in the 2022 midterms, an election where he’s expected to make a run at securing a history-making fifth term representing the Empire State.
The way Schumer sees it, fulfilling Biden’s agenda, particularly while the wounds from the recent COVID-fueled economic downturn remain so raw, ultimately mandates doing whatever it takes to get results.
“We’re gonna work very hard to get it done,” Schumer told Insider. “America demands it.”
Chuck is always on
One of Schumer’s many regular check-ins on Capitol Hill is with an inner circle of advisors ranging from progressive icon Bernie Sanders of Vermont to swing vote Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
“When you start out having Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin at the same table with Elizabeth Warren, Mark Warner, and Amy Klobuchar you’ve got the wide views of the caucus,” a senior Democratic aide told Insider, namechecking along the way Democrats from Massachusetts, Virginia and Minnesota.
“And if they can agree on stuff then, that’s how we build consensus,” the aide added.
Schumer’s outreach radiates from there.
Typical daily interactions include touching base via back-to-back calls with newcomer Raphael Warnock of Georgia via Biden sounding board.and discussing infrastructure strategy with Tom Carper, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a well-known
Catching up in group settings is tougher during the pandemic quarantine, though the Democrats’ weekly caucus lunches did just start back up in the US Capitol on April 13.
Keeping those conversations flowing is one thing. Locking down votes on divisive issues is another. And that’s where things start to get wonky.
In pursuit of a major infrastructure bill that Biden has made the lynchpin of his first-term agenda, Schumer is holding firm on his option to revisit a procedural tool known as reconciliation. Essentially, it allows for a simple majority of 51 votes to advance bills and skirt past the filibuster morass that would otherwise require 60 votes. This is the trick that Schumer used to help him shepherd Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill into law in March without any Republican votes. And now it’s in play again.
There’s just one challenge. Much of what Schumer wants hinges on whether Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough agrees to let him do it. There are no guarantees, and counting on the Senate parliamentarian to always be in one’s corner is folly — particularly one like MacDonough who prides herself on being politically neutral.
‘Nobody asked me about process’
If everything goes according to plan, MacDonough and reconciliation will be mere footnotes rather than the coda to the Senate majority leader’s 40-year career on Capitol Hill.
But a lot — as it often does in politics — could easily go awry and ding Schumer’s legacy.
With the 2022 midterms looming, and the specter of more progressive primary challengers hanging over him, Schumer knows he has a lot of work to do if he wants to maintain control of the Senate.
Age alone is a constant threat to his caucus, given the number of older Democrats who Republican governors would undoubtedly replace with one of their own should any sitting senator die, become incapacitated, or suddenly step down.
Schumer faces mounting pressure to deliver early wins for Biden while he still can.
And with few Republicans eager to play ball, it’s meant Democrats must rely on procedural maneuvers like reconciliation.
G. William Hoagland, a former Senate Republican leadership aide turned senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, categorized Schumer’s recent efforts to use reconciliation as a desperation move “to expedite the Biden agenda.”
“Getting 60 or more votes to overcome a filibuster is a high hurdle in partisan times, leading majorities to try to stretch reconciliation in new ways to advance their policy priorities,” added Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Binder said reconciliation has shifted from last resort to default method because otherwise nothing ever gets done in the Senate.
Outside the Beltway, no one seems to be bothered much by the parliamentary move, according to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden.
The Oregon Democrat said in an interview that during recent town hall meetings across the state — with stops in districts that former President Donald Trump won in 2020, he specified — constituents offered to show him crumbling roads in their neighborhoods and county commissioners peppered him with plans for languishing repairs.
“Nobody asked me about reconciliation. Nobody asked me about process,” Wyden told Insider.
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who rose to fame as the Newark mayor and personal pothole fixer, said there’s no time to waste when it comes to rebuilding America. “There’s a lot of broken bridges and roads out there,” he told Insider. “And I think it’s perfectly just to use reconciliation.”
Meanwhile, Democratic budget and tax writer Mark Warner said producing a mutually agreeable infrastructure deal remains the goal. “We’re all operating on the premise that we can still try to get large swaths of this done in a bipartisan way. And that’s what the president’s working on too,” the Virginia senator told Insider.
Opening Pandora’s box
Richard Arenberg, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide turned interim director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University, said getting multiple shots at reconciliation is an intriguing move for Schumer to pursue.
But he warned that it could further undermine a process that’s evolved “well beyond the expectations of those who adopted it in 1974 imagined.”
Tom Kahn, a House Democratic leadership aide turned distinguished fellow at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, isn’t ready to hit the panic button yet, electing to reserve judgment until he sees exactly what MacDonough’s agreed to.
If she winds up clearing a path to at will reconciliation bills, then he said whoever’s in charge could “just keep amending it and amending it” to keep the privileged legislation train rolling.
“That could open a hell of a Pandora’s box,” Kahn told Insider.
Tony Smith, a political science professor at the University of California Irvine, is far less concerned about potential abuse.
“The rules can be changed by vote after all, so the ‘box’ can be shut whenever enough senators want it to be,” he said.
Rewrites aside, Kahn added that reconciliation isn’t a panacea. Senators still have to slog through hours of debate and battle through the amendment free-for-all known as the vote-a-rama.
“Democrats shouldn’t feel like they’ve unlocked the genie. All of this takes so much time,” he said.
Why Obamacare and Trump’s tax cuts exist
21st century lawmakers like Schumer have turned to reconciliation with much more gusto than the 20th century pols who actually inked it into law.
Some of the monumental bills that have benefited from reconciliation over the past 20 years include:
- 2021: American Rescue Plan – Biden’s opening bid on COVID-19 relief featured direct payments, tax breaks for families, and aid to virus-stung states.
- 2017: Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – Trump’s signature tax bill lowered individual and corporate rates.
- 2010: Affordable Care Act – President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law expanded coverage to roughly 20 million previously uninsured Americans.
- 2003: Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act – President George W. Bush’s second tax bill focused on corporations.
- 2001: Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act – President George W. Bush’s first tax bill focused on individual income taxes.
Smith described the American Rescue Plan, Schumer’s crowning achievement so far, as a public policy win that may very well cement his place in the history books.
“Without COVID under control, various economic theories or strategies won’t matter,” Smith said of the sweeping stimulus bill.
Arenberg expects even greater things from the infrastructure package. “The 2021 American Jobs Plan, if successfully passed with anything like its intended provisions, would likely supplant it,” he said of the stimulus.
Smith’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the infrastructure gamble — “We should know by this time next year” if it pays off, he predicted — but said he understands why Schumer can’t afford to do the same.
“The Biden administration and the functional Democratic majority in the Senate are 100% dependent on getting COVID under control and the economy humming along,” he said. “If those things happen voters won’t care about process. If they don’t, voters will punish the Democrats whether they were ‘bipartisan’ or not.”
And that could again make Schumer the Senate minority leader, powerless in Washington while Republicans resume running the show.