The high-stakes standoff over government funding has thrust Chuck Schumer into the brightest spotlight of his young tenure leading Senate Democrats. He faces intense pressure to resolve a thicket of policy issues while defending his party against potential blame if the government shutters.
The political fallout from a shutdown is uncertain. But Democrats – who are anxious to make a stand on immigration and other long-simmering issues – recognize if they mishandle the stalemate they could set back their efforts to retake control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.
The focus on Schumer as perhaps the most powerful Democrat in Washington became clear Friday when he was the only lawmaker who sat down with President Donald Trump at the White House to try to broker a last-minute deal and avoid a costly shutdown.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, stayed back at the Capitol so the President could negotiate with Schumer.
He leads the 49 senators who caucus with Democrats, about a dozen of whom would be needed by Republicans to get the 60 votes to pass the spending bill. That’s powerful leverage.
But Schumer must guard and balance the wildly different political needs within his caucus. Most immediately, the 10 Democrats up for re-election this fall in states Trump won in 2016. Many of those senators are wary of contributing to a shutdown and think they would pay a price with voters. Schumer is close to that group and protective of them because he led the Democrats’ campaign arm when many of them were elected. He knows if he is going to be majority leader in the next Congress, all of them must win.
“This is clearly a case where if the government gets shut down, the Democrats are going to be blamed for it,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, who said Schumer’s handling of the spending crisis may hurt is 2018 candidates. “Going to the brink of a shutdown is exactly the opposite of what you would do for someone in one of the 2018 states.”
But Schumer also has a handful of Democrats on the left flank who are angling to challenge Trump for the White House in 2020. Cheered on by grassroots progressives, they are agitating to aggressively take on Trump at every turn and don’t want Schumer to cave to Trump or be too cautious as it relates to senators running for re-election this year.
Schumer must also consider that Trump is unpopular already and if Democrats end of getting blamed by the public for a shutdown it could boost the President and hurt their chances in November.
’It’s in the hands of the leader’
“I am so glad Chuck Schumer is over there,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Schumer’s House counterpart, when the meeting was underway.
In a statement after the meeting Schumer said progress was made but there were still issues to resolve.
“It’s in the hands of the leader,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat and lead negotiator on immigration, putting his faith in Schumer. “I don’t know if there will be an agreement, but Leader Schumer is working on it.”
Schumer, a fourth-term New Yorker with a proud Brooklyn accent, became the Senate Democratic leader a year ago, taking over the top spot when Nevada Sen. Harry Reid retired. As leader, he is the top policymaker, top strategist and top salesman.
“The only thing standing in our way is the unrelenting flow of chaos from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Schumer said in a colorful floor speech this week. “The President is like Abbott; Leader McConnell is like Costello.”
He’s learning each role as he goes and being challenged by the spending stalemate like no other issue before. Even the high-profile Republican effort last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which ultimately failed, was more about internal GOP divides than traditional Democrats versus Republicans politics.
At this stage, Schumer appears to have the trust of most of his caucus. When he raced to the White House Friday, most of his members didn’t even know he was going or what he would negotiate. But they said they were OK with that.
“I have extensive, complete confidence that Chuck Schumer is the right person to carry the thoughts and ponderings of our caucus in our fight for jobs, education, health, and a healthy planet,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, told CNN. “This is a very important negotiation and he’s the right man for the job.”