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Democrats' last 'emergency brake' on Donald Trump: Charles Schumer

The Donald Trump wave that swept Democrats from power has left Sen. Charles Schumer as their new face in Washington. 

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Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York talks to the media after attending the Senate Democratic party leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington Wednesday.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

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[Updated Dec. 12] Sen. Charles Schumer sometimes bursts out in song with fellow Democrats – serenading them with excerpts from the Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton.”

Fittingly, his favorite number is “The Room Where It Happens” – a celebration of the dealmaking that transpires when political opponents withdraw behind closed doors and no one else is around to see how the compromises are forged – “how the sausage gets made,” as the lyrics put it.

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In January, a new world of Republican control will dawn in Washington. All eyes will be on the celebrity billionaire who occupies the Oval Office. But they should also focus on another New Yorker, the senior senator from Brooklyn. As the incoming leader of the minority Democrats, Senator Schumer will hold much more power than his new role suggests.

That’s because in today’s Senate, most major legislation can’t get passed without some bipartisan buy-in. It’s Schumer who holds the key to that cooperation – either as a dealmaker or a deal breaker. With some notable exceptions, Republicans will have to negotiate with this Monty Hall of politics, whether it’s in a room, on the phone, or in the Senate gym.

President-elect Donald Trump wants to make big-league investments in America’s infrastructure and revisit trade? Pragmatist Schumer is ready to find common ground. But try to repeal and replace “Obamacare” or roll back reforms of Wall Street, and shrewd Schumer will fight tooth and nail.

As Kellyanne Conway said last winter before becoming senior adviser to Mr. Trump: “Chuck Schumer has more political skills, shrewdness, and instinct in his pinkie than [Hillary] Clinton seems to display out on the presidential campaign trail.”

Schumer never intended to go into politics. He grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, where his father owned a small exterminator business and his mother was a homemaker and active in the community.

As a student at Madison High School, he competed on a quiz show and got nearly perfect scores on his SATs. But when he got to Harvard College, he felt out of place among more privileged students. A Madison graduate who preceded him at Harvard suggested he try out for the basketball team to make friends. He got no further than the first day of tryouts. When the coach asked young Schumer, “Can you dribble?,” he answered, “Not very well, sir.”

A deflated Schumer returned to his dorm where he wrote his parents that he was a flop at Harvard, according to his 2007 book, “Positively American.”

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That night, though, someone from the Young Democrats knocked on his door. Would he like to work on the presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy?

“Why not?” he replied.

The chemistry student discovered a zeal for political campaigning, interacting with voters, fighting for a cause. He went on to Harvard Law School, and at age 23, he ran for the New York State Assembly and won.

That chutzpah paid off. He has not lost an election since, serving 18 years in the US House. In November, he won his fourth term in the Senate, gaining more than 70 percent of the vote.

He is a fierce fighter for all things New York, bringing home tens of millions of dollars in federal aid after 9/11 and superstorm Sandy. He walks a fine line as an ally of Wall Street and a champion of the middle class, not always pleasing either camp. Neither has he always been in harmony with the Obama songbook – opposing the Iran deal, for instance, and chastising Democrats for taking their eye off the economic ball by switching their focus to health care.

Still, it was Schumer who helped Democrats recapture the Senate in 2006, making Harry Reid of Nevada the majority leader. As head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, he recruited strong Democrats – from an opponent of abortion in Pennsylvania to a state treasurer in Missouri – to run against Republican incumbents.

Mr. Reid was so grateful he created a special slot for Schumer in the leadership – and asked for a repeat performance. Two years later, Schumer furthered the gains, widening control to what was eventually a 59-seat majority. Now it’s game on for Reid’s protégé.

If the Senate’s 48 Democrats hold together, they’ll be able to deny the Republicans the 60-vote threshold that’s regularly required to pass major legislation.

But keeping everyone on the same page will be a tremendous challenge – as will keeping seats in Democratic hands. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats will have 25 seats to defend – 10 of them in states won by Trump. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is in turmoil after a stunning loss.

As the minority leader, Schumer will face pressure from red-state Democrats to cooperate with Republicans, while progressives will be “looking for a fight at just about every available opportunity,” says Jim Manley, Reid’s former spokesman. The minority leader will have to carefully pick which bills to support and which ones to block.

His first step in trying to manage this internal tension was to expand the Democratic leadership team to include more geographic and ideological diversity, from the more conservative Joe Manchin of West Virginia to progressive powerhouse Bernie Sanders (Ind.) of Vermont.

The internal balancing act will “make things interesting” for Schumer, but not impossible, according to Sen. Thomas Carper (D) of Delaware.

“He’s a very skillful politician,” Senator Carper told reporters after a recent vote, predicting that the new minority leader will go for “principled compromise” but won’t let Democrats become doormats.

Let’s make a deal

One thing going for Schumer as a dealmaker with Republicans is that he doesn’t have the political baggage of the pugilistic Reid, a former boxer.

Republicans still feel burned by Reid’s 2013 decision, when Democrats were in charge, to  blow up Senate rules that allowed the minority party to block a president’s nominees to the courts or positions in the executive branch.

Schumer may be at ideological odds with Republicans, but he has the respect of many of them.

He regularly works out in the Senate gym around the same time that key Republicans also work out. Riding his stationary bike, Schumer makes himself available, jokes around, and also does business. He has a particularly good relationship with Sen. John Cornyn of Texas – the No. 2 in the Senate’s GOP leadership.

“Senator Schumer and I do have a good relationship, based not on shared ideology or shared philosophy, but on pragmatism,” says Senator Cornyn.

They both serve on the Judiciary and Finance Committees, and recently cosponsored the law that allows families of 9/11 victims to sue countries that played a role in the attack. They’ve also locked arms on patent reform. The gym is “a great place” to talk and get things done, says Cornyn.

“Republicans used to see [Schumer] as a highly partisan figure, but now they realize he’s someone they can do business with,” says Mr. Manley, the former Reid spokesman.

That’s in part because of Schumer’s work on the epic, bipartisan immigration bill of 2013 that passed the Senate with a remarkable 68-to-32 vote – but was never taken up in the House. As lead negotiator for the Democrats, he impressed Republicans by strongly supporting more border security.

“Republicans saw that his word was good, and once he agreed to do something, he moved heaven and earth to get it done,” says Manley.

That Schumer could bring together the US Chamber of Commerce, unions, migrant workers, and farmers over the immigration bill is testament to his dealmaking prowess, says Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota, who is also a member of Schumer’s leadership team.

She and other Democrats name several areas where they hope their party can find common ground with Republicans and the incoming Trump administration, including infrastructure, closing tax loopholes, raising the minimum wage, and trade.

While Schumer’s relationship with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky is probably “not warm and fuzzy,” quips Manley, there’s a recognition on both sides that to get much done, they’ll have to work together.

“He’s got a job to do and I got a job to do. I respect him. I think he’s very smart. And I think we’ll be fine,” said the taciturn Senator McConnell at his postelection press conference. He added, “I don’t expect him to enthusiastically embrace my agenda,” which includes repealing Obamacare, appointing a conservative to the Supreme Court, and cutting taxes.

‘He can throw a punch’

Everyone knows the senior senator from New York is “not a pansy,” says Senator Klobuchar. A telling example of dealmaking – and ruthlessness – was the senator’s attempt to win over Scott Brown, then a Republican senator from Massachusetts. His special-election win in 2010 upset the balance of power in the Senate, giving Republicans the single seat they needed to reclaim blocking power and potentially scuttle President Obama’s agenda. He reportedly offered Mr. Brown a deal: Help Democrats pass certain legislation, and they would not send a serious challenger to contest his reelection. Brown initially agreed, but apparently changed his mind. The legislation failed.

The New York Times cites a “blistering phone call,” in which Schumer told Brown he would set the most challenging candidate possible upon him, and then rejoice in his loss. That candidate was the progressive warrior Elizabeth Warren, who is also part of Schumer’s leadership team.

“He can throw a punch when it comes to politics,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told reporters after the election. “He’s from New York and he can get kind of ugly.” As can Trump, a fellow New Yorker and dealmaker – which has people speculating they might work well together.

The two men have talked since the election, with Schumer sharing areas of possible agreement – and disagreement.

Trump seems to recognize the importance of this connection, recently tweeting: “I have always had a good relationship with Chuck Schumer. He is far smarter than Harry R and has the ability to get things done. Good news!”

Schumer says he will take issues “case by case” and will not oppose a Trump idea just because it comes from Trump – a clear reference to McConnell’s infamous determination to deny Mr. Obama a second term. Schumer says he heard voters “loud and clear” when they told Washington that “government wasn’t working for them.”

Democrats will stand firm against attacks on their values, they’ve said – against an erosion of civil liberties and the Affordable Care Act. They’ll also fight moves that hurt the middle class, such as cutting Social Security and Medicare, which is on the agenda of House Republicans even though Trump said he would not cut those programs.

In short, Democrats will be the “emergency brake” on the administration, as Mrs. Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, put it.

But they might not always be able to pull that brake, or choose to use it. Republicans are talking about a procedure known as budget reconciliation to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act. That would require only a majority vote in both chambers, which Republicans could achieve alone – though replacing it would probably need Democratic buy-in. Republicans may even use the same budgetary process to force through tax reform.

The other area where Democrats might well find themselves powerless is the US Supreme Court. They could use the filibuster to block an unacceptably conservative nominee. But Republicans might react with their own “nuclear option,” doing away with the filibuster for high court justices as well – thus allowing whatever party is in power to approve its own justices by a simple majority.

Schumer expressed deep disappointment that Republicans never held a hearing on Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. He underlined, however, that Democrats did not change the rules on the Supreme Court, because Democrats thought that on “something as important as this” there should be some degree of bipartisanship.

Regardless of how things evolve over the next couple of years, Schumer is well aware of his pivotal role in the chamber. Klobuchar says that when the caucus unanimously backed him to take over as its leader, he teared up, talking about the great responsibility he was taking on and expressing gratitude for the broad support.