Chuck Schumer has been many things: an aggressive partisan who led his party to a Senate majority; an unapologetic media hound who loves the camera; a denizen of the rat-infested Capitol Hill group house that inspired an upcoming Amazon streaming TV series; and a brash contender to one day become Senate majority leader. Now, add possible heir to Sen. Edward Kennedy’s mantle as a premier legislator.
In recent months, the New York Democrat has played pivotal roles in developing the bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate, a bipartisan expansion of gun background checks that was blocked by a filibuster, and two separate agreements to avert the “nuclear option” of killing filibusters by majority vote. His latest bipartisan project is to write into law the Justice Department’s strict new guidelines on when and how it can monitor journalists’ phone records and require them to reveal information and sources.
By fall, Schumer could be involved in a bipartisan crusade of even greater magnitude. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the immigration “Gang of Eight” and Schumer’s partner in the deal that guaranteed votes this month on seven of President Obama’s nominees while preserving the filibuster, asked him to toss around ideas in advance of the coming showdown over debt and fiscal policy. Schumer says McCain “would rather get something done than just stand and point.” McCain, in turn, praises “people here who are result-oriented … who their colleagues trust.”
Given his success in electing Democratic senators in 2006 and 2008, Schumer was not a lock for engendering GOP trust. “He’s partisan to the core. But he certainly has been able to build coalitions where they exist,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll. Schumer’s results, bolstered by a sharp staff and his own tirelessness as a negotiator, speak for themselves. “For years, senators knew that if they negotiated with Senator Kennedy, his word was good and they were going to get things done. More and more folks are realizing that’s the case with Senator Schumer as well,” says Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Massachusetts senator.
Schumer has been a pragmatist focused on outreach and moving bills for 20 years; he even united with the Christian Coalition in a drive to block spam. But the pace has quickened and his role has grown as Republicans increasingly turn to him as a partner. Former aide Phil Singer says Schumer’s rise to No. 3 in the Senate leadership and his close, strong relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are factors. “He has greater prestige within the Democratic caucus” and Republicans recognize that working with a Reid ally helps “advance the ball,” Singer says.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., worked with Schumer on media-shield and China currency issues before the two were instrumental in the talks that led to Schumer’s most significant success to date, the Senate immigration bill. Since it passed last month, Graham has more than once called Schumer “a worthy successor to Ted Kennedy.”
The evolution of trust between Schumer and McCain began in January when Democrats were considering whether to vote by simple majority to eliminate filibusters against certain nominees. Schumer listened carefully to McCain’s concerns, McCain listened to Schumer’s, and mutual respect overcame what had been a prickly relationship. When Graham suggested that McCain join the immigration talks, McCain was receptive to the idea. As they had on nominations, McCain and Schumer tried to see the immigration debate through each other’s eyes—a process that helped Schumer appreciate the sticking points for business, for example, while McCain tried to appreciate the concerns of organized labor. “You have to do two things to earn trust,” Schumer told National Journal. “First, you have to keep your word; and second, you have to walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from. If you can do that, it’s much easier to work together and find common ground.”
Schumer’s path to gravitas has been strewn with hurdles rooted in his chatty, nudgy, over-the-top personality and his reputation for being overly ambitious. He and housemate Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, were both positioning to succeed Reid when it looked like he might lose his seat in 2010. The clash was averted when Reid won reelection, but Schumer hasn’t lost interest in the job. Nor has he lost his propensity for unabashed self-promotion. After the recent deal on Obama’s nominees, Schumer happily told a crowd of reporters, “Senator McCain and I must have talked 30 times this weekend!” Not something Kennedy would have announced, says Manley, adding, “Maybe Kennedy would have sent me out afterwards to tell people that.” Manley, also a former aide to Reid, notes that Schumer is one of only two people who break Reid’s informal rule of no phone calls after 10 p.m. The other is Obama.
Since he was elected to the Senate in 1998, Schumer has served with a succession of high-profile New York colleagues—from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Hillary Rodham Clinton to Kirsten Gillibrand. As the senior senator trying to hold his own with a world-famous junior senator, his relationship with Clinton was complicated. The dynamic with Gillibrand is less so. “Senator Schumer and I have a strong bond. He’s come to my house, read bedtime stories to my kids,” Gillibrand says.
While some senators might have been overshadowed by partners like Moynihan, Clinton, and Gillibrand, Schumer has never lacked for attention—mostly because he’s not embarrassed about going after it. People still make jokes about the danger of getting between him and a camera. But these days, when Schumer gets in front of a camera, he’s often standing with Republicans to announce a bipartisan achievement. That’s a dead-serious role and a much-needed one in a Capitol in the grip of can’t-do, won’t-do paralysis.