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How Chuck Schumer plays the congressional chessboard

The New York Democrat, though often a fierce partisan, represents a particular breed of dealmaker on Capitol Hill who combines policy understanding with an intuitive knack for legislating.

By Staff writer / April 14, 2013

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill in January.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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In the run-up to the November elections, Chuck Schumer worked tirelessly in attacking Republicans, from congressional conservatives to GOP frontman Mitt Romney. Since then, New York's senior Democratic senator has clocked more hours negotiating with his Republican colleagues than anyone else on his side of the aisle.

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Part of this reflects the natural rhythm of politics: The year after a presidential election can often be Washington's most productive. But a man who has spent his life in Congress shifting between expert political hatchet man and tenacious dealmaker may also sense a moment when the Republicans are particularly vulnerable – or receptive – to cutting deals as a result of changed dynamics on the Hill.

"He's a great legislative chess player and knows intuitively when it's time to strike and when it's time to wait," says Jim Kessler, a longtime Schumer staffer and now a senior member of the Third Way, a Democratic centrist think tank.

Clearly, the voluble senior senator thinks it's time to strike. First, he teamed up with a crew of other Senate veterans, led by John McCain (R) of Arizona and Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, to hatch a compromise forestalling sweeping changes to the Senate's filibuster rules.

Then there's Senator Schumer's long-unrequited love, immigration reform, in which he leads the Democratic contingent in the bipartisan "Gang of Eight." That's the group in the Senate that many lawmakers and advocates believe will deliver the opening bill in the immigration-reform debate in early April.

Finally, there's the continuation of Schumer's legacy in the House, where his determination to pass the 1994 crime bill (containing a ban on assault weapons, among other provisions) is carrying over to President Obama's push to strengthen the nation's gun laws. Schumer went right for the "sweet spot," as he calls it, of universal background checks in negotiations with staunch pro-gun lawmakers like Sens. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma.

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