Democrats' last 'emergency brake' on Donald Trump: Charles Schumer (+video)

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.
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Sen. Charles Schumer sometimes bursts out in song among his 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.

On Wednesday, Senator Schumer became the most powerful Democrat in Washington as his colleagues unanimously backed this consummate dealmaker as their new leader. Come January, Republicans will control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but to get most things done, they will have to work with Senate Democrats – who can either block them, or work with them toward common ground.

It’s a point that the energetic New Yorker made clear when he emerged from the closed doors of the Mansfield Room, just steps from the Senate chamber, to announce his new leadership team and its approach to governing.

“We are ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Republicans – working with soon-to-be President Trump on issues where we agree. But we will go toe-to-toe against the president-elect whenever our values or the progress we’ve made is under assault,” he said.

Senate Republicans also elected their leadership, again backing Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as the majority leader. Both Senator McConnell and Schumer were elected unanimously. 

What happened Wednesday

Schumer’s first deal was actually with members of his own party, expanding the leadership tent to 10 people so that it is more ideologically and geographically diverse.

The new leadership includes progressives like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who will be responsible for outreach. On the other end of the political spectrum is the more conservative Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose job is to reach out to Republicans to find a path forward. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan will take over Schumer’s old role as chief policy and messaging guru.

Senators Stabenow and Manchin illustrate the tremendous challenge ahead for Senate Democrats. In two years, they face reelection in states that went for Donald Trump. In all, 25 Democratic senators will be up, but a total of 13 will be fighting for their seats in states that Mr. Trump won, or nearly won. They need to be mindful of their conservative voters.

“All factions have been included and all factional leaders appeased,” observes Ross Baker, an expert on the Senate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in an email.

But tensions could still flare within the caucus.

“As the leader of the Democratic party in the Senate, you are a trustee for the party base. They are going to expect you to push programs that are recognizably liberal and oppose programs they see as hostile to liberal interests,” says Prof. Baker.  “He’s got to pick his fights very judiciously.”

That’s true for his managing of relations with Democrats, and with Republicans.

How Republicans see him

Those who have worked with Schumer, however, describe him as a skilled people person and sharp negotiator.

At age 23, this graduate of Harvard College and Law School became the youngest member of the New York Assembly since Theodore Roosevelt. He has served in both the United States House and Senate, both when Democrats held the majority and were the minority party. He knows every Democratic senator’s number by heart and a good deal of Republicans’ as well.

Though he’s been groomed by retiring minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada for the leadership job, he hasn’t got the political baggage of the pugilistic Senator Reid, a former boxer.

Republicans still feel burned by Reid’s decision in 2013 to unilaterally blow up Senate rules that allow for the blocking of a president’s nominees to the courts or positions in the executive branch. The elimination of the blocking mechanism, known as the filibuster, for all appointees except to the Supreme Court, removed the GOP’s ability to nix appointees they oppose and it  further increased partisanship in the Senate.

Schumer 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 there. He has a particularly good relationship with Sen. John Cornyn of Texas – the No. 2 in GOP Senate leadership.

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

Schumer the dealmaker

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 – though it 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 Mr. 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.

“Chuck Schumer is someone who knows how to get things done,” says Senator Klobuchar.

He’s also got sharp elbows. “He can throw a punch when it comes to politics,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told reporters earlier this week. “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.

Klobuchar and other Democrats named several areas where they hope Democrats can find common ground with Republicans and the incoming Trump administration, including infrastructure, closing tax loopholes, raising the minimum wage, and possibly even trade.

Where he will draw the line

But they will stand firm against attacks on their values, they said – against an erosion of civil liberties, the Affordable Care Act, and 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 entitlements.

As Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, put it: Democrats will be the “emergency brake” on the administration.

But they might not always be able to pull that brake, or choose to use it. Republicans are talking about using an obscure procedure known as budget reconciliation to repeal the guts of the Affordable Care Act. That would require only a majority vote in both Houses – though replacing it would likely need Democratic buy-in.

The other area where Democrats might well find themselves powerless is the 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 their own judges.

Schumer expressed deep disappointment that Republicans never held a hearing on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. 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 bipartisanry.”

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