Chuck Schumer aligned his two index fingers.
“Nancy and I are close. We’re tight as a drum,” he told Vox during a wide-ranging recent interview.
The gregarious Senate minority leader finally has a partner in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he tries to take on President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He sounds born anew when describing what’s possible.
“With a Democratic House, there are certain places where the Republicans are going to need things,” he says, “and we can make them compromise.”
He quips that he and Pelosi are so close that “our staffs say we finish each other’s sentences.”
For the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Schumer was the Democrats’ strongest line of defense against the Republicans. But he isn’t alone anymore. He’s now riding alongside Pelosi, the legendary Democratic House speaker.
“She’s what I admire. She’s both progressive and effective,” Schumer says. “That’s what I try to be.”
But he’s also watching Pelosi walk a line he may soon find himself walking, if Schumer is lucky enough to secure a Senate majority. Pelosi is holding together a House majority that contains moderate members who just flipped conservative districts as well as the stars of the ascendant left. Schumer, likewise, already has to balance the likes of Joe Manchin (D-WV) with Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
So far, Senate Democrats have been united on defense: block Obamacare repeal. Oppose the GOP tax cuts. Raise the temperature on controversial judges. But come 2021, opposing Republicans might not be enough anymore. If they retake the majority, Democrats will have to agree to and pass an actual agenda.
As Pelosi would tell him, that can be a tough transition. He’ll have to balance progressives who have campaigned for president on Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal with the moderate senators who have to court Trump voters to win elections. He’ll be confronted with questions about whether to preserve the Senate filibuster or use the “nuclear option” to advance a Democratic agenda.
Chuck Schumer could be the fulcrum on which the next Democratic administration turns. He need only look across the Capitol, to his good friend Nancy, for a lesson in what awaits him.
Chuck and Nancy, explained
Schumer and Pelosi go way back; they started out as friends as much as colleagues, according to John Lawrence, who served as Pelosi’s chief of staff for years. They moved in the same circles, revolving around George Miller, a California Congress member who lived in a Capitol Hill townhouse with Schumer.
Schumer recounts fondly how Miller correctly predicted 30 years ago that Pelosi would become the first woman to be speaker of the House. Miller, Schumer, and Pelosi would meet with Barbara Boxer (who retired as a California senator in 2017) and Dick Durbin (now an Illinois senator) regularly for dinner in those days. Shop talk was forbidden — or at least frowned upon.
“I think what’s different is you have a preexisting familiarity and level of comfort on a social, personal level as well as the formal relationship that serves them well,” Lawrence says.
It’s a notable change from the kind of relationship Pelosi had with the insular, mercurial Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid when she last held the speaker’s gavel. Pelosi and Reid met once a week for lunch, accompanied only by their chiefs of staff. Schumer says he and Pelosi talk “four or five times a day.”
Pelosi has a lot of experience corralling an ideologically disparate conference — that isn’t new to Schumer either, and it’s an area where their interests and strengths align, according to people who know them both.
“I know Schumer’s fascination with the details of the politics that affect his members, the strategizing, that is very much something that he and Pelosi are in tune on,” Lawrence says. “They can talk in shorthand to each other, and that’s always an advantage in any political relationship.”
The two are effective complements, says Jim Kessler, a former Schumer staffer and current executive vice president at the centrist think tank Third Way. There’s constant communication and a genuine affection between the two, a bond that can be tracked back to their time as “buddies” in the House. But that doesn’t mean they are exactly alike.
“Pelosi is a tough fighter, but she’s also unfailingly polite, is a person of few words,” Kessler notes. “Schumer is brash and sharp-elbowed and gets agitated and they’re just stylistically different.”
The united power of Schumer and Pelosi at the helm has already scored one resounding win. During the recent 35-day government shutdown, Democrats held out on their refusal to fund the president’s border wall and ultimately forced Trump to cave with no concessions. In one indelible television appearance, Schumer and Pelosi stood side by side as they sternly condemned the president.
“We decided no one on his staff tells him the truth. He doesn’t know anything,” Schumer says.
Like Pelosi, Schumer has a strong hold on his caucus — but Schumer has the luxury of making it personal
Schumer had been inching toward his job as Democratic leader for years, and he became the heir apparent to Reid, even if they had different approaches to the job.
“Their styles are just very different. Reid kept close company and was quiet and internal. Chuck is out there. He’s talking to folks all the time,” says Kessler, who like so many people characterizes Schumer as an “extreme extrovert.”
Schumer, from New York, has what he calls the Brooklyn way: He is achingly, comically, overbearingly attentive to his members. He’s memorized each of their phone numbers. Senators laugh sometimes at the things he’ll call them about.
“It’s rare that two or three days will go by without my phone ringing and Chuck Schumer is on the other end,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) says. “Sometimes, it’s about the littlest thing. More than once, I’ve told Chuck that his time would be better spent not worrying about what we think about every piece of legislation. But that’s how he is.”
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) adds succinctly, “He’s all about relationships.”
This is the luxury of being a Senate leader: He has 40-some members to manage, not the almost 240 over in Pelosi’s House. He can forge a personal relationship with each of them, and Schumer works overtime to do that. Whether the progressive grassroots like him or not, Schumer is very popular inside that room. Nobody doubts his hold on his position.
Schumer’s solicitousness can also sometimes come with a brutal honesty. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) says Schumer gave him some “very blunt” advice when he was launching his own Senate run in 2012, though he won’t reveal what it was.
Schumer has a stringent routine to gather feedback from his members and develop a consensus. Every Monday evening, a group of 11 Democratic senators, including Sanders and Manchin, meets, providing a swift survey of the full ideological spectrum inside the caucus. Then a bigger group gets together Tuesday morning. Then all of the Democrats meet for lunch. By design, that series of meetings helps the conference build consensus on whatever the issue of the week is.
In between are the countless calls that elicit affectionate eye rolls.
How Schumer got red-state Democrats to stick with him on health care
Such solicitousness gives Schumer cache with his members, which helps him hold them together on the big issues. It is distinct from but still reminiscent of Pelosi’s famous ability to keep an ideologically diverse group of people together on tough votes. (Even as the pressure mounted during the shutdown, and Trump tried to go around her and negotiate directly with House moderates, it didn’t work.)
For Schumer, the failure of Obamacare repeal was his most impressive legislative win. When Trump took office, Senate Democrats privately assumed they would lose a half-dozen or so of their members to the Republicans on the health care vote.
But Schumer was resolved to keep them together. He met every other week with what they called “the Big Five”: Sens. Tester (MT), Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Donnelly (IN), and Claire McCaskill (MO), who represented states Trump had won by massive 20-point margins. He told them the politics of health care would flip to their advantage. Three of them didn’t survive their reelection campaigns, but Tester and Manchin held on and ran heavily on health care in the midterm campaign to win.
“I said, this issue, you wait till you run, it’s going to be on our side. They’ve had the propaganda, but now they’re in charge,” Schumer recalls. “I said this early on, they don’t know what to do about repeal. They just talk about it. It’s all aimed at being anti-Obama. We’re going to take this issue over. We’re going to get the high ground.”
Schumer turned his charms to the Republicans, too, spending hours with Arizona Sen. John McCain before the decisive vote.
“I just tried to tell him, be true to yourself. He gets cranky, and he got cranky and angry, when he wasn’t true to himself, like in the 2008 campaign. I said, just be true to yourself, John.”
He also lobbied Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who crossed with aisle with McCain and Maine Sen. Susan Collins to defeat the bill. It was the high point of Schumer’s leadership so far.
“If you look at the election, in 2018, what was the most important issue? Health care,” he says. “We helped make that happen.”
Chuck Schumer is still catching up to the Democratic Party’s leftward drift
For the Democratic left, so energized by Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Schumer has sometimes been seen as an impediment. He was firmly in favor of deregulating the financial services industry before the big crash in 2008. He did tell Vox he’s fundamentally changed his views about corporate America, as he’s watched factories close and companies spend their windfall from tax cuts on stock buybacks. He’s sponsored a bill with Sanders targeting those buybacks, a sign of his recent evolution.
The Washington Post once reported Schumer would ask job applicants to rate themselves on a 1-100 scale, conservative to liberal. The correct answer was 75. The senator has long had moderate roots, according to his college roommate David Barrett, who spoke with the Harvard Crimson in an interview.
“Chuck was always very much a moderate. Understanding I think the way that both sides felt but trying to sort of steer a middle course in a constructive way which is what I think he still tries to do politically,” Barrett said.
It’s an approach that’s garnered some criticism from progressive activists — and it contrasts a bit with how Pelosi is perceived.
“I was dismayed right after the 2016 election when Schumer’s first instinct was to say — we can work with the president on infrastructure,” says Rebecca Katz, a progressive political strategist who had previously worked for Reid. “These are some of the scariest people we’ve ever worked with — we should not be looking to cut deals.”
Pelosi is seen as the fighter, Schumer the convivial compromiser. But both of them had highlighted potential ways to work with Trump at the very start of his presidency, and both seem to have lost hope in that possibility.
During the first government shutdown in 2018, Schumer offered Trump more than $20 billion in funding for his border wall in exchange for legal protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children. Trump initially signaled openness to the idea, leading Democrats to believe they had a deal with the president on a critical issue, but he quickly reneged.
That served as a powerful lesson for Schumer, who isn’t trying to cut deals with Trump anymore. “I think he’s a threat to our democracy,” he says.
If he were to get a Democratic majority, it would bring new demands on Schumer. He’s not promising Medicare-for-all could pass the Senate, and he won’t commit to eliminating the filibuster, the hope for so many progressive reforms. Moreover, Schumer still has Sens. Joe Manchin and Mark Warner (VA) and now Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) to worry about.
“He respects the fact that we’re diverse. Politically, geographically, and in other ways,” Schatz says. “He does a fair amount of listening and persuading, rather than laying down the law. Laying down is a shortcut to getting unity, but it’s not a play you can make every week.”
Vox asked Schumer whether a Medicare-for-all bill could pass the Senate if the stars aligned and Democrats regained full control of the legislative and executive branches.
“I can say this: Some strong health care bill would pass,” Schumer replies. “Some people are for Medicare-for-all, some people are for Medicare buy-in, some people are for 50, some people are for a public option. But we all agree we need a stronger health care plan that covers everyone, universal coverage. We want everyone to have it. ... We’ll figure out the best way to get there. My caucus, different people have different views. We don’t attack each other. I think it’s great. And the energy for Medicare-for-all that’s out in the streets, it’s great.”
He waves away the filibuster question, though while the rule remains in place, it is difficult to imagine a single-payer health care system or something resembling the Green New Deal ever passing. Democrats don’t have a prayer of winning a 60-seat supermajority, and the wonky budget reconciliation rules that allow a bill to advance with a simple majority greatly restrict what kind of legislation can be pursued.
“Get the majority. Beat Trump,” Schumer says. “We’ll leave discussion of rules to next year.”