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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the filibuster, 2020, and Medicare-for-all

Vox interviews Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

Chuck Schumer is one part of the Chuck-and-Nancy team leading the united resistance against President Donald Trump and, if the 2020 election breaks right for Democrats, the Senate majority leader-in-waiting.

He sat down with Vox for a 45-minute interview, offering up his legendary hospitality often credited with helping keep Democrats unified. He lit a fire and asked if he could put his feet up. Stood up to grab a family picture while recounting his early days getting into politics. Even as an aide pressed Schumer to finish the interview so he could move onto his next appointment, the Democratic leader indulged us in a few more questions.

Our conversation covered Schumer’s rise in politics (an unprompted and vivid history as told by the senator himself), his tenure as Democratic leader so far, and the future for the party if Democrats, as he hopes, take the Senate majority. Schumer knows the eventual nominee for president will play a major part in how Senate elections turn out. But he hasn’t settled on whether one would be better for his plans to win a majority than another.

“I think about this all the time. Here’s the only conclusion I’ve come to, which is the electorate will choose the candidate that they think has the best chance of beating Trump. Who that is, I don’t know,” he told us. “When someone asks me who should run — let a thousand flowers bloom. I wake up one morning, I think this one has the best chance of beating Trump and helping us take back the Senate. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Let’s see what happens.”

Our full conversation is below, edited for clarity and length.

Dylan Scott

I wanted to start with a question about style. The defining trait of your leadership is you have this compulsion to take the temperature of your caucus at all times.

Chuck Schumer

My style is Brooklyn. I tell people, sometimes it helps me, sometimes it hurts me. This is what I tell candidates when I recruit them. But if I tried not to be from Brooklyn, I’d be worse than whatever I am.

I’m very direct with my caucus, I care a lot about them. Caucus unity is vital. If we are divided, Trump, the Republicans, even now, when they control the Senate, will roll over us.

We have a leadership team. Eleven people. We meet every Monday. You know who’s on my leadership team? Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin and Mark Warner. We sit around that table and work things through. Then Tuesday morning, I have a bigger group of 20. Then probably the highlight of the week is the Tuesday lunch where all the members come and when there’s a tough issue, we talk it over and try to come up with a consensus. I try to listen to everybody. I really like my colleagues. I know all of their phone numbers by heart.

Dylan Scott

Yeah, it seems like you’re not afraid to overdo it. Chris Murphy told me he laughs sometimes at the things you’ll call him about.

Chuck Schumer

Each one’s elected, each one’s very accomplished. I love every member of my caucus. I always look for the good in people. I really do. Look what our unity has done for us in the last few years. We beat back attempts to roll back the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. We had every Democrat united. I helped persuade John McCain to vote no. If we hadn’t been united, forget it.

Next one, tax. We didn’t win on tax, because they had reconciliation, but we were so strong and united I think one of the most important things we did is put a dagger through the heart of this Republican theory, which is: Cut taxes on the rich, cut taxes on the big corporations, and everyone will benefit. We showed that what they were doing. We showed it wasn’t benefitting me. And they couldn’t use it in the 2018 campaigns. They will never use it again. We will undo, we get back the majority, we will undo those intolerable tax cuts on the wealthy and on the big corporations. The unity was important for that.

It also got us to do some positive things when we had leverage. The budget. So what the Republicans wanted to do under Trump is get a big increase in defense and that’s it. And they tried to jam us. It’s a hard thing for people from the more red states to say I’m voting against an increase in defense. But we had every member, I worked hard to unify them, they did, so they couldn’t get that budget. Guess what? We got $160 billion in the things we believe in. Housing, infrastructure, AIDS, food stamps, opioid relief, and veterans. If we didn’t have unity, forget it, they would have broken us.

Just in this shutdown, they were desperate to try and pick off a few of our people. Before Nancy [Pelosi] became speaker, they thought they would. But even after, we were the battleground and they couldn’t pick off anybody. That takes listening to your colleagues and creating the view, the understanding that when we’re unified we can stop them much better. When we’re unified, we can get things done. We’re going to try to use our leverage.

Our unity is vital to us stopping Trump from doing all the bad things he’s going to do. Sometimes we have no power or little power, like on the judges. They need 51. Very hard.

Li Zhou

I wanted to ask about the shutdown and what it’s like now that the Democrats control the House.

Chuck Schumer

It’s much better because we can start doing some positive things. An example. I feel the urgency of climate. If the temperature goes up three degrees Fahrenheit, the globe will be gone in a relatively short period of time. It hit home to me even more a little while ago, I was with my little grandson. Then I drove along the southern shore of Brooklyn, which is beautiful shore front and beach front, where I used to go to the beach when I was a little boy. It’ll be gone. He’ll never see it.

With a Democratic House, there are certain places where the Republicans are going to need things and we can make them compromise. Tax. They’re going to need to change some tax extenders. We can do some green things. Infrastructure. That’s the one place we might able to. I don’t know if you saw, I wrote an op-ed, any infrastructure bill that Senate Democrats do will be green. That got a lot of say. And on the budget, on appropriations, I just introduced a bill yesterday to defund this fake climate committee they put together. We’ll have an opportunity to do it because they need our votes on the budget. Any time they need 60, not only can we stop bad things from happening, but we can actually do some very good things.

Our unity will allow us to get some things done because we have a Democratic House, and I love having it. I mean, I would have preferred that we have both. Nancy and I are close. We’re tight as a drum.

Dylan Scott

Something I’ve heard is that the first shutdown was a clarifying moment for you, in terms of your relationship with Trump and how much you could trust him.

Chuck Schumer

You can’t. Look, here’s what I said to him a week after he was elected. The night he was elected, I was distraught. It came as a total shock. I taught [my wife and daughters] the old Shirelles song, “Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This.” I thought I’d be majority leader and Trump would be defeated, and we’d have Hillary. I moped around in my house for two days.

On the third day, I had this epiphany: “Look, Chuck, stop moping. If Hillary had been president and you’d been majority leader, the job would be easier. You’d have more fun and most importantly, you’d get some good things done, which is why you’re here. But with Trump as president, your job is more important. To stop him. I think he’s a threat to our democracy.”

Dylan Scott

You’ll have to indulge me some health care questions. I was up in the chamber and I saw McCain come over and talk to you [during the pivotal Obamacare repeal vote in 2017]. What did he say to you?

Chuck Schumer

I spent four hours with him in his office, and he showed me all the pictures of his father and grandfather. His father was an exterminator, he was a four-star admiral. 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. No. 1, you know this is hurting people. But No. 2, you know they’re just ramming it through. On the floor, he just said to me, I’m sticking with you.

Dylan Scott

I also heard you spent a fair amount of time with Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski ahead of the vote.

Chuck Schumer

I did.

Dylan Scott

Was it similar?

Chuck Schumer

Similar but closest with McCain. I did. I worked hard on the Republicans. But again, if we didn’t have 48 Democrats, forget it.

Dylan Scott

To that point, going back to January 2017, as I understand it, the assumption was you were going to lose some number of Democrats on a health care vote. At the start of the Congress, how many Democrats did you think you might lose and what did you say to those people?

Chuck Schumer

I had five. We called them the Big Five. We had five Democrats in states Trump won by 20 points or more who were up in 2018. [Sens. Jon Tester (MT), Joe Manchin (WV), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Donnelly (IN), and Claire McCaskill (MO).] I worried about every one of them.

Dylan Scott

What did you say to them?

Chuck Schumer

First, I said we have to do the right thing. But 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. 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.

Dylan Scott

So was part of it keeping them out of the fray?

Chuck Schumer

Yes. I would meet with them every two weeks, with the Big Five, on health care and other issues. Right here, they sat right there.

Dylan Scott

Then it seemed like the politics started to reveal themselves as bills came out, the CBO scores.

Chuck Schumer

If you look at the election, in 2018, what was the most important issue? Health care. We helped make that happen. We lost in those states, but the African-American turnout, Missouri and Indiana, was higher than ever. Our real salvation over the next generation is going to be ... the millennials. They are overwhelmingly Democratic. They care about this stuff.

Here’s a great thing for me, that I believe: I’ve studied the millennials some, and I spend a lot of time with them and I have two children who are them. The No. 4 issue, college. The No. 3 is probably guns. No. 2 is climate. But you know what the No. 1 issue of the millennials who are so Democratic? This gives me faith in America: They don’t like the smell of bigotry coming out of Trump and the Republicans.

I’ve thought about this. My wedding in 1980, there was hardly a person of color there. I went to James Madison High School. 5,000 people. Not one person of color. My daughter’s wedding, both daughters, one’s married just in November, my little daughter, my big daughter was married three years ago, it was like the United Nations. Not because they were picking people. That’s who they went to school with, that’s who they’re friends with.

Dylan Scott

Before we leave health care: Obviously, a bunch of presidential candidates are running on Medicare-for-all. That’s where a lot of the grassroots energy is right now. But I’m curious, if you had a trifecta in 2021, would a Medicare-for-all plan be able to pass the Senate?

Chuck Schumer

I can say this: Some strong health care bill would pass.

Dylan Scott

But not single-payer.

Chuck Schumer

I don’t know what. Maybe it would. I can’t predict what would. But our unity in our caucus, 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. Not access, but coverage. No. 2, cost less for people. No. 3, better health care, covers everything. 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. It pushes everything over that we need to move over.

Dylan Scott

But what would you say to the people who say, half measures are what got us within a vote of the ACA being repealed?

Chuck Schumer

We don’t want to do half measures. We’re not in charge. It’s a different issue for Nancy than for me. We’ve got to win back the majority by showing people we’re really strong and really care, and then we’ll do something. If we don’t do something, we’ll lose it right away.

Winning back the Senate, and being strong on the issues, whether it’s health care, income distribution, climate, are in sync. There’s no conflict, if you do it right and if you have Democratic majority.

Dylan Scott

I’m just thinking of when the time comes to govern.

Chuck Schumer

There’s a great crucible out here, and it’ll create something very good and much more comprehensive than what we have now.

Li Zhou

Can you talk a little bit more what it’s like in the room when it’s you, Speaker Pelosi and Trump?

Chuck Schumer

Nancy and I talk four or five times a day. We get along great. Our staffs say we finish each other’s sentences.

We believe, and we spoke even at that first famous meeting, when I got to say he owned the shutdown. I knew I was going to stick it to him, but we didn’t plot that out, Nancy and I. But we did plot out that we were going to speak truth to power. We decided no one on his staff tells him the truth.

He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know what’s going on down at the southern border. It’s just what [White House adviser] Stephen Miller tells him. So we were going to speak truth to power. Now we had no idea that he’d let the cameras in. But he did and it worked to our benefit. The only thing I did wrong, when he said I’ll own the shutdown. I taunted him, I said you said you’re for a shutdown 25 times. It’s your shutdown. I shouldn’t have smiled. I tried to repress it, but I didn’t quite.

Li Zhou

What are some misconceptions you think people might have about Speaker Pelosi?

Chuck Schumer

She’s what I admire. She’s both progressive and effective. That’s what I try to be.

Li Zhou

I did have a question about the progressive pushback related to judicial nominees last year. I know a lot of that was because red-state senators had to go home to campaign.

Chuck Schumer

But it wasn’t, see, that’s the misconception. If we would’ve stayed, they would’ve passed more judges. I did everything. I hate them having these judges. I would like to talk to the Supreme Court, tell them how they’re ruining America. I think the right wing, for its whole history, has wanted judges more than anything else. Because they know they’ll never get the elected branches of government, even when the Republicans control them, to move to their agenda. It is so far away, to the right of where the American people are. Even where the middle of the Republican Party is. But if they have the non-elected branch, they can do it.

Look at three cases. All of which — Justice [John] Roberts, who said he’d call balls and strikes, led the Court to break huge precedent, that structurally change the power structure and give the powerful more. Citizens United. Shelby, on voting rights. Most recently, Janus, which makes it harder to be in a labor union.

I can’t stand their getting these judges. When it comes to judges, when they changed the rules to 50 votes, we have a pair of fours. I think we’ve played them as well as we could. That summer, if we had stayed, we’ve shown everybody this, they would have passed more judges than just the number and go back.

Li Zhou

What about the pushback that said, have someone stay and oppose the unanimous consent and force cloture votes, and draw it out?

Chuck Schumer

They would have stayed and passed more judges. You see, that’s the problem. This is the guy [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] who held up [Supreme Court justice nominee] Merrick Garland for a year. He would have done anything to pass them. It’s true my members wanted to go home, the ones campaigning. But that was not the equation. The equation was what was the way to do the fewest. We couldn’t stop anything. Let’s do the fewest.

Originally, the idea was we wouldn’t give them a quorum. They could call the sergeant at arms, then they could change the rules themselves and pass all the judges at once.

Dylan Scott

This all relates too to the filibuster question, which a lot of the presidential candidates are getting.

Chuck Schumer

And none of them have answered it yet.

Dylan Scott

None of them have really answered it, though some of them have signaled an interest in changing some of the rules, and obviously I think a lot of people on the left view the filibuster as a fundamental hurdle to Medicare-for-all.

Chuck Schumer

Let me just say this. Get the majority. Beat Trump. We’ll leave discussion of rules to next year.

Dylan Scott

I’m curious, too, thinking about the 2020 Senate map.

Chuck Schumer

So the map is better than 2018. But not as good as 2022. The good news, we have many fewer, we only have two senators in states that Trump won. One of them, Michigan, I don’t think he’s ahead now. The bad news is we have a lot of tough states on the Republican side, we’ve got to win.

Dylan Scott

I know you know this, but elections often tend to work top down. Presidential coattails are a very real thing.

Chuck Schumer

No question.

Dylan Scott

So given the map, do you think there’s a type of presidential candidate who’d be best?

Chuck Schumer

I think about this all the time. Here’s the only conclusion I’ve come to, which is the electorate will choose the candidate that they think has the best chance of beating Trump. Who that is, I don’t know.

When someone asks me who should run. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I wake up one morning, I think this one has the best chance of beating Trump and helping us take back the Senate. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Let’s see what happens.

Dylan Scott

Do you worry at all though about a tension between where the primary electorate seems to be drifting and some of the states you have to win in 2020?

Chuck Schumer

Let’s remember the energy that the so-called young people, the women have, is good everywhere. I don’t know if you just saw, there was a poll today, Quinnipiac, that showed in Texas, two things: one, Trump is — did Biden beat him?

Dylan Scott

It was close.

Chuck Schumer

In Texas, which is their best big state, it was even or close to even with Trump, Bernie, and Beto. And Beto-Cornyn [for Senate] was even. That’s a red state.

Dylan Scott

That’s got to be a white whale for you guys. Texas.

Chuck Schumer

It’s a white whale. But it’s got a chance. I tell people this: California was the most conservative state under Reagan, and Orange County was the center of conservatism. That was hard right. What changed? A, now it’s a majority-minority state. So is Texas. B, the industries changed and many more were the industries that have more Democrats, whether it’s education, health care, or tech or something. Texas, that’s happening. But 3, the children of those right-wingers are not so right-wing. That’s Orange County.

Dylan Scott

You mentioned the stock buybacks before. I don’t have to tell you, 15 years ago, your record on financial regulation was much more to the right, let’s say. I’m wondering whether your outlook on these issues has fundamentally changed.

Chuck Schumer

Yes. I love stories. Abe Lincoln said the best way to talk to people is stories.

Kraft was a good American company. It was very nice to people in New York. It was second to Illinois as their biggest state. They made Cracker Barrel cheese, they made Polly-o, they made Philadelphia cream cheese. They employed a lot of people and were the lifeblood for our small dairy farmers who sold their milk to Kraft to make these products.

So I read in the newspaper that Heinz is taking over Kraft. Heinz is run by a hedge fund called 3G, which is Brazilian, which has a reputation for slash and burn. I tried to call the CEO of Heinz to say, please talk to me before you close plants or lay off workers of whatever in upstate New York, we need them. Instead of meeting with me, which he refused to do, he sent some young fellow with a booklet on why they should close all four plants. And I said to myself, I don’t care if 3G’s stocks goes up 5 points. I care about the dairy farmers and the 10,000 people whose families have devoted their lives to Kraft for a generation or two. It was a seminal moment for me.

Dylan Scott

Because I was reading some of the old Chuck Schumer stories that painted a different picture.

Chuck Schumer

Look, I think that corporate America, I think if income distribution is our biggest problem, corporate America has contributed to that with buybacks and many other things and you’re going to hear stuff from me on this. I think they have a responsibility to change. In the ’60s and ’70s, corporate and financial America had responsibilities not just to their shareholders, but to their workers and to their communities. That’s gone. It’s got to move back.

Li Zhou

One last quick question. I wanted to follow up about that Facebook report from last year.

Chuck Schumer

Look, you need change in tech. I agree with that. I think there’s going to be a privacy bill. I think that may be bipartisan and I would be supportive, I’d have to see what it says, but I’d be supportive.

Li Zhou

I was wondering, the story had said you told Mark Warner to back off of his investigation. Can you speak to whether that happened?

Chuck Schumer

Jon Tester came to see me in 2017, he said if the Russians do what they did in 2016, in 2018, we’re all going to lose. So my focus on all of tech, Facebook, Google, was stop it, you can stop it if you want, and you haven’t. When we had meetings, that was my priority. Somehow it got misinterpreted.