Incoming majority leader Chuck Schumer faces impatient left, divided right in US Senate

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – Mr Chuck Schumer is set to preside over the narrowest possible majority of the US Senate, a task that will require him to keep his Democratic caucus united while luring Republican support for legislation central to President-elect Joe Biden’s priorities.

Mr Schumer, 70, rose to the pinnacle of Senate power on his capacity for political fund-raising, heavily aided by ties to New York’s lucrative financial industry. Now his success as incoming majority leader will hinge on building consensus in a chamber still reeling from Wednesday’s (Jan 6) mob violence and with Republicans divided over loyalty to President Donald Trump.

The storming of the Capitol by an angry crowd of Trump supporters rattled lawmakers and prompted many Republicans to distance themselves from the President, who in the past was feared for his taste for retribution. The test for Mr Schumer will be whether he can exploit Republicans’ widening disaffection with Mr Trump’s divisive tactics.

Given the Senate’s 50-50 partisan divide – once the Democratic victors in Tuesday’s Georgia run-off elections are sworn in – control is only assured by incoming Vice-President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. The Senate has only been evenly divided three times before: in 1881, 1953 and 2001.

On most legislation, Mr Schumer will need support from 60 senators to cut off debate and move to a vote, under Senate rules. Democrats will have a limited opportunity each year to fast-track a revenue-related bill to pass with just 51 votes. But even with legislation that requires only a simple majority, Mr Schumer must either keep every Democrat on board or win over offsetting Republican support.

On Thursday, Mr Schumer publicly called for Mr Trump to be removed from office, taking up a cause that was gaining traction among Democrats’ progressive wing, as well as some Republicans. He put the onus on Mr Trump’s Cabinet, saying they should invoke the 25th amendment, the constitutional provision for removing a president unable to serve. He said Congress should impeach Mr Trump if the Cabinet doesn’t act.

“The best thing to do is to get rid of him,” Mr Schumer said in New York. “I don’t trust him one bit.”

Once Mr Biden is sworn in Jan 20, Mr Schumer has said his top priority will be proceeding with the new president’s call for more economic assistance for Americans to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“America is experiencing one of the greatest crises we have ever had in our history and the Senate Democratic majority is committed to delivering the bold change,” Mr Schumer said at a press briefing on Wednesday.

He said his first goal is getting approval of an increase in direct assistance payments to most individuals to US$2,000 (S$2,650), from the US$600 included in last month’s Covid-19 relief package. He didn’t specify whether he would seek to pass that measure on its own, or as part of a broader stimulus bill.

As Democrats celebrate the diversity of Biden’s cabinet nominees and incoming lawmakers, the Brooklyn-born incoming Senate majority leader will break another barrier, becoming the first Jewish American to lead either chamber of Congress.

Mr Schumer will need to navigate competing factions within his party, managing the demands of left-leaning lawmakers, such as Ms Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – with an energised progressive movement behind their push for higher taxes on the rich and new regulations in areas from climate change to health care – while keeping moderates such as Mr Joe Manchin of West Virginia voting with the party.

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Biden agenda

Much of Mr Biden’s agenda as president will depend on how well Mr Schumer rises to the occasion, though Mr Biden will also be able to draw on his own relationships dating from his long tenure in the Senate.

Major action on climate change, a big infrastructure programme and tax-law changes face their most formidable obstacles in the Senate, where Republican leader Mitch McConnell was able to obstruct many of President Barack Obama’s priorities with a smaller minority.

Mr Schumer brings to the role his own priorities, shaped by the New York metro area – including a renewed push to win federal funding for the US$11 billion Gateway project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and the reversal of the federal limits on state and local tax deductions enacted by Republicans under President Trump.

A progressive movement impatient after four years under Trump’s rule is also pressing to end the legislative filibuster, which would prevent a minority from blocking Bills but also end a cherished source of clout for individual senators, even in the majority party.

Reid comparison

Mr Schumer has long been an ally to outside groups that are core to the party’s base, including labour unions and civil-rights groups. But some progressive groups complain he hasn’t maintained the close connection established by his immediate predecessor as Senate Democratic leader, Mr Harry Reid of Nevada.

Mr Reid “was really plugged into the progressive zeitgeist” in ways that Mr Schumer isn’t, said Mr Charles Chamberlain, chair of the grassroots group Democracy for America.

“Chuck Schumer has to deliver results,” Mr Chamberlain said. “We have the House. There’s no question that Nancy Pelosi is going to pass great stuff through the House. There will be no excuses for failure in the Senate.”

While Mr Schumer has worked to forge an identity as a defender of the middle class, he was earlier known as the “senator from Wall Street” for his vigorous defence of the home-town industry and the big donations he raised from financial-services firms.

During Mr Obama’s first term, Mr Schumer pressed to maintain Mr George W. Bush’s tax cuts for couples making up to US$1 million a year, a much higher threshold than sought by Mr Obama or the eventual 2012 deal repealing the tax cuts for couples with annual incomes above US$450,000.

‘Frenetic style’

Mr Schumer also has a more decisive and less deliberative style than the soft-spoken Mr Reid, and that is likely to show as he pursues the party’s agenda with his narrow majority.

“He’s someone who is always in motion. He has a really frenetic style,” said Mr Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor who worked as a guest scholar on Mr Reid’s staff. “Harry Reid was very laid back. Reid was always listening. I don’t think he’s going to be that kind of leader.”

As minority leader in recent years, Mr Schumer gave his moderates space to vote with Republicans on some nominations and legislation, while holding them with the party on big items – like blocking GOP-favoured policing measures and pandemic relief packages that Democrats said were too scanty.

“The discipline among Senate Democrats has really been excellent under Schumer,” Mr Baker said. “There have been very few defections on important stuff.”

Less pressure

As majority leader, Mr Schumer may benefit from the fact that Mr Manchin and two other moderates, Mr Jon Tester of Montana and Ms Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, don’t face voters until 2024 – alleviating some of the pressures that his counterpart Pelosi faces, with her narrowed majority on the line in 22 months’ time.

Mr Schumer also can tap his close working relationship with Ms Pelosi. The two worked to help negotiate an end to the 2019 government shutdown and to block Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Mr Schumer and Ms Pelosi stayed united during the half-year struggle to pass December’s Covid-19 relief package, and they may now have the clout to get more of the stimulus they want.

A former New York state Assembly member, Harvard University-educated Mr Schumer has spent more than half his life on Capitol Hill, starting in the House in 1980 and then moving chambers after defeating GOP Senator Alfonse D’Amato in 1998.

He has been easily re-elected three times, and his elevation to the Senate’s most powerful job boosts the chances he can do it again in 2022. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive champion and social media star, hasn’t ruled out a run against him, but Mr Schumer’s rise could reduce her appetite for a challenge.

Moving left

Mr Schumer has evolved politically in the Senate, moving to the left along with his party. Under his direction, Senate Democrats ran in 2018 and 2020 elections on the potential threat to the Affordable Care Act from a GOP majority. That was a shift from 2014, when he had said – amid a battle against a rising conservative Tea Party movement – that Democrats should have focused on income inequality for the middle class rather than on Obamacare in 2009, saying it “wasn’t at the top of most Americans’ to-do lists”.

He rode his fund-raising success to his first leadership role as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, when he raised a record US$121.4 million for the 2006 elections that yielded Democrats a 51-seat majority. He was rewarded by colleagues who named him vice-chairman of the Democratic caucus and returned him to the DSCC job. He then helped the party expand its majority to 60 seats in 2008.

His role leading Senate Democrats’ national campaign arm provided him early connections with many of them. Among the recruits Mr Schumer helped court to run for the Senate: progressive lion Bernie Sanders, first elected in 2006 as a Vermont independent.

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