How Schumer’s kept his Democrats in array — so far

By | August 13, 2021

Chuck Schumer got his progressives to swallow a bipartisan deal that tasted about as good to them as wilted spinach. Now he’ll need to bring his leery moderates along for the whole meal.

The Senate majority leader is not known for putting a hard whip on his members, yet Schumer’s willingness to dish tough truths to the likes of Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — not to mention Bernie Sanders — amounts to his recipe for delivery on President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.

It started a few weeks ago, when Democrats’ strategy was in jeopardy. Progressives were hammering the bipartisan infrastructure framework as too meager, while moderates hemmed and hawed over forcing any of Biden’s priorities via party-line votes. The affable majority leader was in a jam.

Behind the scenes, Schumer began to nudge harder than his genial nature suggests. He recalled telling Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chair and the firmest “no” vote on the bipartisan plan, that “if you want the moderates to vote with the progressive vision, you can’t vote no on this. You don’t have that luxury.” Then Schumer gathered Manchin and Sinema, his two most critical centrists, and told them of the caucus liberals: “If you won’t vote yes on the budget resolution, I can’t get them to vote yes” on the bipartisan bill.

The party’s two wings “each need each other,” Schumer said in an interview, explaining his “two-track” legislative strategy to link it with a party-line spending bill. “The moderates couldn’t pass a bipartisan bill without the more progressive wing of our caucus. And the progressives couldn’t get a big, bold bill without the moderates.”

This week, with the slimmest possible Democratic majority and in the same 16-hour period, Schumer’s two wings flew in unison. Sanders and other progressives voted for the bipartisan infrastructure plan, and moderates voted for a budget that sets up a $3.5 trillion spending bill. Then, almost immediately afterward, Manchin said he thought the price tag was too high.

It was a distillation of one of the trickiest balancing acts in Schumer’s career — something that the New York Democrat is getting used to while captaining a 50-50 Senate for longer than anyone in history. The truly hard work is still to come, Schumer acknowledged, reaching for a sports metaphor to explain his predicament: He said he was not spiking the football, likening his elated mood to catching a pass at midfield with 50 yards to go before the end zone. And he’s instructed his committees to meet regularly over the next month in order to write that $3.5 trillion bill by mid-September.

“There’s going to be a lot of hashing it out and clashing around in the reconciliation,” he said.

Schumer will need all the help he can get — and will receive some serious air power in several battleground states. As Democrats head into a long August recess of wrangling over tax rates and spending levels, the liberal group MoveOn.org is launching a $1.2 million ad campaign targeting four GOP senators up for reelection next year and bucking up the Democratic position, according to a source familiar with the buy. The group is also spending an additional $1 million on billboards, texts and events.

The TV ads target Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky for protecting “tax loopholes for the ultra wealthy” and blocking a “fair share” tax system. Democrats’ forthcoming spending bill is expected to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy — and they’ll need any air cover they can get.

Getting Manchin and Sinema on board for raising those tax rates is only one of Schumer’s challenges in the months ahead. He’s also desperately trying to pass elections legislation amid GOP opposition and resistance from moderates to changing the filibuster.

But if he is able to cram through all or even most of Biden’s $4 trillion spending agenda, on top of $1.9 trillion in coronavirus aid from earlier this year, he’ll have pulled off one of the most impressive feats in recent Democratic history — all with an evenly split Senate. And it started in early spring with Schumer batting around a “two-track strategy,” the phrase now in common use on the Senate floor.

In his office early this spring, Schumer and his aides, including Policy Director Gerry Petrella, discussed the two-track idea for implementing Biden’s agenda as the president rolled out his policy platform. Schumer recalled calling the president, as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after figuring out a strategy to lash his party’s two wings together.

Schumer’s idea was that Democrats could not put up the votes to do everything in a reconciliation package, and Biden didn’t want them to anyway. Instead the president wanted to prove that he and Democratic leaders could cut a bipartisan deal with the GOP — and at the same time achieve long-desired party wish-list items like paid leave, battling climate change and installing universal pre-K.

Both Biden and Pelosi endorsed the strategy of working with Republicans on physical infrastructure, then immediately pivoting to a party-line spending bill that Republicans can’t filibuster.

So far, Schumer’s allies say, the majority leader’s complicated approach is working.

“This was a convoluted, complicated and nuanced strategy that is still on track,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It speaks to the gravity of the moment, the popularity of the president and the unity of our caucus. I understand we’re not there. The finish line is still a ways off, but there were a lot of naysayers that didn’t think this strategy would get this far.”

Schumer stayed in touch with Democrats working on the bipartisan infrastructure package but took a more hands-off approach to those talks as Republicans viewed him with suspicion. Yet he was heavily involved from the beginning with Sanders’ Budget Committee. In July the panel announced an agreement for a top line spending bill number of $3.5 trillion, uniting Sanders and moderate Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

The effort started in June, with Sanders pitching a $6 trillion price tag that most of the members of the committee agreed to. But without the centrist Warner’s support, there was no chance Schumer and Sanders could get Sinema and Manchin to go along.

“That was hard,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) “It was hard for [Bernie] to agree to that number… As much as I wish it were higher, to have that worked out between one part of the Budget Committee versus the other I think was really helpful.”

While Schumer so far has kept his caucus united, writing and passing a multitrillion-dollar social spending package is likely to be his hardest task in a Senate where he has zero room for error. And Republicans are betting that moderates like Sinema and Manchin will pare down the effort significantly.

But Schumer is going to continue to use the same message his members have heard for the nearly five years that he’s been Democratic leader. His path to resolving internal caucus battles, Schumer said, is “not mysterious. I preach how we each need each other. And without unity we have nothing.”