New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is wasting little time assuming his new power in the Senate leadership over the Democrats' message, seizing the reins of the tax debate by sharpening attacks against Republicans and effectively intensifying the partisan rancor in the upper chamber.
In the past few days, the New York legislator has stepped into the spotlight to bombard Republicans with charges that they are protecting millionaires and billionaires. Flanked by several Democratic colleagues, Schumer has led two news conferences in the past two days, launching fierce criticism against his foes, with the two men who serve above him in the Senate leadership — Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — noticeably absent.
Schumer’s colleagues, too, have picked up on a stylistic change from the past two years where he’d been acting as more of a behind-the-scenes, bipartisan dealmaker and less as the political attack machine that’s long defined him. But in recent days, Schumer — seen as a potential successor to Reid — has taken on a highly visible role on the Senate floor, attacking the Republican position in stark terms and directly repudiating GOP senators’ claims.
“We’re not sitting around waiting to get our head kicked in everyday; we’re going to present our ideas, win or lose,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), in discussing Schumer’s new role. “If people are for them, they are for them, if they are against them, they are against them. … We’re not just going to sit in the backrooms and figure out how to cave in.”
Schumer’s latest positioning comes in the wake of an idea he floated last month on CBS’s “Face the Nation” after it had been quietly kicked around the Democratic caucus for months: to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for every income bracket except for those making more than $1 million annually. In the intervening weeks, Schumer has worked aggressively behind the scenes to sell the plan to skeptical members of his caucus and make the case that it would clearly define the GOP as the party on the side of the richest Americans.
But the plan had little chance of passing — and it failed to advance on a 53-37 vote Saturday — and now the Democrats are faced with the real prospect of having to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts — particularly as the White House is seeking a wide-ranging year-end compromise on issues ranging from appropriations legislation to a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
“Chuck Schumer is not the only Democrat that engages in the kind of rhetoric that fosters class warfare,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Saturday. “If the program of the Democrats is to fire up the rhetoric and try to draw those sharp dividing lines in a way that prevent the kind of bipartisan agreement that we’re talking about and that we talked about with the president, then that won’t be helpful.”
Earlier this week when all 42 Republicans threatened to block all legislative business until deals were reached on taxes and spending, Schumer helped orchestrate his party’s response: Democratic senators would go to the floor one-by-one and propose a number of bills aimed at creating jobs. When Republicans objected, Democrats pounded them for blocking action to reverse the alarming jobless rate.
“I think the Republicans kind of walked themselves off the cliff on this one,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said, citing the tax vote in particular.
Schumer’s stepped-up presence comes after a leadership shuffle announced by Reid following the Nov. 2 elections, where Democrats lost six Senate seats and control of the House. Responding to concerns that the Senate Democrats lacked an effective messaging operation, Reid announced that he would give Schumer the role of running the party’s “war room” while also naming him chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee.
Frustrated Democrats have held scores of hours-long air-clearing caucus meetings since Election Day to figure out how to win the political war against Republicans in the Senate — particularly since their party has 23 seats up for grabs in the 2012 elections while the GOP only has 10. A number of Democrats have pushed for the leadership and the White House to take a more aggressive and partisan approach to the GOP because, they say, the GOP has shown little willingness to compromise.
The leadership shuffle — where Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) will also serve as Schumer’s vice chairwoman, Begich will serve as Steering and Outreach Committee chairman and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will head the campaign arm — represents Reid’s efforts to improve the party’s political apparatus and get greater buy-in from newer members.
While the changes don’t officially take place until next year, Democrats and Republicans already are noticing a shift in Schumer’s approach.
“I don’t think it was your imagination —– nor mine,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said.
In the Saturday news conference, Schumer signaled that the party’s new approach over the tax votes — which they had initially put off until after the Nov. 2 elections — is a sign of things to come.
“In the past, when Democrats had these kinds of cases, we have sort of thrown up our hands,” Schumer said. “We’re not going to.”
Whether he has success in his new role could affect his standing ahead of any future leadership race against Durbin, another potential Reid successor who voted against the Schumer plan because of deficit concerns.
Asked if he was already stepping into his new position, Schumer told POLITICO: “I’m not going to talk about anything to do with roles. I’m going to talk about the issues.”
But the real test for Schumer could rest on whether his party ends up getting what it wants in the end on policy — and effectively sells that to voters.
Democrats are clearly divided on what to do next over the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at year’s end. Schumer suggested the party could benefit politically by pinning the blame on the GOP and allowing the tax cuts to expire.
But it seems likely that Democrats will back an extension of all the Bush tax cuts for two years, a move that would represent a big political win for the GOP.
Top Republicans said Saturday that Schumer’s approach has amounted to little more than political theater that distracted from real efforts to broker a compromise.
“I think it’s an example of political power techniques, and if this is the way they’re going to do things next year, why we won’t get much done,” said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Senate GOP’s message man.
Even some Democrats weren’t enamored with Schumer’s proposal to extend tax cuts to all but those making more than $1 million. For months, the party has hammered the GOP for wanting to extend rates to everyone except families earning more than $250,000 a year — saying it would add enormous strain to the mountainous budget deficit.
But over the next decade, Schumer’s proposal could add $300 billion to $400 billion more to the national debt than a separate Democratic plan, which would raise taxes on anything beyond the first $250,000 of family income. It, too, failed Saturday by a 53-36 vote.
Several liberal Democrats voted against the Schumer proposal, including Durbin. And it’s clear that other liberals who voted for it weren’t fully enthusiastic about the idea.
“I’ll probably vote for both them,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said right before the vote was called. “I like the first one a lot better,” referring to the plan to hold the line at $250,000.
But Schumer’s plan gave Democratic moderates a chance to side with their party, while voting against the $250,000 idea in order to blunt attacks that their party was raising taxes on small businesses.
“I think Sen. Schumer continues to try to work to try to bring sides together,” said newly elected West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who voted against the $250,000 plan but for the Schumer proposal.
While Schumer has a reputation as a hard-charging political operative, stemming from two successful cycles running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and 2008, his newfound push is a departure of sorts because of his bipartisan dealmaking in the past two years.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said he thinks Schumer is trying to be like the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who cut bipartisan deals but also relentlessly attacked the GOP.
“I think that’s going to get really old,” the Republican said of Schumer’s approach over taxes. “I like Chuck, as you know, and I understand Chuck. And I make a lot of allowances for [partisan attacks], just like I did with Kennedy. I think he’s trying to be a New York Kennedy. I’m not sure that’s going to fly as well.”