The perils of political hunting trips range from mockery — as with Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) expensive gear — to mortal danger — as in ending up on the wrong end of Dick Cheney’s 28-gauge.
But Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had another story in mind when he traveled recently to Nebraska, a cautionary tale told to him early in his career by an older, urban-oriented New Jersey congressman who had made the mistake of accepting a hunting invitation from a Midwestern colleague.
“He shot the dog,” Schumer recalled, referring to the outcome of the Jersey pol’s inept marksmanship.
Schumer did not shoot the dog. He bagged three pheasants. And six weeks later, he bagged Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), serving as key negotiator as Nelson held the fate of landmark health care legislation in the balance.
While the two Senate Democrats didn’t spend their morning in a field outside Omaha talking business, the hunting trip will go down as a key, if unconventional, detour on the road to the Democrats’ most important modern legislative accomplishment.
The senator from Brooklyn woke up early the morning of Nov. 8, a day after he’d watched Nebraska thump Oklahoma on the gridiron. He put on a blaze orange hunting vest and hat, refusing only the boots (“too big”). He received a crash course on shotgun safety and marveled at the dogs.
“They were just amazing,” he said of the pointers and retrievers. “I always thought hunting dogs were just for companionship.”
Then the senator from New York saw a pheasant, took aim and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
“He didn’t get the safety off, so he couldn't shoot,” his host, Nelson, recalled with a chuckle Tuesday morning. “You have to push the safety off to shoot. He figured that out.”
The next pheasant wasn’t so lucky.
“He thought I shot it,” said Nelson. “I said, ‘No, I know I didn’t shoot ‘cause I didn’t shoot.’ And I said, ‘So you either scared it to death or you hit it.’ He was ready to jump up and down.”
Schumer bagged, his companions told him, three pheasants that early November day in Nebraska, though he was “never 100 percent sure they weren’t helping me.”
Schumer and Nelson's friendship began in 2005, when Schumer was named chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Nelson was considering retiring instead of seeking reelection in a conservative-oriented state in 2006, and Schumer told POLITICO that when he assumed the DSCC chairmanship, Nelson was his first call.
The logic was clear, Schumer said: “He runs, we win; if he doesn’t run, we lose.” So he gave in, he says, to extensive demands from the Nebraskan, and Nelson cruised to what turned out to be an easy reelection.
Schumer’s bond with the Senate moderates he helped elect and reelect in 2006 and 2008 has powered his remarkable ascent within the chamber. Two years ago, Schumer seemed in danger of being overshadowed by his state’s junior senator, Hillary Clinton, or elbowed aside in the Senate leadership by Obama mentor Dick Durbin.
Now he’s unrivaled as the Senate’s central political force and chief negotiator, the architect of Harry Reid’s inclusive Senate majority. And the Senate is on the verge of passing landmark health care legislation that’s deeply controversial in states such as Nelson’s, a lesson Schumer said was drummed into him by the people he met that weekend in Omaha.
The apparent political victory has further enhanced Schumer’s stature. The jokes about the most dangerous place in Washington being between him and a camera have gone stale, replaced by a widespread recognition that he has evolved into one of the essential players on the American political landscape and, quite likely, a future majority leader.
The hunting story became legend in the Senate last month after Nelson passed photographs of the orange-clad, gun-toting Harvard grad, dead bird in hand, around an amused caucus lunch. But it also belongs in the broader legend of Schumer, the political animal par excellence.
“Chuck always wants to know where the other guy is coming from,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), a former Schumer staffer, who added that he wasn’t surprised that Schumer acquitted himself well.
“He has handled more guns at crime bill press conferences than most hunters,” he said.
Indeed, word of Schumer’s hunting exploits was greeted with astonishment on both sides of the simmering gun control wars, in which Schumer came of age as a central player. His work on the Brady Bill’s handgun restriction turned him into, literally, a National Rifle Association poster child. The NRA’s favorite image pictures Schumer grinning under bright blue earmuffs as he demonstrates the deadliness of a stubby assault weapon.
“He just must have needed Nelson's vote very badly to do that,” said Tom King, the president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, who called Schumer “patently anti-gun.”
Schumer says, however, that he favors only common sense and regionally varied restrictions on guns, and he has long bragged of winning, at summer camp, an NRA sharpshooting prize with a .22 rifle.
“It surprised me he went out with Ben Nelson shooting, but it doesn’t surprise me that he shot a couple of birds,” said Jim Kessler, a former Schumer aide who later founded Americans for Gun Safety, a gun control group that was later folded into the group Third Way. “In 1994, if Chuck thought the way to win the assault weapons ban vote was to go out and hunt with [former Democratic Rep.] Bill Brewster of Oklahoma and shoot three birds, he would have done it.”
Schumer and Nelson differ slightly about the origins of the hunting trip. Schumer recalls Nelson telling him, in the spring, “You have to come out.”
“I’ve always wanted to go hunting,” he said.
“I thought he was kidding at first; I said 'sure,’” Nelson said. “And I finally said, 'If you are serious, I can arrange this.' And he was, and so I did.”
Schumer and Nelson also shot skeet. They also tooled around on ATVs, with Schumer’s wife, former New York City Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall, hanging onto the back of Nelson’s vehicle. (Her city job hadn’t involved much off-roading.) Schumer posed with his dead quarry, though he left it for Nelson to dress, before they retired to the lodge for a lunch of pheasant.
(“He would definitely want to eat it,” Kessler said of his former boss. “He’s got to eat it. He’d eat anything.”)
They did not, both senators said, talk health care.
“There wasn’t any lobbying effort, just two guys having fun and going hunting and watching football,” said Nelson.
But the Nebraska senator’s warm regard for the New Yorker, and their relationship of trust, would prove central to getting the final health care deal done. Last Wednesday night, Nelson gave a list of must-haves to Schumer and Reid. At times on Thursday, Schumer was calling Nelson every 15 minutes, as part of what the Nebraskan called “pre-negotiations.” By nightfall, with progress being made, Reid asked Nelson to join a round of intensive talks Friday morning. Nelson was set up in one wing of Reid's suite of offices. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of the Senate’s most liberal members, was in another part. For 12 hours, Schumer and Reid shuttled between them.
Schumer “was extremely important,” Nelson told POLITICO just after the deal was done. “The thing about Chuck Schumer is he is very innovative, he doesn’t get ideological about something. …We may be an odd couple in a lot of respects, but we share some of the same qualities in trying to solve things.”
Schumer said the negotiations left him with deep respect for Nelson and that the hunting trip also taught a lesson.
“You can see where going hunting is a real bonding experience, kind of like golf,” he mused. “I’d like to do it again.”
“I’ve got a lot of invitations,” Schumer said.