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480 Minutes With Senator Chuck Schumer

He ran the Senate operation that got the Democrats just one GOP turncoat away from being filibusterproof. But who’s counting?

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It’s barely ten o’clock in the morning, and Chuck Schumer is already bathing constituents in his patented balm of happy blather. He presides soothingly in Brooklynese over a seven-minute meeting with two dozen hospital executives worried about impending health-care reforms—“My goal has always been to protect our New York hospitals!”—then assures upstate sewer and water contractors that he’ll do everything in his power to get stimulus money for their worthy projects.

He should feel indulgent: It’s the day after Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter defected, giving the Democrats a potentially filibusterproof majority. Schumer can take much of the credit for his party’s commanding advantage, having run the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as it picked up fourteen seats (counting Al Franken’s) over the last two election cycles. But when it comes to Senator Specter, Schumer’s pleasure is decidedly measured. “It’s not going to change the world,” he says, shrugging. “Anybody who thinks we’re now going to whip through Barack Obama’s agenda doesn’t understand the Senate.”

Not to mention the fact that Specter—who is 21 years older than the 58-year-old Schumer and has served in the Senate nearly three times as long—was ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, where Schumer also serves. The senator from New York’s status as No. 4 Democrat and chair of the Immigration Subcommittee might be up for grabs if the new convert decides to assert his seniority. “Everything will work out,” Schumer insists. “For this year and a half, nothing’s gonna happen. Then, later”—after the 2010 midterms—“we’re gonna wait and see.”

But that’s about as dark as you get out of Schumer. A tour of his Hart Senate Office Building suite includes his photo gallery. “Look at this one—I’m with the Temptations in Coney Island! They invited me up onstage to sing!” he says, before moving on to one of him grinning amid a scrum of traditionally garbed Borough Park Hasidim. “Where’s Waldo? Isn’t that funny?”

No question, Schumer is in a good place these days. He has $11 million in the bank—and, as yet, no opponent—for next year’s campaign for a third term. He’s chairman of the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over office space, among other things, and is Majority Leader Harry Reid’s vice-chairman of the party caucus. He also has clout on the Finance and Banking committees, and since the appointment of a new secretary of State, Schumer has been enjoying life as New York’s alpha dog, finally free of Hillary, who sucked up all of the oxygen in any room she entered.

“I know the press liked to write that,” he says, “but you know what? During those four years or those eight years, I never felt a lack of oxygen. There was plenty of room in New York State for both of us. I never felt like I was a wallflower.”

It’s a typically jam-packed day. Earlier that morning, in the Senate gym, he’d run into Texan John Cornyn, chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign committee and had taken the opportunity to lecture him on the need for Republicans to broaden their base. “He just took it in,” Schumer says. Then there was a schmoozy breakfast in the Senate Dining Room with two Wall Street Journal reporters, to whom he recounts the chance meeting. After a closed-door session of the Finance Committee on the topic of health care, he joins Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a press conference touting Obama’s first 100 days. Then he runs to a leadership lunch featuring a lengthy disquisition by John Kerry on Pakistan, holds his own press conference on his so-called public-plan health-insurance proposal, and hits a television studio for a satellite tour of eight upstate stations looking for sound bites on swine flu. He rounds out his day dropping by a bar for a party for new House Democrat Scott Murphy, barely elected to the seat previously held by New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand.

During one of his many transits between the Hart Building and the Capitol, Schumer climbs on the Senate subway as Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander and a smirking Karl Rove are getting off. Schumer cranes his neck to get a better look. “When I see that, I think, What’s going on here?” he says with a laugh.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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