capitol hill

Chuck Schumer Has Changed

Why is the former “angry centrist” pushing his party to go bigger, bolder, and more progressive?

Photo: Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux

Late one Wednesday last month, Chuck Schumer padded around his inner office in the Capitol in black socks decorated with palm trees, tended to his fireplace, and conceded a few seconds of self-reflection. It was the end of a long day on the Hill, and the building, ringed by armed guards and a wide perimeter of razor-wire-topped fencing, was mostly empty. About a week earlier, the Senate had passed one of the largest stimulus bills in American history to provide pandemic relief. The measure passed largely thanks to his exhaustive effort to marshal all 50 votes in his caucus. He had performed a months-long balancing act that had, for a few high-wire hours, threatened to topple at the hands of his old colleague and on-again-off-again friend Joe Manchin, before Schumer succeeded in backing off the West Virginia Democrat at the last second. “I’m an optimist,” Schumer said. He told me the Senate Democrats were adopting a new slogan: “Failure is not an option.” But, he continued, quietly, failure could actually still come “if our caucus, if our entire caucus, doesn’t see the need to pull together to make these changes.”

Shortly before Schumer settled into his armchair by the fire, a man had been arrested with a rifle outside the vice-president’s residence. Schumer had to finalize the confirmation schedule for Joe Biden’s picks for Health and Human Services secretary and CIA director, and he needed to talk to the White House about the contours of upcoming legislation on infrastructure while working on his own bill to counter China. To top it all off, Biden and Mitch McConnell had just reignited a war over the Senate’s rules, basic fairness, and the shape of majoritarian democracy — a fight Schumer had been tiptoeing around for more than a year, in part to avoid antagonizing some politically hamstrung members of his caucus. It was, effectively, a fight about the only path to achieve anything approaching the scale of the previous week’s massive accomplishment, unless Schumer could come up with another way for the Senate to pass more legislation with just his 50 Democratic votes, assuming ten Republicans won’t cross over. And even if he worked out how to bend those rules, getting to 50 might still be just as treacherous: He’d have to coax everyone from the conservative Manchin to the socialist Bernie Sanders to go along with his plan, probably while fending off McConnell’s — and maybe Donald Trump’s — attacks. The glow of accomplishment was real; so was the unpredictable flicker of the daunting path forward.

Schumer, who is 70 and in his 40th year in Washington, usually tries striking a delicate balance these days. It’s not exactly that he’s delighted with the workload or the drama — no one is enjoying the pandemic or the Trump years’ violent hangover — but he’s never made any secret that he’s sought some version of this moment for decades. “It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he said, reclining in front of the flames.

Still, Schumer was a big reason why Biden’s stimulus was so “big and bold,” as the majority leader now delights in repeating. He’d just finished meeting with a rookie state senator in Flushing earlier this year when Biden, who was then about to announce the COVID-relief plan, called. Their staffs, along with Nancy Pelosi’s, had been ironing out the proposal’s details. On the phone, Biden ticked through some of his priorities and told Schumer he expected the price tag to come to $1.3 trillion — a huge number, far bigger than any recovery spending the Senate had yet approved. Schumer listened, then countered: If Biden really wanted to pass each of the priorities he was talking about, the senator said, it would realistically cost more like $1.9 trillion. Biden paused, then replied: “Well, okay. Let me think about it.” It didn’t take long for him to agree.

You don’t have to be a particularly meticulous student of Schumer’s career to raise an eyebrow at his recent emergence as one of the loudest voices trying to ensure that Biden follows through on his promises to the left. The man who used to call himself a “law-and-order Democrat,” then an “angry centrist,” and who dined at Morgan Stanley HQ the night before Election Day 2008, has, at the same time, long insisted he believes in the power of big government. And now, finally atop the Senate at a time of unified Democratic control, he’s ditched these positions that were better suited to Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party than today’s version and is trying not to publicly dwell on the grim inconvenience of his one-vote majority (including the VP as tie-breaker). “I have more energy for it than I’ve ever had! More enthusiasm! Because it’s so important. I don’t stop!” he said.

What he’s now trying to figure out is how he can stop the Senate from becoming the bottleneck for the rest of the Biden agenda, starting with the $2 trillion infrastructure plan that’s now consuming D.C.’s attention. Question one is whether his well-known relentlessness will be enough to persuade his own party’s holdouts — first and foremost Manchin but also others, like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — to buy into his plans for this bold (and expensive) agenda. If Schumer and Biden have their way, the COVID bill will have just been the start: They’re now deep into their push to expand the definition of infrastructure beyond highways and rail to social programs. The nation’s voting-rights laws are sorely in need of an overhaul, they say, occasionally acknowledging that this might be the battle that puts the legislative filibuster up for public debate. The White House has already introduced its sweeping immigration plan, too, and Biden has said he wants aggressive gun-control proposals moving forward, as well.

Schumer’s temperature-taking in the Senate is more or less constant. He calls most of his 49 Democratic colleagues daily, and some even more, often reminding them they can do whatever they need to account for their state’s politics as long as they stick with him on the big votes. (“Even if he’s in the middle of something, he answers the phone and he’ll say, ‘Tammy, I’m talking to the president, can I call you back?’” said Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth.) This has worked thus far: He has kept his ideologically diverse caucus unified on the big stuff. Sanders has yet to seriously threaten any major legislative push, nor has Elizabeth Warren.

Manchin is another story, already a notorious one. Last month, everything seemed on track for the COVID-relief bill when Manchin jammed the Senate into a surprise halt by flirting with a Republican provision to extend unemployment insurance instead of the Democratic plan, which was more expansive. For 12 hours, Schumer and moderate Democrats in the Senate worked on the West Virginian, trying to find a compromise policy that would work for him, the rest of the Democratic caucus, and the more liberal House Democrats, who’d have to sign off, too. Schumer coordinated with Biden and White House chief of staff Ron Klain throughout the day. (“We can almost finish each other’s sentences,” Schumer said of Klain.) He talked Manchin down only after paring back the plan — and making the case that if he sided with Republicans, he risked tanking the entire package.

To skeptics, the episode was proof that Schumer’s grasp on Washington’s steering wheel is tenuous, at best: How could he possibly have gone ahead with a vote on such high-stakes legislation without airtight assurance that he had the necessary support? And why should they believe he wouldn’t do it again, perhaps with another issue on which Manchin has insisted he wants to see Republican cooperation, like voting rights or infrastructure? To his boosters and the optimists about Biden’s ambition, however, Manchin’s cave was evidence of the leader’s influence — and of likely successes to come. “The story of Friday is the story of this bill,” Anita Dunn, a senior Biden White House adviser, told me a few days later. Schumer’s “superpower is his understanding. Not just understanding the needs of every member, but also respecting those needs.”

His task now, as he sees it, is to push that respect as far as it can go in service of an ambitious progressive agenda he might have balked at even a few years ago.

Schumer played no role in his former colleague Biden’s rise to the top of the Democratic field in 2020. He sat out the primary — eight current or former senators ran, so he stayed neutral — but they began speaking regularly after COVID hit, primarily about relief policy but occasionally about tactics; Schumer was one of many who encouraged Biden to choose Kamala Harris as his running mate. (He didn’t want to lose her in the Senate, but at least he knew her replacement would be a Democrat, which was more than could be said for, say, Amy Klobuchar.) The pair were never close in the Senate, where they overlapped for ten years but where Biden had nearly a quarter-century of seniority on Schumer. Yet by last spring each saw that the other had been slightly radicalized by the Trump era. For one, both were far less concerned about bipartisanship as a standalone virtue than even a few years earlier.

Two months before we spoke, on the morning of January 6, Schumer got in his car in Park Slope around 7 a.m., having slept just three hours. He’d spent the previous evening “on tenterhooks, obviously,” poring over maps and data from Georgia — “How many folks in Chatham County? What’s the Black turnout in DeKalb County?” — where a pair of runoffs were to determine control of the Senate. He’d gone to bed after the Reverend Raphael Warnock was declared the winner of one race, but with the second — Jon Ossoff’s — looking good though technically still up in the air. Unless something drastic changed, he’d become Senate majority leader. “My first reaction is joy. You know, when you have set a serious goal — personal, professional, family — and it takes a long time to get there, there are detours in the road and logs in the pit, when you get there, Whoa! What a feeling. So that was expected. But about three minutes later I had another feeling, and I call it one of awe,” he remembered. “Like, when the angel saw the face of God, they trembled in awe.”

Still, nothing was official, and when he got to D.C. that morning, Schumer knew he’d have to formally count the electoral votes to finalize Biden’s victory. “And within an hour, a police officer comes up from behind me in a big, fat bulletproof vest, submachine gun strapped across his waist, and he grabs me like this. Firmly, by the collar, I’ll never forget that grab. He says, ‘Senator, we’re in danger, gotta get out of here.’” It was only then — secured in the overrun Capitol with McConnell and a crew of heavily armed guards — that Schumer learned Ossoff’s race had been called, and that he would, officially, run the Senate. He tried painting the picture for me: “We were within 25 feet of these” — he turned to an aide and asked, “Am I allowed to curse in front of him?” Insufficiently dissuaded, he continued — “These bastards, okay? These horrible people. They are the extreme, the worst. But some of their sentiment is in many people. Sour, angry, blaming, divisive, because they don’t have a positive path forward.” Now, he said, he flashes back to that day “a lot, a lot. The first time, you say to yourself, ‘Well, they elected Trump [not because they thought] he’d win, [but] because they didn’t like Hillary. [But] he got 70 effing million votes the second time. And he’s a horror. So all the time.”

Schumer didn’t have much realistic hope for significant bipartisan agreement on anything big in 2021, but any glimmer disappeared after that, when McConnell refused to schedule Trump’s second impeachment until he left office, then dragged his feet on even handing over power to the new majority. It was a tone-setting provocation that nonetheless came as little surprise to close watchers of the leaders’ relationship. It’s icy in large part because of McConnell’s famous stonewalling and his years of Trump enablement, but also partly because Schumer tried hard to have McConnell beaten in 2014 and then voted against his wife, Elaine Chao, to be Trump’s Transportation secretary in 2017. So Schumer’s attention remains squarely on his own caucus.

On the biggest-ticket items, this always leads back to the question of nuking the Senate’s filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. Schumer has repeatedly said “Nothing is off the table,” and he is in regular contact with Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, the chief advocate for abandoning the rule. But he can’t make any such move without his 49 colleagues agreeing, and both Sinema and Manchin have recently gone far out of their way to spell out their opposition to such a motion, making it impossible. “I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Manchin wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this month. The frustration with this obstacle has boiled over — one running gag on Capitol Hill is that by constantly threatening to spoil Democratic plans, the West Virginian has made himself the de facto majority leader. Manchin, who says he wants Biden to compromise more with Republican senators, almost immediately sent Democrats close to the White House back to the drawing board on Biden’s infrastructure plan when he warned that it raised corporate taxes too much. One senator was overheard earlier this year jokingly calling him “Your Highness.” Still, the 73-year-old Manchin’s politics are clear to his colleagues, and especially to Schumer, who’s long been obsessed with gaining, then keeping, the majority: Manchin comes from one of the Trump-friendliest states in the country, and he is the only Democrat who keeps getting reelected there. A third-term senator and former governor who’s held statewide office for two straight decades, he is both more personally conservative than most of his Democrat colleagues and much more insistent that they at least try to be seen working with the GOP and not go fully down a new hyperprogressive road.

Schumer has looked for new ways to get anything done, including trying to pass more legislation via budget reconciliation, a procedural trick that allows the Senate to enact spending bills with a simple majority, rather than 60 votes. But here, too, Manchin — who is publicly miserable in D.C., occasionally threatening to retire early and preferring sticking to his houseboat to schmoozing on the Hill — has indicated little willingness to cooperate, even though he has had a history of ultimately siding with his Democratic colleagues on the highest-priority fights.

The result, for Schumer, is a confining tug-of-war. He is conscious that Manchin is only in the spotlight now because he’s chosen to be, and that any individual senator — including one coming from the left — could cause this kind of extended headache if he or she wished, given the precarity of a 50-50 Senate. The situation is most delicate when he hears calls to just play more hardball, like when the Senate’s parliamentarian ruled that Democrats couldn’t include a $15 minimum-wage provision in their COVID bill and some urged him to either fire her or override the decision. Eight Democrats voted against a version of the minimum-wage proposal, Schumer’s allies point out, so it wouldn’t have passed even if he’d tried the far-fetched tactics. “We don’t have the votes for that. That’s it,” said Hawaii’s Brian Schatz. “Even if someone can describe the procedural scenario where we can get the vice-president to come in and we can get to 60, it will tank the whole bill later. At this point, we need 51, and it’s clear we don’t have 51 for the procedural gymnastics we read about on Twitter. I wish we did! But I’m not going to lie to the progressive community and say there’s some procedural trick, or if we acted more like LBJ and twisted more arms and yelled a little louder we’d unlock a new progressive era.”

Which leaves Schumer to work, often, on the senator who’s still threatening him with the most trouble.

For years, the New Yorker and Manchin made an unlikely pair—they were comfortable being blunt with each other, which sometimes led to intense arguments but paved paths for cooperation. At times before Schumer became the leader, when people back home asked Manchin about his best friend in the Senate, he would point to Schumer before staffers begged him to stop, given the New York liberal’s reputation in West Virginia. (Plenty of rank-and-file Democratic senators think they have a special relationship with Schumer, since he calls them so often; Schumer does have a special affinity for the few remaining red-state senators in his caucus, like Manchin and Montana’s Jon Tester.) They remain open with each other, but ties have recently strained: Manchin is close with Maine Republican Susan Collins, a relative moderate who remains furious with Schumer over his attacks on her reelection campaign last year — a high-profile race that took an uncomfortable turn when Manchin defended and endorsed the Republican. Still, Manchin and Schumer have settled into a détente. “Actually, we get along. We have to! [When] I don’t agree with him, I’ll tell him when he’s wrong, you know?” Schumer said.

Manchin wouldn’t talk to me about Schumer, but his office shared a statement: “Chuck and I come from two different cultural backgrounds but we have become friends because we respect each other,” Manchin wrote. “He works every day for the state of New York and now the entire country as Majority Leader of the Senate overseeing a diverse Democratic caucus. He knows I have a deep commitment to West Virginia and he respects that. We may have our differences but we work through them to the best of our ability.” Translation: Schumer knows he wouldn’t have the majority without Manchin, and Manchin knows he wouldn’t have much influence without Schumer.

Schumer has four portraits hanging in his office: Theodore Roosevelt’s, Eleanor Roosevelt’s, Lyndon Johnson’s, and, behind his desk, FDR’s — the president whose name keeps coming up as an analogy for Biden’s theoretical policy ambitions. Those ambitions are, undoubtedly, wider than anything Schumer — long known as a politically cautious liberal — has pushed before. If there was any sign of his shift, it was the way the COVID bill passed: with no whiff of the budget-deficit alarmism that shadowed every move in 2009’s stimulus fight. Some of the senator’s allies think he’s implicitly acknowledging that his own electoral strength back home no longer lies with Long Island and upstate moderates but with his urban base, so he feels more comfortable leaning into his government-can-help convictions. Schumer, though, insists it’s simpler than that. “The world changed,” he said. “Income inequality is a huge problem in America.” He tells a story about grilling his new crop of summer interns every year: Starting in 1999, all expected to outdo their parents economically. The unanimity stopped in 2013. “Government has atrophied over the last 15 or 20 years, and the problems we face are so much greater. Only government can really solve them now,” he said.

But if the world has changed, so have Democratic politics. Schumer will face voters next year, and depending on who you ask, the campaign will either be another nonevent or his first test in decades. He made it to Congress at 30, elected during the Reagan landslide, then joined the Senate in 1998, where he rose in part through nonstop fundraising. When Barack Obama was elected, Schumer told colleagues it was evidence Americans finally saw government as a force for good, but by 2010 he warned them to back off their push for Obamacare and to focus more on middle-class economics. A few years later, leading Senate Democrats for the first time, he had little plan for Trump at first. He struggled to balance the interest of his caucus’s red-staters with the furious liberal #resistance that started the era by descending on his home to chant, “What the fuck, Chuck?” Only after Trump spurned his infrastructure proposal in favor of demagoguery, and fired Jim Comey, did Schumer harden against him and embrace his party’s increasingly left-leaning goals. He also realized that keeping his caucus united meant opposing Trump constantly.

The belief that Schumer may now be in trouble usually revolves around a prospective primary challenge from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, under the theory that her victory and Jamaal Bowman’s were signs of a progressive revolt.

But what ultimately did their opponents in was absenteeism. No one could accuse Schumer — who hosts a press conference in the city every Sunday and used to walk the Capitol with pockets stuffed with tickets for evenings’ worth of Delta and US Air shuttles, so he could be sure to catch one home for the weekend despite his unpredictable schedule — of negligence. Schumer likes to visit city church services, bike around Brooklyn and Queens on the weekends, and pop in on union holiday parties. When I spoke with Brooklyn representative Hakeem Jeffries last month, he’d been on two video calls with Schumer in the previous few days alone — one with Coney Islanders about the pandemic’s economic fallout and another session with clergy leaders about public housing. In January, Schumer apologized to one community board in Queens for having only 20 minutes for their public Zoom, as he still had to deal with the fallout from the previous day’s coup attempt.

Some local lawmakers think “Chuck Schumer may have more communication with their constituents than they do,” Jeffries said. It’s paid off: Late last year, the MTA got $4 billion and state institutions $100 billion from Washington. While campaigning for last month’s relief bill, Schumer wore masks promoting coalitions of chefs and artists; the legislation brought nearly $29 billion to neighborhood restaurants, and city theaters displayed “THANK YOU SENATOR SCHUMER” on marquees once it passed.

Still, the primary threat persists. Most lefty groups have been pleasantly surprised by his outreach, and many people close to Schumer are now confident that he won’t face a serious challenge, but they acknowledge Ocasio-Cortez puts pressure on him to expand his ambitions simply by not ruling it out — even as they appear together semi-regularly. (Last weekend, they stood together in Queens to announce the creation of a FEMA hotline for New Yorkers who need help covering COVID-related funeral costs.)

Schumer has been maneuvering left since Trump’s victory. Almost immediately, he endorsed a Sanders ally to run the DNC and added both the Vermonter and Warren to his leadership team. Since then, he’s backed Massachusetts’s Ed Markey — an Ocasio-Cortez ally — in his 2020 primary fight and signed onto marijuana-decriminalization efforts.

When mayoral candidate Andrew Yang ran into Schumer in Fort Greene on Saturday and tweeted a picture, Schumer — flip phone and street-cart coffee in hand — was wearing a mask emblazoned with #CancelStudentDebt, a reference to his push with Warren to cancel up to $50,000 of student loans.

A few days later, Schumer was back in Washington. On Tuesday, he held a press conference with colleagues, pushed for legislation aimed at hate crimes against Asian Americans, and spoke in honor of Billy Evans, the Capitol Police officer killed earlier this month. On Wednesday morning, he beamed into CNN, where he praised Biden’s plan to pull American troops from Afghanistan and promoted the hate-crimes bill. The host then brought the conversation to the issue of the day.

When, he asked, was the last time Schumer had spoken with Manchin about passing the huge infrastructure bill, potentially without Republican help? “Oh,” Schumer replied, “About ten last night, on the phone.”

Chuck Schumer Has Changed