Chuck in Charge

Photo: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

The majority leader of the United States Senate gets a beautiful office with a dramatic view of the National Mall. Which is a swell perk. But this won’t, next year, come close to compensating for the brutal headaches that will come with the role: a margin thinner than Taylor Swift; hand-to-hand partisan combat; nonstop fund-raising demands; the inevitable need to suck up to Joe Lieberman. So would Chuck Schumer be any good at the job? And what would be in it for New York?

Several dominoes must fall before Schumer gets the gig. The first appears depressingly likely: Incumbent majority leader Harry Reid—who Schumer has backed with hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars—is trailing Sharron Angle, his government-hating challenger. If Reid goes down, so might the Democratic majority. But if that survives, Schumer would then need to edge out Dick Durbin of Illinois in an intramural contest for which both men are already subtly maneuvering.

Schumer’s reward would be a task that’s daunting even in the best of political times. “There’s always a crisis, there’s always a member standing outside your lobby who has to see you immediately,” says former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. “It’s difficult when the margins are small, especially with the increasing dependence on getting to 60 votes to get anything done,” says Sheila Burke, who was Majority Leader Bob Dole’s chief of staff. “You can’t assume you’ll hold all of your own folks, and coalitions are always shifting. It’s also going to be uniquely challenging because of 2012. You’ll have a deeply divided body in the Senate anticipating the presidential election at the same time that the White House is leaning on a Democratic majority leader to get its agenda through.”

But Brooklyn’s bike-riding, tough-minded senator could be a man for the miserable moment. He loves political infighting in a way that Daschle never did, he’s a voracious fund-raiser, and he’s a far more engaging media presence than the flinty Reid.

Schumer has also developed some quieter skills. “He has a history of working across the aisle, which will help,” Burke says. “I was in a meeting with him about additional money for teachers and Medicaid, and we were talking about how the mayor could help move the issue along,” says Howard Wolfson, a former Schumer aide who is now a deputy mayor to Mike Bloomberg. “It reminded me of reading Robert Caro’s books about LBJ. Chuck went through a list of all the undecided senators and gave an incredibly detailed analysis of each.” Yes, New York got the funds.

A Nevada Republican state legislator is urging people to vote for Reid in order to keep “a vicious liberal from New York City” from becoming the Democrats’ next majority leader. Around here that sounds like the best recommendation Schumer could get. He could deliver even more pork as majority leader. But there’s a risk, too. “Trying to be a national party leader can put you up against the needs of your home-state constituency,” Burke says. In New York, Schumer is already criticized for being a flaming pragmatist. Would we gain a majority leader and lose a senator?

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Chuck in Charge