It may not officially be part of his job anymore, but Senator Chuck Schumer, 58, is still very much focused on elections. The architect of the Democrat’s 60-seat super-majority, who helped the party add a total of 14 seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, is worried these days about how disappointed the Democratic base will be if Congress doesn’t make a determined effort to pass health care reform with a public plan in it. Odds are good that that attempt will fail, but in Schumer’s book As are still given for effort.
And almost no Senator puts forth as dogged an effort every day as Schumer. A week after the Senate Finance Committee rejected two versions of a public plan including one authored by Schumer the New York Democrat was still “very optimistic” about the chances of one ending up in the final legislation passed by the chamber. Indeed, despite the fact that President Obama has refused to endorse the idea as a must-have provision and that Olympia Snowe of Maine the lone Republican Senator still supporting any version of health reform remains opposed to it, Schumer has never given up his hopes of crafting a workable compromise. This week Senate majority leader Harry Reid is expected to unveil the Senate’s comprehensive health care reform bill, which is expected to include a public option drafted by Schumer.
The move is a big gamble uncharacteristic of the typically cautious Reid. “I don’t bring anything to the floor unless I think I have the votes,” he said on Oct. 21. Yet Reid isn’t sure he has the votes to bring this bill to the floor, and it’s looking unlikely that he’ll have enough support to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. Snowe has said the inclusion of Schumer’s provision makes it “difficult” for her to vote yes. Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has said he cannot vote for the bill as it stands, and moderate Democrats such as Indiana’s Evan Bayh, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas have voiced reservations. Still, Schumer remains upbeat: “Harry Reid is the best vote counter and vote getter that I have ever seen in my 35 years as a legislator,” he declared at a press conference on Oct. 29. “We believe we will succeed.”
Succeeding is going to take all the smarts that earned the Brooklyn-born son of an exterminator a 1600 on his college SATs and the political wiles that, as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, helped him recruit pro-life, pro-gun Democratic candidates such as Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Jim Webb of Virginia. For the past month, Schumer has been directing a full-court press on the public option, cajoling Reid both in private and in public. “I believe Leader Reid is leaning strongly to putting a level-playing-field, state-opt-out public option in the bill,” Schumer said on Meet the Press on Oct. 25. So pointed and relentless were his arguments that at one hastily called Democratic leadership meeting, when a tardy Schumer’s absence was remarked upon, Reid snapped, “He’s probably out there talking about me.”
Former majority leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, expresses sympathy with Reid’s predicament. “I know for a fact that the toughest job in this city is majority leader,” says Lott, who knows firsthand the threat of ambitious underlings. After he made indelicate remarks praising Strom Thurmond’s segregationist bid for the White House, they were quick to force him out as majority leader. “There’s always pressure on you from within your own party and across the aisle. So he’s juggling a lot of balls, he’s got a very tough job, and it doesn’t help if you’ve got one of your own leadership types kind of nipping at your heels.”
Schumer’s rise as a sophomore to the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate has been meteoric. A member of the House for 18 years before being elected to the Senate in 1998, Schumer gained notice in New York and Washington circles for his workmanlike skill at championing consumer causes and knack for getting in front of cameras. He was the first Democrat to attract millions of dollars from Wall Street, and not surprisingly, he has been one of the few Democrats who have championed Wall Street’s interests in Washington from his perch at the Banking Committee. That has put Schumer in an awkward position in the wake of the financial crisis, as his colleagues have sought to punish his friends by passing strict limits on executive compensation and demanding more transparency from banks. The seat promises to only get hotter as the committee moves this week to start formally drafting legislation to tighten finance-industry regulations.
Still, the issue doesn’t appear to have damaged Schumer’s standing in the party; many observers believe he would ultimately like to become majority leader. Part of his appeal is his uncanny sense of the political winds.
Schumer crafted his compromise version of the public plan expressly to appeal to moderates, mainly by including a provision allowing individual states to opt out. His sales pitch is three-pronged. First, he says, studies have shown that government competition is the most effective means of keeping down costs. Second, polls show that most Americans want a public option; conveniently some have even begun surfacing in states like Nevada and Arkansas showing surprisingly strong support. And third, Schumer has co-opted the language of state-rights, small-government Republicans. “I’ve never seen an issue where every Democrat really wants us to succeed, from the most conservative to the most liberal. It is universal that failure is not an option,” Schumer said on Oct. 29. “And so there’s going to be willingness to give by the left, by the center, by the right. And we will come up with a bill that we all can support. We must.”
It’s a compelling argument, though one he has yet to sell to his moderate colleagues and, crucially, to the Obama Administration. Schumer tried to make his case for a public option at a White House meeting on Oct. 22. But by all accounts, Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, remained unconvinced, preferring to salvage the support of Snowe, who favors a public plan built around a trigger meaning if competition is found sufficiently lacking in a state, a public plan might be created for that locality.
Still, Reid is pushing ahead with Schumer’s plan, and it will be many weeks’ worth of amendments before it is known if Democrats have the votes to pass it. Even if it fails, says Senator Nelson, Schumer will have no problem adapting to the political reality. “Chuck is the most pragmatic man I’ve ever met,” Nelson says with a laugh. Yet it’s clear that Schumer is a long way off from calling his public option a lost cause just yet.
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