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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arrives at an August press conference with news about the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate days later.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arrives at an August press conference with news about the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate days later.
The Persistence

How Chuck Schumer Finally Got His Big Breakthrough

“I know everything about my caucus,” the Senate majority leader enthused. “I care about them. I love them.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arrives at an August press conference with news about the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate days later.

Chuck Schumer was taking a moment. There, in his office, in the space between the last big legislative fracas and the next, he was contemplating how he would define his two years as Senate majority leader. I had asked him if there was one word he would use to characterize his brief yet eventful tenure; I had already heard his initial answer, “persistence,” in the press conference he’d held one week prior to our meeting, after the long-awaited—and somewhat unexpected—passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. What other word, one not previously provided in his parade of post-passage interviews, would he offer as his answer?

In the end, he landed on a phrase. “I don’t know if it’s one word, but ‘Communicate with your members face to face,’” Schumer told me after the briefest of pauses. The majority leader tends to provide responses quickly, often jumping the gun with an answer before a reporter has had the chance to finish their full question; even a half-second hesitation is unusual. “It used to be, people were afraid to get up if they disagreed with the leader,” he said. “[We] don’t want that. We want to be open. We want to be respectful of everybody, and be a team. And it’s not easy.”

The culmination of that difficulty was evident in the event Schumer was hurrying to after our brief interview. The leader had returned to Washington during the August recess for President Joe Biden’s victory lap—which was somewhat unsubtly disguised as the bill signing for the Inflation Reduction Act. Given that the measure had seemingly been pulled out of a hat and hastily passed by Democrats one week before, perhaps a little showmanship was understandable.

Schumer has taken a more hands-on approach with his members than his predecessor as Democratic leader, the late Senator Harry Reid, to whom he has not quite been able to avoid pundit comparison. In some ways, Schumer’s tenure was an experiment: The first 50-seat majority in two decades and the first Democratic majority without Reid running the show in nearly two decades. The accomplishments or failures of the Democratic Senate majority would always be a reflection on Schumer’s ability to corral his caucus.

Now, having accomplished his biggest feat yet, Schumer proudly brandished his flip phone—his “secret weapon” and a frequent interview prop—as evidence of his commitment to connecting with his members. He has the phone numbers of every Democratic senator memorized and fields multiple calls from them daily: “They call me directly, not through staff.” As one Democratic strategist and former Senate staffer put it to me, the ability to get Schumer on the line so quickly leaves senators thinking that he’s their best friend.

“I always know what my members think. They let me know what they’re thinking. They’re not going to be shy about it, which is good. And that enables you to weave a legislative proposal that can pass,” Schumer said, his words somewhat thickened as he munched on a miniature Snickers bar. “I know everything about my caucus. I care about them. I love them.”

It’s been a trying two years in the majority for Senate Democrats and, by extension, Schumer, who might find herding cats easier than wrangling 50 senators running the ideological gamut. The 24-hour period that ensured Schumer would become majority leader began with the against-the-odds runoff election victories of Georgia Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and ended with the invasion of the Capitol by election-denying insurrectionists, perhaps setting the tone for a tumultuous tenure. A framed count of the Electoral College votes that confirmed Biden’s victory rests on a wall of Schumer’s office, a reminder of those best and worst of times.

Democrats may lose their tenuous majority in November, capping two years of a 50–50 Senate—the longest period with a divided chamber in history. Schumer’s tenure as majority leader, marked by several defeats as well as significant victories, could be coming to a close or could be just beginning: Control of the Senate is largely considered to be a toss-up.

With the public optimism of a party leader, Schumer told me he thinks Democrats will keep and even expand their majority. “We’re going to do a lot more. We’re not finished,” Schumer said. “But I think the [Inflation Reduction Act] showed the possibilities of what we can do if we stay together, if we stay focused, if we all work together as a team.”

Come November, voters will have to decide if they want to keep Democrats—and by extension Schumer—in power. But with the House likely to be claimed by Republicans, this two-year period was perhaps Democrats’ last, best chance for the foreseeable future to accomplish their goals. And prior to the Inflation Reduction Act’s successful passage, Democrats suffered through a long run in which many of their priorities, including several attempts at shoring up voting rights and the preservation of the expanded child tax credit, ended up falling by the wayside.

With that looming loss of their House majority in mind, the legacy of Senate Democrats for the remainder of the decade may be cemented by these two years. Going forward, the country faces rising prices, threats to democracy, increased polarization, the existential danger of climate change, and a mental health crisis among the younger generations set to inherit this burning world. Given what they had to work with—a fully unexpected Senate majority that offered them an opportunity to pass anything at all—Congress arguably did a surprising amount of work this term. But now Democrats will get the answer to the hardest question of all: Did they do enough, not only to convince voters to support them, but to address the myriad ongoing crises faced by Americans today and tomorrow?

The last time the Senate was split 50–50 occurred during a five-month period between 2000 and 2001. But the conditions of 20 years ago offer little, in terms of comparison, to our present situation, in large part because of the global pandemic that upended Democrats’ time in the majority. The myriad uncertainties of life under Covid-19 made every passing day in the Senate an event.

“I don’t think you can just say, it’s a 50-member majority. It’s a 50-member majority during times of Covid, where any week you’re surprised that somebody’s missing, or somebody’s had a stroke, or somebody’s broken their hip,” Senator Tim Kaine told me. (Senators Ben Ray Luján and Chris Van Hollen have experienced strokes; Senator Patrick Leahy has broken his hip; and several senators contracted the coronavirus—including Kaine, who is suffering from long Covid.) “So my assessment is, for a 50–50 majority during Covid, the list of accomplishments is very, very significant.”

Democrats’ initial victories were large and triumphal for the party. In March 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, the nearly $2 trillion legislation to combat the coronavirus pandemic that was also chock-full of progressive priorities, and garnered support from all 50 Democrats in the Senate. They followed that lay-up with a large bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in the fall. But what followed was several months spent wandering in the desert of intraparty gridlock and dashed hopes with the death of the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s ambitious social spending bill, at the hands of Senator Joe Manchin.

Therein lies the rub of a 50-seat majority: Schumer has no Democratic votes to spare, and few if any Republican votes at hand. So if Democrats wanted to pass major legislation using the budget reconciliation process, a complicated procedure that allows measures to pass with a simple—and thus unfilibusterable—majority, every single member of Schumer’s caucus would need to be on board.

“Lyndon Johnson was great. He was amazing. He had 68 votes,” Schumer reminded me, a portrait of the famed master of the Senate hanging behind him as Johnson’s twenty-first-century successor spoke. A filibuster-proof majority in an era when filibusters were far less common may be easier to manage than 50 members who hang together on most things, but not all. When I asked whether he had any regrets, Schumer trotted out the p-word: “I would have liked to get [Build Back Better] done.… But it wasn’t going to happen. And you don’t just throw up your hands and move forward. We have a lot of cul-de-sacs, we have a lot of dead ends, but persistence brought us where we are today.”

Persistence has paid off, although Democrats may disagree as to whether the payday was worth the cost. The past few months have seen significant movement on multiple fronts, including bipartisan victories such as gun safety legislation, a bill to boost U.S. production of semiconductor chips, and a measure to help veterans exposed to toxic chemicals. That’s on top of earlier accomplishments, such as a bipartisan postal reform bill, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act with strengthened protections for Indigenous women, and confirming Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. (Schumer will note with pride that the Senate has confirmed more of Biden’s judicial nominees than any other president’s this century.)

Bipartisanship becomes more necessary when most every piece of legislation needs to be passed with support from Republicans. “It’s hard, but it also has forced us to sharpen our skills and listen to each other and build coalitions,” Senator Brian Schatz said about the 50-seat majority. “We haven’t executed it perfectly, but it’s been good.”

Democrats had spent months despairing of passing any significant climate or social spending bill, amid Manchin’s public concerns that a large bill could worsen inflation. But in late July, their ennui transformed to almost manic excitement overnight, when Schumer and Manchin announced an agreement on the Inflation Reduction Act, which Democrats could pass with a simple majority. The $750 billion measure includes the largest investment in combating climate change in American history (though many activists argue it isn’t enough to stop the looming catastrophe). Other provisions include allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and imposing a 15 percent corporate minimum tax.

The frenetic pace of legislative action has come at an opportune time for Democrats contending with Biden’s underwater poll numbers and a challenging upcoming election. “It would have been great if the 20 months of accomplishments that we’ve racked up had been more evenly spaced out,” Kaine dryly observed.

The metamorphosis of the Build Back Better Act into the Inflation Reduction Act was largely shepherded by negotiations between Schumer and Manchin, whittling it down until it could become legislation that all 50 Democratic senators would support. Most Democrats enthusiastically supported the bill, even as it discarded some of their greatest priorities: the enhanced child tax credit, affordable housing, childcare, universal prekindergarten, and family leave, among other provisions. The common explanation bandied about by Senate Democrats was a desire not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, a phrase I’ve now gotten used to hearing Democratic senators use as a go-to response. Democrats insist, with all the confidence of Don Quixote preparing to launch himself at another windmill, that they will return to those matters that have gone unaddressed and fight for their passage another day.

“We understood that getting some of this done was better than getting nothing done. To walk away with nothing would mean not helping people who need it most. And that kept pretty much everybody together,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told me about Democratic consensus on the Inflation Reduction Act.

But “pretty much” has been the operative phrase. Senator Bernie Sanders was perhaps the one member of the Democratic caucus with strident criticisms of the bill as it galloped toward passage. He introduced multiple amendments to the Inflation Reduction Act, all of which were almost universally opposed not only by Republicans but by Democratic senators unwilling to compromise the integrity of the underlying bill.

The disappointment felt by Sanders and other progressives could reverberate through the midterm elections. Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sanders, told me that he believed Democrats now needed to be more forward-thinking in order to motivate frustrated voters. “You have to demonstrate and explain how it will improve people’s lives. And also, what are you going to vote for? What’s next? What’s on the ballot? Why should I participate in this election?” Shakir said. “Those, I think, are elements that continue to be lacking because of the centrist style of politics.”

An alternative complaint from moderates is that Democratic leadership, including Schumer and Biden, set expectations too high, knowing that certain things could not be accomplished. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, the thing that I found most confusing about Senator Schumer was his ability [to] and apparent comfort with raising sky-high expectations, and promising that failure was not an option on any number of big Democratic Party priorities, knowing full well that he would not have the votes of Congress to get those things done,” said John LaBombard, a former staffer for Senator Kyrsten Sinema and a Democratic strategist.

If Manchin was one thorn in Schumer’s side, Sinema was the other. The Democrat from Arizona had drawn her own red lines for her support of the Build Back Better Act and then the Inflation Reduction Act, firm in her opposition to raising taxes on corporations. Sinema, along with Manchin, also opposed eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. LaBombard argued that while the previous two years had seen significant accomplishments, he also saw “a lot of wasted time” and “a lot of wasted energy spent on anger and frustration.”

“I can’t really think of a time over the past two years that efforts to pressure the more moderate members of the caucus have been met with success,” LaBombard said. “You’ve got to have votes to spare. And we have members of our caucus who don’t all see every issue in a uniform way, which by the way is normal and natural. Let’s meet them where they are at.”

In a second interview in his office in September, Schumer brushed off the criticism that he had aimed too high. “Well, you know, people are pretty happy. It’s been a historic Congress. And I think people across the board, at least from what I’ve heard, are really happy with what we’ve gotten done,” Schumer insisted.

Even those critical of some of Schumer’s strategies acknowledge the difficult role that he holds. “He’s a legislative captain. That’s his job. His job is not to build the brand of the Democratic Party,” Shakir said. “His job is to get the agenda across the finish line.”

Now here’s the thing about the Inflation Reduction Act: It’s not precisely accurate to say that the negotiations that brought it into being were fully a two-man affair. Several portions of the bill had been sketched out beforehand as part of the Build Back Better Act, and many Democratic senators had a hand in encouraging Manchin to remain at the negotiating table. But as these discussions entered their final stages, Schumer and Manchin became the last men standing; the fate of the bill in their hands alone. When the announcement of an agreement on the Inflation Reduction Act finally arrived, it came as a shock to most Democrats.

“You’ve got 50 really, really smart people—committee chairs and others—who have really good ideas about how to do things. And naturally, there’s not a single one of the 50 who likes to be in the dark,” Kaine told me. But having negotiated himself with Manchin on voting rights legislation, Kaine said that he understood why Schumer went that route with the West Virginia senator—having 50 people involved increased the likelihood that any disagreements would become public, which in turn would threaten the delicate compromises under discussion. “If [Schumer] believes that a negotiation is [at the] point where it going public could knock it sideways, then he’s got to be willing to make us a little mad; count on us to understand the necessity of it to get to the end point. And in this case, he made that call the right way,” Kaine said.

When asked how they would describe their two years in the majority, the Democratic senators I spoke to were quick to rattle off their laundry list of accomplishments, and most credited Schumer for his approach. When asked how she would characterize Schumer’s leadership, Warren delicately replied that she believed he had been “highly effective, particularly given the players he had to work with.”

“And then,” joked Warren as she wryly narrated our interaction, “she coughed and looked away.”

Schumer’s actions as paterfamilias of Senate Democrats are often informed by his New York sensibilities. A lifelong Brooklyn resident with the accent to prove it, Schumer is pleased by any suggestion that some of his high-touch, extroverted style is at least partially attributable to his cultural ethos as a New Yorker. He visibly brightened when I mentioned his home state in our first interview, and claimed that he can recognize the exact location of any patch of New York just by looking out a plane window. Schumer was quick to note that New York’s large rural population had given him a lot of insight into how to find common ground for relationships with senators across the country.

“New York is truly a melting pot. It’s one of the most diverse places on the planet. And to be a New Yorker means to be someone who welcomes diversity and embraces diversity and loves the perspective of different people from all over the globe, and all over the country,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Schumer’s fellow senator from New York. “And I think that willingness to listen to others and to understand their life experience has given him the perspective to be able to find common ground and to be able to get legislation across the finish line.”

Schumer often opts to take a more hands-on tactic with critical discussions, but he’s developed some instincts about when the time is right to let someone else take the lead, even as he requires constant updates from the key negotiators. Senator Chris Murphy told me that Schumer had wanted to be kept informed during negotiations on the gun safety legislation that passed in July, but said, “He never laid down bottom lines for me.” Murphy was one of the lead Democratic negotiators on the bill.

“It’s never one size fits all. So, on reconciliation, he held the portfolio tightly. On guns and infrastructure, he outsourced it,” Murphy explained. “His leadership style is characterized by flexibility, understanding when he’s got to control things, but really understanding when he actually has to take a step back.”

As could be expected, Schumer’s tenure has been compared to that of Reid, his predecessor, with whom he had a close relationship. Some Democrats have occasionally privately wondered how Reid would have handled the failure of the Build Back Better Act or the death of a voting rights bill—and the lost vote to eliminate the filibuster that followed in response to that defeat. (It’s worth recalling that when Reid set up the vote in 2013 to eliminate the filibuster for certain judicial nominees, he had a larger majority—even with Manchin’s opposition, Democrats had the margins to win that vote.)

“Not every baseball player is going to have the exact same swing. To be the best hitter you can be, you’ve got to tailor your swing to who you are,” said Jim Kessler, a Democratic strategist and former Schumer staffer. “Reid was a person of very few words. He was an observer—he would like to designate tasks to others, kept counsel with a small number of people. Schumer is very different: Schumer would be at his most creative and get his best ideas, either in policy or strategy, in conversation with somebody else, or with a team of people.”

It’s uncertain whether Democrats will eliminate the filibuster if they expand their majority. Schumer dismissed the question, saying he was “not getting into the specifics” when I asked whether Democrats would try to end the practice in order to pass some of their priorities. After all, how could Democrats, say, implement a comprehensive childcare program outside of a reconciliation bill if they know it won’t net sufficient support from Republicans?

Of course, the question is moot if Republicans take the House, which would make it impossible to pass major Democratic priorities anyway. “We don’t necessarily need to abridge the filibuster to pass all those things in the Senate just for the fun of it. Unless you can turn it into law, it’s not meaningful,” said Gillibrand.

As Congress returns to Washington this month, its primary struggle will be the minor housekeeping work of keeping the government funded, along with other legislative bits and bobs such as potentially protecting same-sex marriage and voting on a permitting reform measure that was promised to a certain West Virginia senator.

As with the previous 21 months, Democrats will need to hang together to pass any legislation, bipartisan or otherwise. That may prove to be somewhat complicated for some matters: Sanders has railed against the deal reached by Schumer and Manchin to ease permitting restrictions, saying he would vote against a continuing resolution funding the government if it included such a measure.

Any end-of-year deals between Republicans and Democrats, such as legislation on expiring tax extensions with tit-for-tat inclusion of the two parties’ separate priorities, will likely require massaging from Schumer, with the knowledge that some of his caucus are willing to walk away. His brand of cajoling and schmoozing, kibitzing and placating, arguing and accommodating will continue to be put to the test.

“The way I build a coalition is, I talk to people and listen to them and try to find common ground. And you often have to be persistent. And you often have to go at it more than once,” Schumer told me in our second conversation in September, conducted in the foyer of his office. “I look for where people are coming from and try to understand it and respect it, even if I disagree with it.”

Schumer said that his priorities for the remainder of the year were the vote on same-sex marriage and funding the government, along with maintaining the prodigious pace of confirming judges. “There are other things on the agenda. We’ve got to figure out the best way to get those done, but those three are gonna happen,” he vowed. “We’re gonna move forward.”

Schumer then stood and left his office; walking toward the Senate floor, preparing for the next vote.