The Senate majority leader, though, didn’t tell House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the document, who later made clear that she felt blindsided. As has never been previously disclosed, Schumer also didn’t tell President Joe Biden or top White House aides. They didn’t find out until after months of work and drama trying to get a $3.5 trillion bill written even though Manchin told Schumer his limit was $1.5 trillion.
They felt blindsided. Looking back, many involved in the negotiations wonder if that was one of the fatal flaws that now leaves them without the President’s signature legislation and headed into midterms with a narrative of dysfunction — and to top it off, Manchin on Tuesday declared that the bill is “dead.”
Schumer, a Democrat from New York, got the monkey’s paw version of his dream job — Senate majority leader, but of a narrowly divided chamber with two members who revel in bucking the majority, and a president who will forever think of himself as a master of the Senate. Schumer thinks he’s handled Manchin and the Biden agenda as well as he could, given the realities of the longest period of a 50-50 Senate in history, constantly trying to strike a balance between bills that both Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and everyone in between could vote for.
In an exclusive interview, he addressed the tensions among his own members and with the White House, while looking ahead to the coming Supreme Court nomination as a much-needed reset toward action and unity — but even as he wants to move quickly to confirm Biden’s pick, the sudden illness of one of his members underscored the limit of his ambitions.
Schumer pointed out that he didn’t set the agenda, but argued he and his colleagues have excelled at moving it nonetheless, with successes on infrastructure, confirming judges and enacting Covid-19 relief that he says far overshadow what was left on the table.
“I think we have shown that we’ve gotten a lot done,” Schumer said. “I spent the last week in New York. And you know, obviously, we haven’t gotten everything everyone wants done, but people are quite pleased and impressed with what we’ve gotten done.”
For what Democrats haven’t gotten done, most leaders pin the blame mainly on Manchin, seeing him as a negotiator who continued to walk away from his own offers and would never get to “yes.” Yet they see Schumer as unable to corral his most important swing vote — and wondering whether Democratic leaders should have rallied around the moderate Democrat’s proposal and force progressives in both chambers to accept the more modest plan against their wishes. To Schumer critics, this and much of his approach to leadership are often bound up in avoiding telling his members “no.”
In dealing with Manchin, Schumer insists he had it right. The document, he said, wasn’t “an agreement,” which noted that the leader would try to change Manchin’s mind and had provisions listed and two signatures on it. It was all, he insisted, part of his strategic way of listening to keep the process moving, an effort that eventually led to passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, even as the larger Build Back Better bill has since been derailed.
“Manchin told me this is what he stood for. I said, ‘I’m going to try to dissuade you.’ But he said, ‘I want you to know where I’m at, but I will vote to move the budget resolution at ($3.5 trillion) forward.’ That’s what happened. There was no agreement.”
And, he argued, that all the relevant parties knew where Manchin stood, even as they hadn’t seen the document that Manchin gave Schumer.
“People knew Joe Manchin’s positions,” Schumer said. “He speaks to the press regularly, speaks to the White House regularly. He talked to Pelosi regularly. People knew his positions.”
The White House and Pelosi, though, did not know the key position that left them chasing a chimera through the summer and into the fall, as Biden’s poll numbers dropped and the Virginia governor’s race slipped away. Yet had Schumer embraced Manchin’s proposal in July, it would have almost certainly caused a progressive revolt in the House and could have scuttled the effort.
Manchin still came out of the process complaining Schumer wasn’t listening.
“Nothing,” Manchin told CNN when asked whether Schumer had been listening to him during the talks, as he shook his head.
“I listened very carefully,” Schumer said.
Navigating the pitfalls of the 50-50 Senate
In the interview, Schumer had no regrets about his strategy — and said he was carrying out the President’s plans.
“Joe Biden set the agenda, and I am working to pursue that agenda, OK? And I agree with it,” Schumer said when asked if he were pushing the agenda too far to the left. Biden, said White House spokesman Andrew Bates, “sees Leader Schumer as a friend and critical partner,” crediting him for action on job creation, infrastructure investment and vaccinations.
They agreed they would start this year to push their party to enact two bills to rewrite voting and election laws — even though it was clear for months they lacked the votes to accomplish that. Schumer, trying to give Manchin space, allowed the West Virginia Democrat weeks last year to try to get Republicans on board behind their plans.
That didn’t happen, leaving Democrats with a choice: Drop the effort since it lacked 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster or force a vote to change the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to pass the bill along straight party lines. Yet Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema had been steadfastly opposed to gutting the filibuster — and there was no sign that their position was changing.
Schumer forced them to take a position anyway — even as it was destined to fail and sparked weeks of intense Democratic bickering.
“When it comes to something as crucial as voting rights, can’t just push it off the table,” Schumer said. “Senators are there to vote. We had to vote. And I think it was the right decision. And it had virtually, it had broad, wide, and deep support in our caucus.”
Now, Manchin and Sinema are so detested among many liberals that Democrats are openly discussing primaries against them — something that could threaten Sinema in particular in 2024.
Schumer wouldn’t say if he would stay neutral or support Manchin and Sinema if they face primary challengers in the next cycle.
“I am focused on 2022, getting things done, and winning the election on 2022,” Schumer said. “I’m not at all focused on 2024 right now, and neither should anyone else be. That’s just how you lose in 2022.”
Yet Schumer knows he and Senate Democrats are short on time. He knows that November’s map of Senate elections, which has clear opportunities for picking up Republican seats, also has sparked fears of losses that could potentially wipe him and his fellow Democrats out of the majority for years to come.
And after rising up the ranks as a campaign maven, he has to figure out how to win races off an agenda he didn’t set by himself, and which Democrats are trying to convince voters is an admirable work in progress.
Despite the high-profile failures, Schumer’s Senate has approved the most expansive investment in infrastructure projects in decades, while also enacting a nearly $2 trillion Covid relief plan — a proposal that only occurred after a marathon negotiating session to win Manchin’s support at the eleventh hour last March.
In an interview with CNN this week, Schumer also touted the more than 40 judges that have been confirmed by the Senate, calling it a “tremendous success” that they have pushed through, the most number of the federal judges to the bench of any President in his first year since Ronald Reagan, while noting the diversity of the picks as well.
And he said that “talks are continuing” to pass another version of Build Back Better, while pointing to efforts in Congress to approve a bill to bolster US competitiveness in China and change electoral laws to make it harder for Washington to overturn state-certified electoral votes, as then-President Donald Trump attempted to do.
“There’s a lot that’s happened,” he said.
Asked if he were frustrated with Manchin, Schumer said: “Joe Manchin and I go back a long way, and obviously, I let him know my point of view and (we will) try to persuade him, as does the whole caucus, that our point of view is the correct point of view.”
Yet dealing with Republicans has been a sore spot as well. While Schumer and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell cut two deals to raise the debt ceiling last year, Schumer turned around and excoriated the GOP handling of the matter after the first deal, enraging Republicans. Biden later grumbled about that speech to Democratic lawmakers, according to a person who heard the President’s comment.
Asked about the speech, Schumer dismissed the criticism.
“It’s the speech I gave many times before and many times after,” Schumer said.
Even as much of the agenda is in limbo, the Senate will now face another major test — to get Biden’s pick to replace Justice Stephen Breyer confirmed. Biden is deliberating over the options, digging in with the prospective nominees — even as the strength of his 50-50 majority was tested on Tuesday when Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s office that the New Mexico Democrat was hospitalized after suffering a stroke.
“We’ve got to move quickly. We’ve got to be thorough, but we’ve got to move very quickly, as quickly as we can,” Schumer said of the confirmation process before Lujan’s illness became public.
Embracing — or appeasing — the left
Schumer is famous for talking to his members nonstop on his cell phone, but has also developed a reputation of being reluctant to tell any of them no. He says he’s doing the best he can trying to hold together the longest lasting 50-50 Senate in history, and that his party’s success will depend on their ability to stick together.
To the excitement of some and dismay of others, Schumer’s leadership approach over the last two years has been defined by an eager embrace of the left.
As someone who used to have small private planes fly low so he’d have cell service to squeeze fundraising dollars on Wall Street now is, among other things, a vocal proponent of eliminating student debt (though, notably, he hasn’t put a bill on the floor but has called on the White House to act administratively).
Many Democrats guess there’s a reason for that: He’s up for reelection himself this year, and politically paranoid as he famously is, that he’d be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s next primary target, the way she took out his colleague Joe Crowley in 2018. But few familiar with New York politics believe she could have actually beaten him in a statewide race.
Still, Schumer’s efforts to build up his credentials on the left have been hard to miss, from his outreach to the Green New Deal activists in the Sunrise Movement to a November 2020 press conference calling for eliminating student debt which included Schumer holding up an iPad in front of the microphones so that fellow new Rep. Jamaal Bowman — who’d beaten another incumbent in a primary from the left — could appear with them, despite being stuck in quarantine.
No serious primary challenge ever emerged.
There were certainly conversations, including progressive writer Anand Giridharadas making calls in 2019 to gauge whether he could mount a real campaign and Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, batting the idea around, according to people engaged with the various conversations.
Neither went far. Giridharadas instead ended up publishing a long interview with Schumer just before the 2020 election which charted the senator’s new leftward interest, under the headline, “Chuck Schumer wants an FDR-style first 100 days.” Williams instead turned his attention to the much riper local target of Andrew Cuomo, first threatening to run against the governor as he tried to stay in office, and now running a primary challenge to replacement Gov. Kathy Hochul. Neither responded to requests for comment.
In the interview with CNN, Schumer denied he’d ever been worried about a challenger.
“When it comes to reelection, I work really hard for New York and it always works out fine.” He added, “I always am looking forward, not over my shoulder.”
Sometimes when he was looking over his shoulder, it was at public events he conspicuously held with Ocasio-Cortez. But though she never made any serious moves toward a primary challenge, she also, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on Schumer. And among activists, happy as they have been with the outreach, the complaints nonetheless still circulate about how many moderate Senate candidates Schumer backed in the 2020 elections and previous cycles.
Despite the setbacks over the last year, Schumer’s argument is still close to the one he ended up making to Giridharadas and Biden was making more broadly: Democrats and America overall had experienced a fundamental shift in their politics which scrambled old ideas of what was middle class and moderate politics.
Among some top House Democrats, there is ample frustration — especially as Pelosi has stood up to the left in dealing with her three-seat House margin.
“His constant appeasing of the left is counterproductive,” one senior House aide complained of Schumer.
Schumer’s fellow senators say it’s not that simple.
“He was dealt a tough hand,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who said Schumer has made the most of it.