Republicans have found a new foil in their war with the White House over the deficit and spending: Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer.
Targeting the New York lawmaker has been relatively easy, Republicans say, since President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have maintained relatively low profiles of late.
“If Chuck Schumer is going to put himself out there as the voice of Senate Democrats ... it’s our responsibility to point out when he’s out of step with his own caucus, the American people and reality,” a GOP leadership aide said.
Republicans have seized on media accounts that Schumer — who also runs the Democratic Policy and Communications Center — coached his Democratic colleagues during a conference call on how to attack Republicans in the spending fight.
“Today, the Democrats got their marching orders on how to depict us,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday.
“Now we have to wonder who even runs the Senate,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) added. “Do we have a de facto leader in the Senate in Chuck Schumer, who wants to engineer a political game? ... He’s spending more time on politics than he is on policy. He’s putting politics before people.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) charged that Schumer has engaged in an overtly political effort to “depict Republicans in the House as not serious and depict every spending cut as nonsensical ... [when] that is the thing that is not serious.”
The GOP attacks kicked off in earnest last week after Schumer told MSNBC that a deal was close — and then subsequently attacked the tea party for scuttling it.
Cantor publicly derided Schumer’s comments as “completely far-fetched,” while aides privately suggested that Schumer was hoping for a government shutdown for political gain.
Schumer has been “really destructive to these talks,” one House GOP aide said. “I believe that Sen. Schumer believes there are political benefits for Democrats in causing a government shutdown and is doing his best to cause one. I don’t think that’s shared by the rest of his caucus.”
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said the charges are ridiculous: “Give me a break. When it comes to avoiding a shutdown, Speaker Boehner knows his problem is with the tea party, not Democrats. ... It’s obvious by now that the Speaker should either get a grip on his Members or abandon them and cut a deal.”
Democrats have suggested that the tea party movement has kept Republican leaders from coming to the negotiating table on a long-term spending plan. Republicans are attacking Schumer, they say, to distract attention away from that reality.
“The House Republicans are used to getting away with hurling brickbats, but they’re not used to getting hit by a two-by-four, and that’s what Sen. Schumer is doing,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “They are very sensitive to the ‘Boehner in a box’ scenario because it’s true, and when Schumer keeps on pointing it out, it gets under their skin.”
Still, several Republicans said Schumer has given them fresh momentum in the fight; they argued that it has helped the GOP demonstrate to tea party activists and other conservatives that the party is not giving in to Democratic demands and that Democrats will be blamed for any government shutdown.
“All Schumer has done is remind people that Senate Democrats are unwilling to cut spending. He just couldn’t avoid the camera, pipe down and let negotiations happen,” another GOP aide said, adding that while attacks on the tea party may play well with his base, “they don’t play well with anybody else.”
Despite the public back-and-forth between Schumer and House Republicans, sources close to negotiations on a long-term spending plan said progress is being made. Those sources added that Republicans and Democrats alike believe a shutdown is increasingly unlikely. The current stopgap spending bill expires on April 8.
An official close to the negotiations said Vice President Joseph Biden, the Office of Management and Budget and Hill leaders had conversations “at multiple levels” throughout the day on Tuesday. The source said many are still holding out hope for a deal before Friday, even though the clock is ticking and progress is slow.
“The fact that everyone is still engaging in conversations means there is still a chance people will come together on this,” the official said.
The latest concession is coming from Congressional Democrats, who are planning to put forward a proposal to cut an additional $20 billion. The White House backs the plan, which includes a mix of cuts to discretionary and mandatory spending. Proposed cuts to mandatory spending are expected to go beyond Medicaid and Medicare.
But this compromise is about as far as the White House is willing to go.
“We’ve already made so many compromises. When you talk about an additional $1 to $2 to $3 billion in cuts, you’re talking about really, really hard budget decisions,” the official said. “There’s little left to give without undermining the health of the country.”
Boehner on Tuesday acknowledged that negotiations were ongoing, but he refused to discuss specifics and said no deal is imminent
“There are a lot of numbers that have been discussed,” he said. But “the fact is there is not an agreement on a number,” Boehner added.
“Nothing’s agreed to until everything’s agreed to.”