Sen. Charles Schumer leads the message strategy for Senate Democrats and in doing so has helped frame the broader debate with Republicans on matters such as Medicare, the budget and, lately, raising the debt ceiling.
“A strong point of view rules the day — and that has always been Schumer’s mode of operation,” a Democratic operative familiar with leadership said. “It’s natural the more that the Reid loyalists are no longer there, the more Schumer is going to get his way. They’re intimidated by him, maybe, but they also believe in the Schumer brand. He’s been successful. In elections, he was so successful at getting his name out there and at getting a message across.”
It seems as if Reid’s just fine with that. The Majority Leader is in constant communication with Schumer. They talk multiple times per day, as well as before and after almost every bipartisan, bicameral meeting with the White House on the debt, sources said.
On the Sunday morning after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) backed away from a “grand bargain” with President Barack Obama, Schumer flew down from New York to huddle in the Capitol with Reid, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew and White House Director of Legislative Affairs Rob Nabors, even though the New York Democrat would not be at the White House for talks with the president that afternoon.
In the meeting, Schumer argued against the administration’s position that Democrats should offer $300 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts, even if paired with revenues that party officials wanted. It was consistent with the message he was trying to craft regularly at the microphones and on the Senate floor: that Democrats would be the defenders of Medicare and foils to House Republicans who lined up behind a budget that would have changed the program into a subsidy for private insurance.
And it likely was with the offensive on House Republicans in mind that Schumer quietly encouraged colleagues to postpone unveiling a Senate budget plan crafted by Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). In a closed-door caucus meeting in early July, Reid gave Conrad an audience to talk about his ideas. Though Conrad’s plan had general support within the caucus, Schumer was the one who thought Democrats could better shore up their position in the larger deficit reduction debate by focusing on the tried-and-true tactics, from attacking corporate jet owners to defending entitlements.
“He led the fight in the Senate against releasing our budget. He backed the idea that a budget paints a giant target on your back unnecessarily when it’s not going to pass anyway,” said one Senate Democratic aide not affiliated with a leadership office.
Of course, Republicans used the lack of a Democratic budget plan to maximum effect in their public relations battles, too, and they have continued to hammer the majority for not having passed a budget in more than 800 days.
Sources say Schumer was the driving force behind the major tenets of the Democratic approach: attacking the House budget plan in the Senate, trying to turn the debate on revenues to closing loopholes for jet and yacht owners and isolating Cantor, with whom the New York Democrat has openly sparred since April.
“Sen. Reid has valued Sen. Schumer’s input and counsel throughout this process,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.