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.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) might not be in the room for White House negotiations on the budget and debt, but he’s taken full charge of the Senate Democrats’ messaging war room — and that’s exactly where Majority Leader Harry Reid wants him to be.
At the end of the last Congress, Reid needed someone who would aggressively push the Senate Democrats’ message when the stakes were highest. It’s a role the Nevada lawmaker doesn’t fill naturally, and he chose Schumer to be his top lieutenant.
Since then, Schumer has targeted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in April’s continuing resolution debate, well before it was in vogue after last week’s Cabinet Room blowup. He’s also spearheaded the party’s message on corporate jet tax breaks in concert with the White House, and he even persuaded rank-and-file Senators earlier this month to abandon their desire for a Democratic budget so the party could focus on a tighter message of protecting Medicare and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy.
The current political climate, with intransigence in both parties on efforts to raise the debt ceiling, has just elevated Schumer’s platform. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“We’ve been a lot more consistent, focused, and I think that’s helped the caucus get a message out at a tough time,” said Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.), one of the Members elected to the Senate during Schumer’s tenure as the Democrats’ campaign chairman.
“Sometimes it’s simply that we all have a policy focus and a policy message but we don’t emphasize it, we don’t combine it,” Casey added about Schumer’s role in the new war room. “Just like anything in life, to be successful, you have to come back to basics and repeat and focus the message. You’re really not talking about policy change. It’s really just an emphasis, a focus on what we already believe and are trying to enact into law.”
The back-to-back spending debates, first to avert a government shutdown in April and now to raise the debt ceiling, not only have enabled Senate Democrats to kick into messaging overdrive but also mark a critical point for a leadership operation that has not always worked seamlessly. Over the past six months, the merger of the Reid and Schumer camps has had its bumps. Both men have distinctly different styles that led to staff-level clashes that only recently dissipated. In part, that is because many of Reid’s top communications staffers from last Congress have left.
“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.
The New York Democrat also has been making calls to business leaders to lean on them to weigh in on the debt ceiling fight and encouraging colleagues to do the same. For instance, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has been leading regular steering committee sessions with business leaders on the Hill, have been backed by Schumer in their outreach to interests in D.C. and nationwide.
“He’s been supportive of the conversations we’ve been having to make sure that the business community is making other people aware of what the consequences would be if we don’t raise the debt ceiling,” Bennet said of Schumer.
While Schumer over the years has become a top political adviser for Reid, others in leadership, such as Durbin, are hardly inactive. Durbin, Reid’s No. 2, has been at the table in talks with the White House and House Republicans. Plus, Durbin is a founding member of the bipartisan “gang of six” — which picked up significant momentum Tuesday — and has been vocal in the steering committee sessions with business leaders, according to Hill and business community sources.
But just how successful the Democrats’ leadership dynamic proves to be might not be known until a final deal is hashed out.
“You have to define what effective is — is effective getting the Senate strategy out there or is effective Reid cutting a deal with [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell?” one operative asked. “I would argue that that’s what Reid does best, and what Schumer does best is creating the message.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.