Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appears to be centralizing power among his top lieutenants, even though his rank-and-file Members have been clamoring for more influence over caucus operations.
The Nevada Democrat has given Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer a second title by appointing the New York Democrat as chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee. And he appears poised to tap Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) to take on a second job as well — as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee next year.
The only new face in the Senate Democratic leadership is Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), whom Reid asked to lead the Steering Committee next year. Aides to several junior Members said the move was a promising sign, but one that seems less significant given the additional roles that Reid has assigned to Schumer and Murray.
“What we have to hope for is Schumer is going to radically remake the strategy and messaging component, that Begich can be at the table and that Reid is going to play a more background role,” an aide to a first-term Member said. “But in essence, it’s the same leadership team and that makes a lot of people very nervous.”
A spokesman for Reid defended the leadership team in place for next year. “We have got the right team in place to deal with what is expected to be a challenging two years,” spokesman Jim Manley said.
Schumer has been meeting with junior Members to try to allay some of their concerns. But the Members want to do more than just vent: They want senior spots on subcommittees, more substantive caucus meetings in which they have a say over leadership decisions and a more aggressive messaging strategy designed to highlight differences with Republicans. The Democratic aide to the first-term Senator said Schumer is a good fit to help meet those goals, but more needs to be done to give junior Members a seat at the table.
“Schumer is not the answer to all our problems,” the aide said. “All this talk may turn out to make just a marginal difference.”
Begich, who in an interview last week acknowledged the Democratic leadership “is predominately the same,” said it is incumbent upon him to push for broader changes to the caucus. The Alaska Democrat, elected in 2008, said he was not campaigning for a leadership post when Reid tapped him to head up the Steering Committee, which oversees outreach for the Conference. Next year, the panel will work more closely with the Policy Committee, Begich said.
“Leaving five people to make decisions is not going to happen anymore,” Begich said.
The junior Democrats have been pushing Reid to consider a handful of rules changes, including to the filibuster and secret holds.
“There may not be the grandiose rules changes that everyone would like, but we’re going to get some things done,” Begich said.
Murray has not officially accepted the DSCC job, but she has met with both Reid and top White House officials and is “leaning towards doing it,” according to one Democratic lobbyist with knowledge of the situation.
Murray ran the DSCC in 2002, and if she accepts Reid’s offer, she will be in charge of the campaign arm going into another tough cycle when 23 incumbents are up for re-election.
Finding someone to helm the DSCC has been a challenge for Reid, who approached several junior lawmakers before going to Murray. Among them: Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Al Franken (Minn.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.), all of whom turned Reid down.
Reid appears to be preparing to take on a lower-profile role next Congress. Schumer will be the point man on caucus communications, taking over Reid’s “war room” for press operations. “The way of doing business is changing,” a Democratic aide said. “You don’t need to change the personalities to change the way you do business. That’s what’s happening here and I think the members are glad for it.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.