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Sen. Charles E. Schumer has stuck his neck out on immigration and gun control, and the next two weeks could determine whether he successfully leads Democrats on those issues or sees his influence on them eroded.
The New York Democrat has pledged to help finalize a bipartisan immigration deal by the time the Senate returns the week of April 8, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s push to take up a gun background check bill early next month has put pressure on Schumer to quickly forge a compromise on that issue as well. If he doesn’t, Schumer could see his leverage on both those issues transferred to other Democratic policy heavyweights such as the president, Nevada’s Reid, or Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.
Schumer, the No. 3 Democratic leader, has inserted himself into the middle of two of the president’s top policy priorities and his success could help cement his status as leader-in-waiting, when or if Reid decides to step down.
Schumer is known for his campaign savvy and fundraising prowess, but not as much for his policy chops. His legislative history is long and varied, but mostly filled with parochial wins, such as his recent effort to secure $50 billion in disaster relief for the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy.
But being central to a bipartisan group responsible for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system would certainly become the top line of his legislative résumé if the “gang of eight” he is helping to lead can produce legislative language by early April. And the bonus points he would get for figuring out how to get enhanced background checks on gun purchases through the Senate cannot be underestimated.
Though Schumer would never say so explicitly, the importance he places on comprehensive immigration changes — legislation even the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts could not secure — underscores the magnitude of the task and the political rewards it could offer.
“We are real close for the first time to coming up with a bipartisan agreement that has a darn good chance at becoming law,” Schumer told reporters Thursday.
Of course, in the constant but quiet struggle between Senate Democratic leaders — who sometimes seem more like uncomfortable competitors than allies — Schumer is not alone in boosting his profile. The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, is also part of the bipartisan immigration group and has taken the gavel of one of the most powerful subcommittees in Congress: Defense Appropriations. And Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray of Washington, after a successful turn at the helm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is shepherding the first Democratic budget blueprint in four years.