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Can Schumer Deliver on Immigration and Guns?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Schumer is working on both immigration legislation and a gun control package and his success on those issues could play a role in his political future.

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.

Schumer has been seen as the lead on immigration because of his status as the Judiciary panel’s immigration subcommittee chair.

Reid’s decision to move on the background check bill has added some urgency to Schumer’s efforts. And Leahy recently complained about the delay in revealing the immigration group’s bill, warning that he may not be able to take it up until May if the legislative language isn’t finalized soon. Plus, President Barack Obama, who has so far deferred to Schumer’s immigration group, has repeatedly warned that he will not let negotiations drag on without weighing in with his own proposal at some point.

But whether he is successful in his current endeavors, Schumer is clearly building sustainable bipartisan bridges.

Appearing together at a Politico Playbook breakfast in late January, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is part of the immigration group, compared Schumer to Kennedy, who was famous for working across the aisle, in his effort to get legislation passed.

“I think that Sen. Schumer is assuming that role,” McCain said. “The trait that Sen. Schumer and Sen. Kennedy share, is one, you know exactly where they stand, number one. And number two, they will never change. They will never go back on their word. Those are the keys to success in the United States Senate.”

“If we get ... enhanced background checks out, it’ll be because of the work that Chuck Schumer and I and Joe Manchin did, if we get one,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in an interview with C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” set to air Sunday. “There are great relationships in the Senate.”

It is much less likely at this point that anything gets done on gun control, though Schumer still is working to achieve that. The current base bill that Reid has said he would bring up was written largely as a placeholder for whatever Schumer’s group could come up with. Even if those negotiations produce a bipartisan compromise, there’s still no guarantee any bill can overcome a filibuster that would likely be joined by members of both parties.

It’s therefore the immigration effort that is most important for all stakeholders, including Schumer.

As chairman of the immigration subpanel, Schumer was not aggressive in the last Congress in holding hearings on immigration. Over the course of two years, the panel held just seven hearings, including a 2011 session on securing America’s northern border and a 2012 meeting on the “economic imperative for promoting international travel to the United States.” The most significant hearing on immigration policy likely was a July 2011 session on the “economic imperative” of enacting legislation, the only session explicitly devoted to comprehensive changes.

One reason for the relative dearth of hearings is that Republicans had not yet shown an interest in taking up a comprehensive overhaul. Instead, Schumer reached out to former House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, to work on an agreement on high-skilled workers visas, sources said.

That deal never materialized, but following Obama’s re-election — which was achieved in part through his outsized advantage with Latino voters — GOP members began to see a need to work on a comprehensive bill that might help their standing among Hispanics.

So Schumer sought to rekindle talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. That led to the formation of the bipartisan group of eight senators who are expected to unveil their reform package after the recess. They had promised to produce a bill by the end of March, but announced a delay earlier this month.

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