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Schumer at Center of Democrats' Trade Drama

Schumer's currency proposal initially stalled fast-track trade bill. But the Democratic leader worked behind the scenes to clear the logjam. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Democrats' epic trade revolt against President Barack Obama's fast-track bill — and the furious efforts to salvage it — had one senator at the center of it all: Charles E. Schumer.  

The New York Democrat, who has become the heir apparent to Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, found himself in an awkward position, to say the least. A provision he authored to get tough on countries that manipulate their currencies was threatening to bring down the White House's entire trade agenda; its absence on the Senate floor was why Democrats filibustered Obama's fast-track trade package Tuesday.  

By the end of the day Wednesday, the crisis — what White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest kept calling a "procedural snafu" — had been averted, with Schumer helping to seal the deal.  

Although the New Yorker has opposed the trade bills — he voted against fast track in committee — as the caucus' future leader, he has to balance the anti-trade sentiment among the vast majority of Democratic senators with his loyalty to the White House and the desires of a sizable number of pro-trade Democrats, such as Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.  

In short, it's a sign of the kind of leader Schumer will be.  

“I think he is trying to be as constructive as possible for a caucus that’s divided,” Murray said Wednesday.  

Schumer all along — both in committee and at the microphones Tuesday — said his goal was not to use his currency proposal as a poison pill to kill fast track, which is why he offered it as an amendment to the separate customs bill last month.  

That had an incredulous Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly quoting Schumer to rebuff a push by some Democrats to package all four bills together, a move the Kentucky Republican said would kill the underlying measure and turn it into veto bait.  

The deal offered by Schumer at the microphones Tuesday — votes on all of the bills — is ultimately what McConnell accepted Wednesday.  

"Democrats are not going to go ... down this path without assurances from Sen. McConnell that we are going to get opportunities to vote on all of these bills," Schumer said Tuesday.  

Reid received assurances from Republicans that all four bills would have their moment on the floor, with the Nevada Democrat offering strong praise for the man who seems poised to replace him.  

"He and I have been working together," Reid said of Schumer's role. "He's been extremely helpful. Very, very helpful. More than anybody else."  

"Anybody else" would include Ron Wyden, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, who was also stuck trying to pick up the pieces Tuesday after his own negotiations with the GOP flopped.  

Ultimately, McConnell agreed to a deal setting up standalone votes  on the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the customs bill, which includes Schumer's currency-enforcement provisions opposed by the White House, with another vote on Trade-Promotion Authority — fast track — and Trade Adjustment Assistance in tandem.  

Late last month, during the Finance markup of the four trade bills, Schumer successfully added his currency language to the customs bill, language the White House fears would drive trade partners away from the negotiating table.  

According to a Schumer aide, it was always the senator's plan to advance the bill in a way that gave it the most momentum possible, which was on the customs bill, knowing the language would derail fast track.  

Ultimately, it was Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a fierce opponent of the trade push, who rallied Democrats in an ill-fated push to include all four bills in one.  

Of course, the likely outcome is the separate measures will pass out of the Senate, but the currency-related measure faces a rough road in the House and at the White House.  

Pro-trade Democrats, though, will be able to say they voted to get tough on trade even as they voted for a six-year fast-track trade bill.  

Tension between Wyden and leadership seemed more apparent than usual during the regular Tuesday leadership news conference in the Ohio Clock Corridor, when both Reid and Schumer jumped in to answer reporters’ questions aimed at Wyden. But pro-trade, Finance Committee Democrats dismissed any rift.  

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland called Wyden’s work on the package a “pretty remarkable accomplishment;" one “the caucus recognizes.”  

“It’s difficult when you’re the floor manager of a bill that doesn’t have the majority of your caucus supporting it,” he said. “It puts him in a very difficult position. But I would not challenge his effectiveness.”  

Cardin was one of 10 pro-trade Democrats summoned to meet with Obama Tuesday after all but one voted to filibuster the fast-track package. Cardin voted for fast track in committee with the caveat that stronger provisions be added on the floor.  

Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware — the only Democrat to vote to advance the trade package Tuesday — also dismissed the idea Schumer and Reid had gone around Wyden.

“I think this is a tough enough issue that you need all hands on deck,” Carper said. “I don’t think there are too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Following the deal's announcement, Wyden said he’d been talking to Schumer regularly. He noted Schumer is in an awkward position and said the senator "has worked very hard to be constructive.  

"He has been clear about his views. He will tell you he no longer supports trade agreements," Wyden said. "He understands that there are members of the caucus who are for this, members who aren't.”  

Wyden said, if anything, the whole process spoke to the strength of Schumer’s leadership and he hopes there will be a bipartisan enforcement amendment offered to the TPA/TAA package.  

"I think he's shown again what the ... challenges are of, of a leader, and handled it very responsibly," Wyden said.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Related: Senate Reaches Deal on Trade Senate Democrats Filibuster Obama's Fast-Track Trade Bill The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: trade