The Senate Democrats have their leaders for next year, with familiar faces in new places.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer won the backing of his caucus Wednesday morning to take over as minority leader for the 115th Congress. That was no surprise, as the New York Democrat essentially clinched the job to succeed retiring Sen. Harry Reid at the end of March 2015.
Whether there would be a contest for the role of whip (which has officially been assistant Democratic leader) remained a bit of a mystery. And Schumer has figured out how to split the baby.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois will see that informal title become official, while Washington’s Patty Murray will slide into a No. 3 role of assistant leader. That avoids what could have been a fractious fight between Durbin and Murray.
Schumer is creating an expanded leadership team with 10 members, including senators from a variety of different states and representing ideological diversity within the caucus. A senior Democratic aide said they would all be invited to leadership meetings.
“Each of us believes we need a sharper, bolder economic message,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday. “We’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Republicans … but we will go toe to toe against the president-elect whenever the values of the progress we made are under assault.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a Schumer confidante, assumes the title of chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, or the DPCC, taking the position that Schumer currently holds. (He has also been the vice chairman of the Democratic caucus.)
There are a variety of new or elevated roles, all elected by acclimation. Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, will be outreach chairman.
Several Democratic senators approached Tuesday evening said they were in the dark about how the leadership team would shake out, or whether there might be a ballot contest behind closed doors.
When Reid announced his intent to retire last year, it set off a quick and quiet leadership scramble. Schumer secured the support of the caucus to succeed Reid as Democratic leader regardless of what else happened in 2016.
And several Democratic senators, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, have verified the accounts of aides to Durbin that the Illinois Democrat had the votes to continue as whip if he had been actually challenged.
Schumer, though, was seen as wanting the ability to craft his own team without a contested leadership battle sucking up oxygen.
With Reid’s exit, some changes were inevitable and the question for Senate Democrats may now be more about function than title.
The No. 3 post that Schumer currently holds in the Senate leadership includes the chairmanship of the DPCC, the internal messaging shop that has been integrated with Reid’s own operation. (Senior Reid and Schumer aides have literally shared an office on the third floor of the Capitol abutting the press galleries.)
But almost everyone expects Schumer to be his own Schumer — and serve as messaging czar for the caucus in his own right.
So with Murray, known more for her policy and deal-making chops than a desire to dominate Sunday talk shows, moving up from the No. 4 leadership role of conference secretary to the No. 3 job, it naturally will come with a revised portfolio.
When former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota was the Democratic leader, Reid’s responsibilities as whip (a position that is officially assistant Democratic leader) included spending a lot of time watching over the floor and executing strategy for Daschle.
Reid basically kept floor operations for himself when he became leader, but the Daschle example is reminder that Schumer can structure his leadership team however he may see fit.
Other new members of the leadership team include:
- Conference Vice Chairwoman: Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
- Conference Vice Chairman: Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia
- Steering Committee Chairwoman: Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
- Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Vice Chairman: Joe Manchin III of West Virginia
- Conference Secretary: Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin