Schumer Legislates Like He Campaigns

Posted October 30, 2009 at 6:22pm

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) appears to approach major Congressional policy fights the same way he tackles campaigns: Figure out who or what has the best chance of winning and line up behind it.

That’s probably why the No. 3 Senate Democrat has been getting so much credit — and blame — for Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) decision to include a public insurance option in the chamber’s health care reform measure.

“He figures out what the wave is and then he gets on top of it,— explained one Senate Democratic aide. “While he was a visible spokesman for this, it wasn’t something of his own creation.—

Indeed, Schumer — who is credited with delivering the Senate Democrats’ robust majority during his 2006 and 2008 stints atop the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — was a persistent advocate for including a public option with a state opt-out, but only after he determined that the policy was one that had the support of a vast majority of the Senate Democratic Conference.

The difference between Schumer and the rest of the caucus, of course, is that, as one of Reid’s three lieutenants, he is involved in almost every strategic policy decision the Majority Leader makes.

“He’s also a frenetic networker, and so, he does a very good job of not just bringing his point of view to those leadership positions but also making sure he’s touched base with lots and lots of other Senators,— said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), whom Schumer helped elect in 2006 and who supports the public insurance option. “Everybody knows that he’s bringing a fairly broad perspective when he comes, and I think that gives him additional force. And I know it takes a lot of work to run all of us down and get everybody’s opinion and try to figure out something that works, but I give him really good marks for what he accomplished.—

Senate Democratic Steering Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) also agreed that Schumer deserved some credit for getting the public insurance option into the bill, but she pointed out that he was just one voice among many pushing Reid.

“There’s been a lot of people weighing in. You know, I’ve encouraged [Reid and] other people have,— Stabenow said. “But I think Chuck’s played a real leadership role in doing that.—

Through his spokesman, Schumer said he did not believe he deserved credit for getting Reid to put the public option in the Senate bill.

Schumer clearly wields influence in the Conference. As DSCC chairman for two election cycles, he helped elect 17 — or 28 percent — of the 60 Democratic Conference members, and he was involved in nearly 20 more re-election efforts. Schumer’s batting average in 2006 was so well-received that Reid decided to create a special leadership job, the Conference vice chairmanship, for the New York Democrat.

Senators said Schumer has been hands-on at the leadership level, aiding Reid and Stabenow in doling out committee assignments this year and attempting to smooth tensions between Members of the caucus when necessary.

While his defenders insist he is simply trying to boost Reid and accomplish the Conference’s goals, others question whether Schumer’s efforts are entirely altruistic. Some see Schumer’s maneuvering as a way to position himself to run for Majority Leader should Reid lose what promises to be a tough re-election bid next year. That would likely pit him against Reid’s No. 2, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who also has a strong well of support in the caucus.

Schumer’s tenacious advocacy of the public insurance option got him into trouble with Reid two weeks ago when he said on MSNBC that he would pressure Reid to include it.

At a press availability Oct. 15, Reid tried to downplay any tension but indicated he wasn’t necessarily listening to his close adviser: “Any conversations I’ve had with Sen. Schumer have been very positive in nature. He said on ‘The Rachel Maddow Show,’ which I didn’t watch — but I was told he said that he thought that there was a way of doing a public option. As I indicated here yesterday, Sen. Schumer’s entitled to his opinion.—

If Schumer is angling to be Majority Leader some day, several aides said his quest for the public insurance option may have weakened his influence with Democratic moderates, many of whom fear electoral retribution if they vote for it. Some Democrats accused Schumer of using his influence with Reid to make up for losing a vote on a public option amendment during the Finance Committee’s consideration of the health care reform bill in September. That bill cleared committee without a public insurance option, instead calling for a network of health care cooperatives.

“If we force some of these moderates to vote for this … does that mean we got the public option at the expense of several seats in the Senate?— posited one Senate Democratic aide.

The aide added that Schumer has been one of the loudest voices among Senate leaders in advocating for a health care bill that makes centrists comfortable, which made his pursuit of the public insurance option all the more perplexing to some.

“Chuck has put them all in a terrible position,— one Democratic official said of the moderates. “This is like walking off a cliff strategically. There is no math right now that gets this approach through the Senate. No one who can count understands the strategy here.—

But several Democrats indicated Schumer does not necessarily deserve moderates’ ire for the tough vote they’ll have to take in a few weeks time.

For one thing, Schumer personally polled moderates prior to deciding which option he thought it best to pursue, and he found that most were comfortable if the state opt-out was included.

Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon noted: “The Senator made a point of talking with each of the moderates in the caucus before he ever pushed this idea. Ultimately, he believes the best health care bill will be one that balances the needs of the entire caucus.—

Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), who as the No. 2 Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was intimately involved in Reid’s decision as well, defended Reid’s decision to include the public option component and said it was a logical decision given the circumstances.

“I don’t think this is a question of one or other people,— Dodd said when asked about Schumer’s influence. “Fifty-five members of our caucus, I think, are supportive of it. This isn’t some outlier of an idea that the leader picked out and threw into a bill. Most people in the country are for it.—

In fact, the public option Reid decided to include in the Senate bill was crafted by Dodd as he shepherded the HELP bill through that committee this summer. The opt-out was an idea Schumer added at the urging of others, sources said.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Reid relied less on Schumer’s dogged advocacy of the public option and more on the realities of the Senate, pointing out that Reid was in constant contact with members of the Conference, just like Schumer was. Reid is likely going to need all 60 Democrats in his Conference to clear a bill with a public option, already proving a challenge given that Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) has said he would support a filibuster to end debate on a final measure that includes one.

“In the end, leadership felt they could pick up more Democrats with this strategy than they could [pick up] Republicans if they went with— Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) proposal to create the public option as a fallback only if private insurers could not cut costs on their own, the aide said.

Schumer, the aide added, “was not the deciding factor.—