Schumer Worked as Quiet Negotiator in Health Care Battle

Posted December 25, 2009 at 5:00am

In a rare move for the ambitious New Yorker, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) eschewed the spotlight for much of this year’s high-profile health care battle and instead assumed the role of leadership insider working behind the scenes to help Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) smooth intraparty squabbles.Schumer, the Conference vice chairman, said he made a conscious decision early on to focus on helping Reid round up 60 votes rather than on his personal goals for the legislation. In short, Schumer said he decided to do pretty much anything Reid asked.“Early on, I realized that we weren’t going to get Republican votes for the bill. So I realized we had to get all 60 [Democratic Conference] votes. What I tried to figure out is how to get all 60 Democrats on board,— Schumer said in a telephone interview. “I always wanted to help Harry. He wanted me to be one of his chief lieutenants, and that’s role I played.—Senate Democrats got to where they had hoped to be on Christmas Eve, voting 60-39 in favor of the $871 billion health reform package. The measure cleared after months of negotiations and 25 days of debate.Reid, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) held their third news conference in three days Wednesday afternoon, touting the merits of the health care reform package and congratulating each other on a job well done. But Schumer, though far from publicity-shy, has been largely absent from these events, participating in only a handful of similar news conferences in the several months leading up to this week’s health care votes. However, Schumer is acknowledged by Democratic Senators involved in the health care negotiations as having played a key role in resolving the intraparty disputes, without which the majority’s 60-vote coalition would not have come together.Harkin, who authored portions of the final bill from his perch on HELP, fought ardently for the public insurance option, which was ultimately dropped from the bill to secure the votes of Democratic centrists. Throughout the debate, as the negotiations progressed and the stakes increased, Schumer surfaced to help forge compromises on the some of the most contentious issues.“Sen. Schumer seemed to always play a role of getting sides together — putting things together to try to work things out. He’s very good at that, by the way,— said Harkin, who was part of a Schumer-led group of 10 liberal and moderate Senators who brokered a compromise to the public insurance option. “He acts as a facilitator.—Harkin said Schumer succeeded in that role because he is liked and respected by both liberal and centrist Democrats. That is partly a product of his successful four-year run as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that saw a minority of 45 seats transformed into a 59-seat majority. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) became the 60th Democrat earlier this year when he left the GOP.Harkin said Schumer has a knack for understanding competing political and policy positions and greasing the wheels of compromise by helping Senators reach an alternative common ground without dictating. “He’s very good at that,— Harkin said.While a liberal, Schumer is also known for being a pragmatist. Back in the spring, he attempted to come up with a public insurance option proposal that would also appeal to those concerned with the cost and scope of a potential new government program.Schumer first developed a plan that attempted to assuage moderate Democrats and possibly win over centrist Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Schumer’s effort ultimately failed in the Finance Committee.But Schumer’s work with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) on another form of the public option eventually led to the proposal Reid chose to include in the Senate’s original bill. Playing off Carper’s idea for a public option that states could opt into, Schumer proposed a national public insurance provider that states could opt out of.Reid eventually was forced to drop the public insurance option with the opt-out after Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) vowed to join the Republican filibuster of the bill over it. However, an idea generated by the group of 10 liberal and moderate Democrats did survive — that of having the federal Office of Personnel Management administer a national marketplace of insurance plans similar to what is offered to Members of Congress.“The public option was something Sen. Schumer felt strongly about. But he also gravitated to it because it was a contentious issue for the caucus,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “He recognized early on it had potential to be a divisive issue, and he wanted to try to resolve it.—Perhaps no Democratic Senators put in more hours on health care reform than Reid, Baucus and Dodd. Dodd and Baucus managed the drafting and markup of the HELP and Finance packages, respectively, and Reid directed the merging of the two bills with input from the chairmen and the White House. Dodd is the No. 2 Democrat on HELP and shepherded the health care reform effort through the panel when the late Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) became too ill to do so.But with Reid just hours away from filing a series of three cloture motions on the Senate health care reform package late last week, the Majority Leader asked Schumer to help him lock down the lone Democratic holdout, Sen. Ben Nelson. The moderate Nebraskan was threatening to filibuster the package absent the addition of strong language prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for abortion.Nelson’s proposed amendment to the legislation had failed in a floor vote, and his support for the bill was largely teetering on whether alternative language acceptable to both sides could be developed. Schumer and Nelson developed a close relationship during the 2006 cycle, when the then-DSCC chairman helped Nelson win re-election in an overwhelmingly GOP state.The abortion negotiations, led by Reid and Schumer and including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), went into high gear Friday, and by Saturday morning, hours before Reid filed the necessary cloture motions to bring the debate to a close, Nelson’s vote was secure.“Sen. Schumer is a person who is very pragmatic in his approach to things,— Nelson said Tuesday when asked what the New Yorker brought to the table that helped forge the abortion compromise. “It’s not that he doesn’t have values or principles, or what have you. But in certain areas, where he sees that you can find a compromise, he looks for it — and he’s creative.—“It takes that kind of skill to be a good negotiator — or intermediary — and he served that function very well,— Nelson added.Schumer is running for a third term in 2010, a race he should win handily. And while he’s never one to turn away from a television camera, through much of the summer when the Finance health care negotiations were under way and then into the fall, when the legislation moved into Reid’s domain, Schumer was unusually quiet. He would emerge from private negotiations, offering barely so much as a “no comment— to the stalking group of reporters.Schumer said he has enjoyed his role as quiet negotiator. But he said ultimately his work on the Senate health care reform bill, which now heads to the conference committee phase, were governed by what he felt was needed to help Reid and get the Senate bill passed. “The main thing was to try and get our caucus united on the most important legislative goal in front of us. To do that working quietly behind the scenes was far more effective, and that’s why I did it,— Schumer said. “More important than whether I enjoyed it — and I did enjoy it — is what would be best for the caucus.—