No matter what happens on Election Day, a New Yorker will become the most powerful person in Washington, and it may not be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Either Clinton or Trump will live in the White House, but when it comes to getting an agenda passed into law, they’ll need Senate Democrats’ votes to do it. And to get those votes, they’re going to need Sen. Chuck Schumer, the rising Senate Democratic leader and the man poised to be a Clinton consiglieri or Trump’s not-so-loyal opposition.
But after one of the ugliest presidential elections in history, Capitol Hill veterans point to Schumer as the glimmer of hope that Congress may finally be entering an era of accomplishment instead of gridlock after years of partisan paralysis.
The Brooklyn exterminator’s son, who finished Harvard and Harvard Law by 23, may seem like an unlikely vessel for hope in the post-Obama era, but Schumer’s existing relationships, caucus loyalty and prejudice toward action may make him the man for this moment.
As a New Yorker, Schumer has known both Clinton and Trump for years, a background that will give him an immediate leg up over past leaders in their first years of power. Schumer will also have the benefit of near total loyalty from his fellow Democratic senators. While Speaker Paul Ryan will spend much of his time managing his own caucus, Schumer is not expected to have any such distractions. He oversaw the Senate Democrats’ combined 14-seat pickup in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and helped many of the Democrats serving today get their seats in the first place. More than that, Democrats describe Schumer as an old-school legislator who looks for the minutiae in policy to deliver for individual members.
“He calls them all the time. He checks in all the time. I know people who are not in the Senate whom he calls, just to check on things, but in a very tactical way,” said Scott Mulhauser, a Senate veteran and former staffer to Vice President Joe Biden. “It’s a caucus with ideologies from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin and he has the trust of conservatives and liberals as the guy who gets things done.”
It is Schumer’s preference for action over ideology that most people point to as the reason he may be the cure for Washington’s gridlock in the future. If you’ve seen him on Capitol Hill, you know know he is constantly in motion and usually on the phone. Unlike Harry Reid, who styles himself as a gut-punch brawler, Schumer’s inclination is toward doing a deal. All those Sunday press conferences weren’t only about getting Schumer in the news, which they did. They were about showing a legislator in action.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed to Schumer as a reason to believe bipartisanship may get new life next year, even in a divided Washington.
“I think Chuck Schumer becoming the Senate Democratic leader will make it much more possible for a Republican president to have a genuine bipartisan moment,” Gingrich said. “I think Schumer is inherently more practical and more realistic than Harry Reid, and is inherently more likely to try to find a way to work together.”
Charlie Cook predicted something similar, no matter who wins the White House. “I would say Schumer is going to come out of this as the leader of the party,” Cook said at the Washington Economic Club. “I think the Senate will be more functional with a Mitch McConnell/ Chuck Schumer relationship, as opposed to with Harry Reid.”
For a clue about the issues Schumer is likely to favor, look at what he has already done, especially with Paul Ryan. The two worked on a major tax overhaul and infrastructure package in 2015. Schumer and Ryan also both worked on comprehensive immigration reform in 2014.
If there’s a serious vulnerability in Schumer’s portfolio, it’s the skepticism of progressives, who see him as too close to Wall Street and too ready to make a deal with Republicans. When I reached out to activists to talk about what they expect in a potential Schumer-led Senate, I was met with a lot of thanks-but-no-thanks responses.
So far, that skepticism is not openly shared by Democratic senators themselves. Schumer will likely be elected unanimously to lead his caucus in a Senate with a razor-thin majority. Whether it’s a Democratic or Republican majority, no one can say. But there’s one sure thing in a Schumer era — members of the House and Senate should put extra minutes on their cell phone plans. Chuck Schumer won’t be on hold much longer.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.