Schumer plays his weak Senate hand — badly

Schumer plays his weak Senate hand — badly
Glenn Fawcett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Days into the new government, it's clear that Joe Biden is running an energetic, activist White House. But the new Democratic majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is still stuck in the same stalled Senate where he served in the ever-victimized minority.

Whatever else you want to say about Schumer, he's no Lyndon Baines Johnson, who dominated as a Senate majority leader from 1957 to 1961. He's not even Harry Reid, who had the job from 2007 to 2015.

From the outside, it looks like majority-leading-by-pleading, not arm-twisting.

You don't hear that other senators fear Schumer as much as they hope that he can stand up to the ever-manipulative tactics of a crafty Mitch McConnell. The Republican has lost the majority leader title, but not his magic to set the agenda.

It could be because Schumer got the majority leader office by the barest of margins – the potential tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Or perhaps it is because the real majority leader emerging is centrist Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Manchin repeatedly seems to forget that he is a Democrat and doesn't mind thwarting Schumer and Democratic goals. It might even be because Biden, himself, a long-time senator, has personal relationships to pursue in the chamber.

Whatever.

Somehow, everyone in the House knows that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with her narrowed Democratic majority, is still the swaying voice for everything from impeachment votes to requiring that members leave their guns at the door. It is the deference of others to her power that we are examining.

We recognize in Schumer a certain caution in trying to get the most from a split, now-stuck Senate. He got to this day in a plodding manner, using congressional rules and his ever-present microphone rather than any sense of authoritative aggressiveness.

Maybe the issue is his speaking voice, which borders on annoying rather than inspiring; or his pleading tone. Maybe he was just better at offering obstructions as a minority leader than serving at the front of the Senate.

Of course, maybe he'll settle in and be more effective. Right now, the focus for political wins in the Senate still seems to be on McConnell.

Deftness?

On ABC News recently, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, commented on the continuing Schumer-McConnell wrangles over the timing of the impeachment trial, the makeup of Senate committees and the rules governing a 50-50 Senate split. Christie said, "The one thing Chuck isn't is deft. Definitely not deft."

Politico's take: "Chuck Schumer has finally realized his dream of becoming majority leader. And given the circumstances, it's a bit of a nightmare." Without an agreement on new rules, for example, Republicans maintain most of the committee leadership, reviewing confirmations and legislation.

There is a lot to get done at once in a Biden presidency both to reverse what are seen as bad mistakes from the Donald Trump years and to be aggressive about preparing for another election that will put the Senate majority on the ballot again.

The healthy argument between Schumer and McConnell about whether to eliminate filibuster rules – rules that effectively require 60 votes for any substantial legislation rather than a simple majority — are going McConnell's way. That is partly because Schumer does not have the votes of Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

The impeachment trial for Trump has been delayed – just as McConnell had asked. The committees needed for confirmation hearings and to review the immediate demands for Biden-proposed legislation on COVID-19 aid, on extending jobless benefits and on immigration changes are being held hostage to the inside game.

Again, filibuster rule debates are inside baseball. They don't get jobs or food or vaccines done.

It looks as if what drives Republicans' votes in the Senate is fear: from McConnell over life his as a senator and from Trump whose continuing influence is in aiming his insults and primary threats for re-election.

By contrast, what seems to drive Democratic votes is a general plea to reason rather than the use of power.

As the opposition party, Republicans, of course, already are lining up to give Trump a pass on impeachment conviction and a permanent bar to run for office again. While open to approving Biden's cabinet, generally Republicans are vocal about a too-large investment in anti-COVID efforts based on caring about the national debt, which they forgot about in the Trump era.

Title without authority

The new heavyweight in the Senate is the center, with Manchin Democrats meeting up with Susan Collins (R-Maine) and a smallish group from Republicans. Somehow, they want to buck both parties with insistence on moderation and politeness – even as the Capitol is assaulted, the coronavirus deaths soar again and hunger is growing.

Schumer himself is up for re-election in 2022 and could face a long-shot primary challenge from the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

CNN said: "The talks of bipartisanship are quickly getting ensnared by must-move Senate business, not the least of which is getting an agreement on how the Senate will be run over the next two years. It seems simple, but it's a big deal and it's proving far harder to secure than anyone had anticipated."

Schumer is seeing pressure from his left to dump the filibuster to make it easier to pass improvements in health, infrastructure, environment and national security issues. Biden, again, thinks that bipartisanship can be made to work, but needs a strong Schumer.

So, Schumer's time is short to prove effectiveness. He did not win his title until Georgia improbably elected two Democrats on Jan. 5, and it has been a race to get the new rules in place at a time of simultaneous public tidal waves. Succeeding as majority leader has meant going toe-to-toe with McConnell over arcane rules.

McConnell simply is acting as if he gets a veto over all that passes to the Senate. He is still acting as majority leader without the title.

Schumer needs to step up to his new job.

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