Chuck Schumer put it bluntly to Joe Manchin: If you side with Republicans, you could jeopardize everything.
The West Virginia senator was delaying consideration of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan as he mulled whether to back a GOP bid to shave more than a month off the bill’s $300 in extra weekly unemployment benefits. Democrats thought they already had corralled Manchin for their more generous proposal.
“We had what we thought was an agreement. But then Joe Manchin looked at it and was unsure,” Schumer explained in an interview as he recalled Friday’s hectic rush to rewrite the massive Covid aid bill. “If Manchin would have approved the [GOP] amendment, the bill probably couldn’t have passed the House. And I told him that. And he understood that.”
Manchin gave Schumer the 50th vote on Saturday afternoon, sending one of the largest emergency spending bills in American history on a glide path to Biden’s desk sometime next week. Despite the tension and GOP jeers sparked by Friday’s delay, the 50-49 Senate vote was a crucial victory for the New York Democrat. Schumer has graduated from four years commanding the Senate minority against Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to the successful leadership of a motley but mostly cohesive majority.
Passage of the Covid aid bill validated an argument Schumer has made for more years now, that Democrats erred by trying to bring Republicans on board for a big relief plan during the last economic crisis in 2009. This time around, Republicans weren’t “even in the ballpark” when they offered a $600 billion spending bill as a compromise, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
So instead of searching for bipartisan support and potentially watering down a historic bill that beefs up pensions, health care and crucial unemployment benefits, Schumer rolled the dice on total party unity — and succeeded.
“If anyone thought it was going to be just a smooth path without any bumps in the road, they don’t know how big and important this legislation is and how diverse our caucus is,” Schumer said Saturday.
Schumer said he never doubted the package would pass. But its course was not pretty. At times Republicans insisted Biden had to lean heavily on Manchin to stay in the fold (they talked once) and that the Senate would have to recess for Democrats to reorganize after Friday’s impasse. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) even predicted Democrats might have to swallow the Republican plan on unemployment benefits.
What did happen were multiple renegotiations between Schumer and his moderates, who forced three changes just this week to the House-passed bill. The Senate’s version phases out stimulus checks to some middle-class earners and shifts around the unemployment benefits. Before the final vote, the chamber stalled out several times — including on Friday for what is now the longest vote in modern Senate history.
“This last 24 hours was really chaotic. If this was the first big test, I don’t think he … crushed it. It was a very undisciplined, unorganized process,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) of Schumer.
Yet Democrats argue that the public won’t remember Friday’s Manchin-infused delay, the partisan vote total or the bumpy process. They will remember that Schumer got Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Manchin to hang together for an economic relief bill that many in the party believe is the most progressive legislation in decades.
“Schumer gets a lot of credit,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who said Saturday was his best day as a senator in his 14-year career. “Democrats realized it doesn’t matter how the Senate lines up. What matters is to deliver what the public wants.”
Throughout the process, Schumer stayed in close contact with Biden, often talking to the president multiple times a day or to White House chief of staff Ron Klain. And 20 minutes after the rescue package passed the Senate, Biden called the majority leader personally to thank him.
After the call, Schumer appeared in as good a mood as he’s been in since thwarting Obamacare’s repeal during the Trump administration. In the interview, he propped his shoe-less feet up on an ottoman as he parried questions. Biden showered praise on him later: “When the country needed you most, Chuck, you led.”
The 70-year-old Brooklynite, who speaks in his borough’s thick staccato, benefited from a universal desire in his party to go big on coronavirus relief after taking full control of Washington. Biden made clear that the bill would be his top priority and Democrats aligned to ensure the new president didn’t fall flat, slamming Republicans for not doing enough to address a debilitating pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.
During the final weeks of the Georgia runoffs that made Schumer majority leader in January, Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock campaigned almost exclusively on sending a new round of checks to the virus-walloped public. Schumer said that if Democrats “keep doing what we did today,” they have a good chance at keeping control of the Senate in 2022.
“We delivered. That’s huge. It’s huge to a lot of people who don’t usually vote,” Schumer said.
Even though the relief package itself is a win for Democrats, progressives are still seething over perhaps their most significant loss: the Senate parliamentarian’s nixing of the $15 minimum wage.
While Democratic leaders expressed disappointment in the decision by the chamber’s nonpartisan rules arbiter, it saved them from an intraparty dispute on the floor. During Friday’s marathon voting session, eight Democrats opposed a bid by Sanders to raise the hourly wage to $15 by 2025.
Democrats “might have avoided a tough fight” over the wage, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who supports the $15 increase and observed that “we’ve not had a single caucus discussion” about the issue since he was elected.
Schumer and Biden have not decided on the Senate’s next big priority, even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi ships over progressive bills on ethics reform and LGBTQ rights that Republicans are primed to block. While Schumer has promised to put bills like those on the floor, their likely failure is bound to increase pressure on him to eliminate the filibuster.
Those future challenges are more complex than Schumer’s task as minority leader during the Trump years, when whipping Democrats against Obamacare repeal and tax cuts was pretty easy.
What’s more, Schumer is leading his party without the benefit of in-person lunches and party meetings. And though he wants to restart those, he is unsure when Democrats will deem it safe to gather again in confined spaces.
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had. But I have more energy for it and more excitement about it,” said Schumer, who also faces reelection in 2022 and a possible progressive primary challenge. “It’s so much more satisfying to get something done here than prevent McConnell from doing so.”
Democrats can only use the reconciliation process one more time this year, and they now face an early-September cliff on extra unemployment benefits. Schumer vowed on Saturday that if Covid is still wreaking havoc, he will find a way to extend those payments.
That’s just one future scenario where Schumer may need Republicans given his razor-thin majority and the intact filibuster.
Although he alienated Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) during the 2020 election, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she had a “really enjoyable meeting” with Schumer about coronavirus relief and the economic crisis facing Alaska. Murkowski ultimately voted against the package, but her vote could be in play for future legislation.
“I hope it encourages them to work with us,” Schumer said of Saturday’s party-line vote. “They maybe thought if they didn’t join us, we wouldn’t be able to get something done. And we did.”