Democrats Pick Schumer, Murray to Lead Party in New Congress

  • New Yorker may find common ground with Trump on trade, roads
  • Schumer’s Wall Street ties create challenge to party’s left

Senate Democrats named Charles Schumer, a media-savvy Brooklynite, to succeed Harry Reid, the combative ex-boxer from a hardscrabble Nevada mining town, to be their party’s leader as they prepare for Donald Trump’s presidency.

Senate Democrats and Republicans held their leadership elections today. Aside from Schumer, Patty Murray of Washington state was selected as assistant leader, a title now held by Richard Durbin of Illinois. Durbin will retain his position as minority whip. Republicans voted to retain Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as the majority leader.

Charles Schumer

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

"We’re ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Republicans" on issues where the two sides agree, Schumer told reporters today. But, he said, Democrats are also ready "to go toe-to-toe" with Republicans and Trump "whenever our values or the progress we’ve made is under assault."

To the extent Democrats can find common ground with Trump, particularly on trade and infrastructure, Schumer may be much better equipped than Reid to cut deals with McConnell and the White House. Reid’s relationship with McConnell has become increasingly bitter, and the Republican leader predicted a more cooperative relationship with Schumer.

Democrats’ Messaging

At the same time, Schumer, with his close ties to Wall Street, may be challenged by his party’s left flank, led by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who waged a populist presidential campaign.

Schumer said he’s expanding his leadership team to make Sanders "chair of outreach" and Warren vice chair of the party’s conference. And to bolster the case Democrats make on the economy, he’ll give leadership posts to Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Both are up for re-election in 2018 in states that voted for Trump.

Trump’s economic message was more similar to that of Democrats than to Republican leaders’ agenda, Schumer said.

"When you lose an election like this, you can’t flinch, you can’t ignore it," he said. "We heard from the American people loud and clear."

Democrats will be defending 25 of the 33 Senate seats that are up for re-election two years from now, including two held by independents who caucus with the minority party. In addition to Manchin, many other Democrats, among them Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, come from states that Trump carried.

Gym Workouts

Schumer is a tireless networker who hangs out most weekday mornings in the Senate gym to talk with colleagues, particularly his Republican friends, to try to cut bipartisan deals. Schumer may spend more time talking than exercising, one Republican, Texas Senator John Cornyn, has said.

Patty Murray

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The New York Democrat has worked with Cornyn, the Republican whip, to draft bipartisan legislation that would revamp federal criminal sentencing and overhaul patent law. The two pushed legislation Congress passed in September over President Barack Obama’s veto to allow the families of 9/11 terrorist attack victims to sue Saudi Arabia for civil damages. Schumer and Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, an early Trump supporter, drafted legislation intended to curb currency manipulation by China.

Schumer "genuinely loves government," said Amy Klobuchar, chairman of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. "He likes to be, in the words of his favorite ‘Hamilton’ song, ‘In the Room Where It Happens,’ " the Minnesota senator told reporters. The song from the Broadway smash about Alexander Hamilton is one Schumer "sometimes bursts out singing sporadically," she said.

"He is someone that knows every member’s phone number, including some Republicans," and visits them in their states, Klobuchar said. "He likes to make deals."

Those deal-making skills will bring “tremendous value” to the Senate, said Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley. “He has a perpetual process of checking in with folks,” Merkley said in an interview. “If you’ve ever been around him, it’s one phone call after another."

The next Senate Democratic leader has also earned the grudging respect of Republicans as a fierce partisan. “He can throw a punch,” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, one of Schumer’s collaborators on bipartisan legislation, told reporters. “When it comes to politics, he knows how to play it. And he comes from New York” so “it can get kind of ugly,” Graham said.

“We’re going to get along fine,” McConnell said of Schumer the day after the general election, when Democrats picked up two seats. Republicans will hold a 52-48 Senate majority in the 115th Congress if they win a runoff race in Louisiana in December.

Balancing Interests

Schumer will have to balance the interests of red-state Democrats with the wing of the party led by Warren and Sanders. Wall Street, a major source of jobs in his hometown, “is part of his constituency, both the source of the funds he is able to bring in to the party” as well “as a relationship that has kind of contaminated him in the eyes of people like Sanders and Warren,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has studied the Senate up close as a temporary member of Reid’s leadership staff.

In 1999, Schumer championed the repeal that year of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that had separated investment banking from commercial banking. The scrapping of Glass-Steagall has been blamed by some critics, including Warren, for helping fuel the financial industry’s excesses that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

Trump’s campaign promise to revive Glass-Steagall-type regulation may force Schumer to choose between one wing of his party and another. A sit-in by anti-Wall Street political activists this week in Schumer’s Senate offices highlighted the fissure in the party that he and other leaders will try to heal going into the 2018 election.

Sanders declined to comment on whether Schumer’s Wall Street ties would hamper his ability to lead Democrats. "The person to put that question to is Senator Schumer,” Sanders said on a conference call with reporters. During his presidential bid, Sanders called for reviving the Glass-Steagall law.

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