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The Great Kibitzer: How Chuck Schumer Got the Senate Moving Again

18 minute read

Chuck Schumer’s flip phone has a two-tone ring: buzz-buzz, buzz-buzz; two low tones, two high ones. The Senate majority leader almost always knows who’s calling, even though he doesn’t program the numbers in. “Elizabeth, I’ll call you back,” he says, flipping the phone open in the middle of a recent interview in his office off the floor of the chamber. “Where are you? You’re here? O.K., I’ll call you back.”

He sees he’s missed a call from a restricted number. “I know who’s restricted–it’s probably Warner,” he says. He punches in the 10 digits for Virginia Senator Mark Warner, which he’s memorized along with all the others. “Did you just call me?” Sure enough, that’s who it was. It’s an old Schumer party trick. Montana Senator Jon Tester, he says, just got a new number, “and now I have it stuck in my head.”

For Schumer, the Senate’s Great Kibitzer, leadership consists of talking–and talking, and talking, and talking. The other 49 members of the Democratic caucus marvel at how frequently he calls. He calls just to check in; he calls in the middle of the night; he calls when other people might send a text or email, formats he abhors. (“You never learn things by email. I hate it.”) Schumer estimates that he talks to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi two or three times a day, President Biden two or three times a week, White House chief of staff Ron Klain three or four times a day. “I talk to people–talk,” he says, feet propped on an ottoman to salve his bad knees. “Everyone should talk. If you disagree with someone, fine, be respectful–but talk!”

After four decades in Washington, Schumer is such a fixture it’s easy to forget he’s new at his current job: he only became majority leader in January. But faced with a massive task and with no votes to spare, he’s hit his marks thus far, steering President Biden’s agenda through the Senate with remarkable success. Biden’s American Rescue Plan passed on a party-line vote at its full proposed price tag, $1.9 trillion, in March. All but one of his original Cabinet nominees were confirmed. Bills to fund technological research and crack down on hate crimes against Asian Americans have sailed through by wide, bipartisan margins. And in the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 11, the Senate passed a trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill, a priority that had eluded multiple previous Presidents.

None of this was inevitable. The Senate in recent years has been known more as a legislative bottleneck than a fount of achievement. The body politic has rarely been more contentious; everything from face masks to counting electoral votes devolves into partisan conflict. Nor was it clear at the outset that Schumer was up to the job: more at home at a press conference than a late-night bill markup, he built his reputation as a political guru, not a legislative strategist. Early on, some Senators privately wondered if the people pleaser would be able to instill discipline in his ideologically diverse ranks. Pessimists expected a return to the miserable grind of grandstanding speeches and blocked votes.

Yet the very qualities that inspired such skepticism–the frenetic schmooziness, the relentless politicking–may have made Schumer the man for this moment. Legislating, after all, is a collaborative effort: the representatives of America’s far-flung component parts trying to find enough in common to make the laws for all of us. Schumer’s garrulous style–a marked contrast to his Republican counterpart, the taciturn Mitch McConnell, as well as his Democratic predecessor, the laconic Harry Reid–makes every lawmaker feel essential, and thus willing to be part of the solution. “He sort of understands everyone’s idiosyncrasies, from Bernie [Sanders] to [Joe] Manchin,” says Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat. “He’s touchy-feely, he wants to know how you’re doing, he wants to understand your priorities, and that creates trust. Even if you don’t get your way, you feel heard.”

Schumer’s next act will be his biggest test yet: a massive $3.5 trillion grab bag of social spending that Biden hopes will serve as the capstone of his ambitious domestic agenda. With no Republicans expected to support it, Schumer will have to get every member of his caucus on board. If he succeeds, Democrats believe they will have remade the social contract in ways not seen since FDR. “The list of things we want to do, any one of them would be a major legislative achievement in a normal year,” says Warner, listing childcare subsidies, free community college, Medicare-benefit expansion and climate proposals. “I can’t think of a better time to have a debate about the role of government than now, when we’re coming out of COVID.”

To Schumer, the goal is bigger than making the Senate a pleasant place to work, making sure his party’s President succeeds or even making critical policies. It’s about restoring Americans’ faith in government in order to prevent the rise of another Donald Trump-style demagogue. “Congress’s reputation for ineptitude is not something Chuck Schumer can overcome in two years,” says Caren Street, a former top Reid aide. “But what he has accomplished thus far has built people’s confidence about the ability to get something done across party lines, which is what this country needs right now.”

Schumer with Raphael Warnock of Georgia, whose runoff win in January lifted the party to the Senate majority
Schumer with Raphael Warnock of Georgia, whose runoff win in January lifted the party to the Senate majorityGreg Kahn for TIME

The day Schumer became majority leader was his worst day in the Senate. It was Jan. 6, 2021. That morning, Democrats learned they’d won a 50th Senate seat–and that afternoon, the Capitol was sacked by a mob dispatched by the still-sitting President who couldn’t accept he’d lost. Whisked away to an undisclosed location until the threat passed, Schumer later learned the rioters had come within yards of his path.

It wasn’t much of a leap to believe the insurrection had set the tone for two years of congressional warfare. Lawmakers’ first task would be a second impeachment, further inflaming tensions. Democrats braced for a replay of the Obama years, when the Republicans, led by McConnell, systematically obstructed the President’s agenda, slow-rolling negotiations, weaponizing the 60-vote filibuster threshold and refusing to give Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee a hearing. The chamber had struggled even to pass routine government-funding legislation. When Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, campaigned for President on a promise of bringing back bipartisan compromise, his Democratic primary competitors mocked his naiveté.

The current Senate’s first order of business, Biden’s American Rescue Plan, was styled as an economic-stimulus and COVID-19 relief bill. But the funding for vaccines and $1,400 checks it contained was just the beginning of a laundry list of liberal spending, from paid leave to food-stamp and health care subsidies. Many observers assumed the $1.9 trillion price tag was a negotiating gambit that would inevitably get whittled down. A group of Republicans made a counterproposal, hoping to start talks. But Schumer pressed the White House to pass the full proposal without delay on a party-line vote, and he bent over backward to get every Democratic Senator to go along.

At the last minute, it nearly fell apart when Manchin, the most conservative Democrat, objected to an unemployment-insurance provision. Schumer spent nine hours in frantic shuttle diplomacy with Manchin, the White House and other members of the caucus. When the bill finally passed, it was a testament to his determination to accommodate his members. It was also a crucial show of strength, proving to Republicans that Democrats were willing and able to move on party lines when necessary. “I think it’s important to do everything we can to reach out to Republicans and do what we can get done on a bipartisan basis,” says Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “But I also know we need to get things done, and if Republicans aren’t willing to support us, we’ve shown we’re willing to proceed as Democrats.” Schumer, she says, is “somebody who just doesn’t quit. He’ll talk to anybody, anytime, and just keep talking until they either give up or we get consensus.”

The early victory created momentum for other bipartisan efforts. Schumer ushered through a research-funding package intended to counter Chinese influence as well as an anti–Asian hate-crime bill, both by large margins. But the infrastructure package would be the main event of the legislative year, central to Biden’s promise of practical, pocketbook results.

The President wanted it to be bipartisan, but Republicans balked. Biden’s priorities included not just the traditional “hard” infrastructure of roads and bridges, pipes and power grids, but also huge social spending–which the Administration called “human infrastructure”–and tax hikes on businesses and high earners. Weeks of negotiations between the White House and a group of GOP Senators led by Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia went nowhere. By June, they had run aground.

But a second bipartisan group had formed under the radar, led by Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, and they told Schumer they were making real progress. Their bill would be limited to “hard” infrastructure and be paid for without tax hikes. In consultation with Pelosi and Biden, Schumer devised a “two-track process” that would pair their bipartisan proposal with a second, larger, Democrats-only package containing other priorities. The complicated process isn’t necessarily what Schumer or many liberals preferred, but enough Senators wanted it that he had little choice. “There are a good number of my members who want to try to do things that are bipartisan, and I respect that,” he says. “But there are a lot of things you can’t do bipartisan–you can’t do climate, you can’t do the family stuff, you can’t do the kind of big, bold agenda we need–so we have two tracks, and each side knows they need the other. The moderates know they need the progressives to get their bill through, and the progressives know they need the moderates to get their proposal through.”

Portman, the lead GOP negotiator, says Schumer’s main contribution to the bipartisan group’s work was simply getting out of the way. “I give credit to leader McConnell and leader Schumer for not trying to deep-six the negotiations,” he says. “If either of them had done that, it would have likely died.” Even then, it was harder than it should have been given both Republican and Democratic Presidents have promised to tackle infrastructure for decades. “We were able to exercise the bipartisan muscle memory that’s been lost to a certain extent,” Portman says. “For Republicans, I hope it shows the country that we can get big things done in a bipartisan way, and therefore eliminating the filibuster is not necessary.”

Still, as the summer progressed, deadline after deadline slipped away. The 11 Democratic negotiators complained to Schumer that Republicans kept moving the goalposts, while the Republicans were convinced Democrats were trying to sneak things that hadn’t been agreed to into the massive 2,740-page bill. Worried the process was stalled, Schumer scheduled a procedural vote on the unfinished legislation in late July to force the group to put up or shut up.

The negotiators complained they were being strong-armed, but Schumer had correctly assessed that they were in too deep to walk away. The procedural vote failed, but it spurred the bipartisan group to announce a self-imposed deadline, and soon the bill was done. “That pressure got people’s shoulder to the wheel,” says Tester, a member of the group. Without Schumer’s gambit, “we’d still probably be talking about the bipartisan deal. He was able to apply pressure when appropriate, and then have the patience to let the process work.”

The result is a bill that nobody loves but most can tolerate, stuffed with pork for Senators to tout back home and propped up by budgetary gimmicks. Despite an intense late campaign against the bill by Trump, 19 GOP Senators, including McConnell, supported it. “It’s a win for everybody–the Republicans, the Democrats, the White House,” says GOP lobbyist Liam Donovan. “Trump didn’t believe in the idea of a win-win. For him, you win when the other guy loses, so he can’t conceive of a piece of legislation that’s a win for Biden that isn’t inherently bad for Republicans. But that’s how government and legislating are supposed to work.”

The majority leader works at the videoconferencing station in his Capitol office
The majority leader works at the videoconferencing station in his Capitol officeGreg Kahn for TIME

To hear Schumer tell it, he owes much of his success to the mimeograph–the hand-cranked purple-ink duplicating machine that preceded the photocopier. “If we still had them, we wouldn’t have to legalize marijuana, because the ink gave you a legal high that was incredible,” Schumer, who proposed federal pot-legalization legislation in July, tells me with a laugh.

The Brooklyn-born son of an exterminator and a housewife, Schumer at 14 got a job running a mimeograph machine for a neighbor whose tutoring business helped students prepare for the SAT. Manning the machine for hours at a time, he eventually memorized the practice tests and study guides. “I got 800s on my tests–not because I’m so smart, but because I read the preparatory materials over and over and over,” he says. Schumer got into Harvard, and the neighbor, Stanley Kaplan, went on to found the eponymous test-prep empire.

The duplicating skills came in handy once again in college, where the working-class Jewish kid felt terribly out of place among the blue bloods. He joined the Harvard Young Democrats and began volunteering for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign out of opposition to the Vietnam War, taking buses to New Hampshire to knock on doors in advance of the primary. Schumer knew how to run the mimeograph machine that cranked out leaflets in the local campaign office, so they made him deputy manager. When McCarthy’s second-place finish prompted President Lyndon Johnson to announce he would not seek re-election, Schumer says, he realized the power of political activism to change the course of history: “A ragtag group of students and nobodies topples the most powerful man in the world? This is what I want to do with my life.” Above all, he didn’t want to repeat his father’s existence, stuck toiling at a business he had no passion for.

Schumer’s aw-shucks humblebrags conceal a canny, ambitious pol. Far from lucking into academic success and falling into politics, he was a high school valedictorian and quiz-bowl champion, wrote his Harvard thesis on congressional dynamics and graduated magna cum laude. At 23, fresh out of Harvard Law School but uninterested in practicing law, he won a seat in the New York State assembly, upsetting an entrenched Democrat in a primary. Colleagues say Schumer’s hoary bromides and constant solicitousness mask a fierce intelligence–one smart enough to know that people prefer feeling like they’re being heard to feeling like they’re being led.

As a lawmaker, Schumer wasn’t particularly ideological; his focus was winning. Elected to the House in 1980 and the Senate in 1998, he embraced Clintonesque centrism, declaring his opposition to crime and wasteful spending. He raised buckets of money from his Wall Street constituents and voted for the Iraq War. To climb the ladder in Washington, he assiduously curried favor with colleagues. In 2006, as chair of the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, he recruited conservative candidates in red states and counseled them to avoid hot-button topics like immigration and guns. Democrats picked up six seats and the majority. Schumer followed that victory with a book, Positively American, that warned his party it was in danger of losing the middle class.

By the time Schumer became Democratic leader when Reid retired in 2017, the party was back in the minority and Trump was President–a bittersweet time, in other words, to achieve one’s lifelong goal. Schumer’s Democrats were mostly successful at blocking Trump’s agenda. Schumer personally lobbied the late Senator John McCain to cast the crucial vote against repealing Obamacare, and held his party together in opposition to Trump’s sole major legislative achievement, the 2017 tax cut.

But many progressives wondered if a consensus-focused dealmaker was the right person to lead the Resistance in the Senate. Some liberals faulted Schumer for continuing to work with the Administration on issues like infrastructure and COVID relief and for not fighting harder against Trump’s Cabinet and judicial nominations. At one point, Schumer floated a deal to fund Trump’s border wall in exchange for protecting young recipients of deportation waivers.

Reid had kept a small inner circle and ruled with an iron fist, but Schumer quickly established himself as a different type of leader. He expanded the group of Senators included in weekly leadership meetings from four to 12, stacking the group not just with loyal lieutenants but also with ideological outliers, including Sanders and Manchin. They meet every Monday evening in Schumer’s office on the second floor of the Capitol, a meeting frequently interrupted by Schumer’s buzzing phone. “There are three rules,” Schumer says of the meetings. “One, treat each other with respect–don’t say that guy’s a sellout or this person has no courage. Second, walk in the other person’s shoes”–that is, try to understand the pressures faced back home by the likes of Manchin, whose state voted nearly 70% for Trump. “But third, if we don’t have unity, we have nothing. Every single one of us, with 50 votes, could say, ‘I’m not going to do this unless I get my way,’ and if each person did that we’d all get nothing.”

Schumer has a like-minded partner in Biden, an old Senate hand with a similar populist sensibility and fetish for consensus. Also like Biden, Schumer has veered left in recent years, a shift he chalks up to the country’s changing needs and his constituents’ changing priorities, but which many suspect has more to do with making sure he doesn’t face a primary challenge from the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when he’s up for re-election next year.

Whatever the reason, both Schumer and Biden now appear determined to push the legislative envelope. “What Chuck has understood is that we are living in an unprecedented moment in American political history when it is important for us to be bold in addressing the long-neglected needs of working families,” says Sanders. “You might think that someone with 50 votes and no margin of error would take a status quo approach. But he has not done that.”


If Schumer has been more successful than many anticipated, many factors have been working in his favor. Most new Presidents get their top agenda items passed in the first two years of their term. Trump’s exit prompted a sigh of relief on both sides of the aisle, while Democrats’ hair’s-breadth margins have increased their sense of urgency not to let a minute in the majority go to waste. The 50-50 Senate may be as much a help as a hindrance: most of the time, no one Senator wants to be the one to blow things up for everyone else.

And while the Senate may be less dysfunctional than before, it would be premature to declare that a grand new era of bipartisanship has dawned. Once-promising police-reform talks have stalled, voting-rights legislation has run aground, and most Democrats see little hope for action on immigration or gun control. Even the two-track infrastructure and budget plan could still all fall apart. House members, resentful of being locked out of the Senate talks, are itching to put their own stamp on both bills. The Senate approved the framework for the $3.5 trillion spending plan, but it hasn’t yet been fleshed out in actual legislation. Those negotiations, now under way in various committees, promise to be at least as contentious and exhausting as the round just completed–and that bill, too, will have to get through the House.

But success begets success, and the fact that the agenda has gotten this far has increased Democrats’ confidence. “There’s going to be negotiations within our party, and that’s fine,” says Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a member of Schumer’s leadership team. “But we’ve all committed to getting something done. We wouldn’t have been voting until 4 a.m. if we weren’t committed.”

And so Schumer keeps wearing out his flip phones. “I bought 20 of them. I’m on No. 18,” he says gleefully, brandishing a since-discontinued four-year-old LG, its 3-in. rectangular screen blessedly free of apps or widgets. What tends to break, he says, isn’t the electronics; it’s the hinge in the middle–the connection between the parts. “I try to set a direction, but only communicating. I don’t just sit in a room,” he says. “You’ve got to listen to people, then decide the direction forward and explain it to them. And so far, everybody’s followed.”

With reporting by Mariah Espada, Nik Popli and Julia Zorthian

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Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com